‘White flight’ in Australian schools
The term ‘white flight’ is one I associate with the USA. I have never heard it used in an Australian context before. However, the Herald has just published a report about this phenomenon, which it says is producing an ever more ‘racially’ and religiously segregated education system. In both city and country contexts, they report, white students are increasingly moving into Catholic and independent schools and away from public schools with large populations of Aborigines, Muslims or Asians. An excerpt:
The NSW Secondary Principals Council conducted a confidential survey which raises serious concerns about “white flight” undermining the public education system and threatening social cohesion. Some teachers and principals have described it as “de facto apartheid”.
The findings are backed by research from the University of Western Sydney, which has identified evidence of racial conflict in schools in the wake of the Cronulla riots. It also suggests students of Anglo-European descent are avoiding some schools with students of mainly Asian background.
Not only have some public schools lost enrolments; they have become racially segregated. In pockets of rural and remote NSW, Aboriginal students fill public schools and white students attend Catholic and other private schools in the same town.
Around Sydney, the parents of some Anglo-European students are avoiding what they perceive as predominantly Lebanese, Muslim and Asian schools.
In New England, in towns such as Armidale, white middle-class students are flocking to Catholic and independent schools.
In their report, principals say this is so the students can “get away from their local school”.
“This is almost certainly white flight from towns in which the public school’s enrolment consists increasingly of indigenous students,” the report says. “The pattern is repeated in the Sydney region. Based on comments from principals, this most likely consists of flight to avoid Islamic students and communities.”
The term ‘white flight’ is not completely appropriate here because it’s not just whites who are making choices that leader to greater levels of segregation. On section of the article suggests, for example, that Asian families may be avoiding schools perceived to be ‘Muslim’. There is also the suggestion that in Southwestern Sydney, Aboriginal and white kids are ‘lining up against’ kids of Lebanese background rather than against each other, as was previously the case.
See also this article on the same theme, which includes details of students crossing from NSW to Queensland to avoid the local public school, perceived as ‘indigenous’ and (therefore) ‘scary’ by students.
It would seem that there are several things going on here. First, there has been a general move to private education among middle class families, which was exacerbated during the Howard years as more public funds were directed to private schools and policies encouraged school choice and student mobility. Second, ‘racial tensions’ in schools seem to be on the rise — with the Cronulla Riots featuring, as a cause or result? Again, one could argue that Howard government policies and rhetoric, which promoted a normative white model of Australian identity and encouraged xenophobic nationalism, have exacerbated this trend. Third, class is a factor, and much of this segregation could be understood as a product of increasing class segregation in Australian society.
I suppose another point to be taken from this is that this ‘white flight’ phenomenon, according to the reports, differs from the US in that families are not relocating away from neighbourhoods perceived to be undesirable and therefore creating monocultural ghettos. Children are increasingly travelling long distances to schools, or boarding, but families are staying put. It therefore doesn’t seem to be the case that ethnically homogeneous neighbourhoods are necessarily being produced.
Generally speaking, I see this kind of development as an example of the sort of thing that happens when governments move away from being producers and guardians of public institutions and collective ‘goods’, to becoming the facilitators of privatised choice. Faith in public institutions, in this case schools, diminishes at the same time as people are encouraged to be more entrepreneurial in their choices. In short, a sort of market force is at work, and what might appear to be good at the level of the individual — more choice — can produce a systemic racism.
Gerard Noonan, The Herald’s Social Issues Editor, makes similar points when he argues that there are two main factors underpinning the trend towards de-facto segregation:
The first is the ideological obsession with “choice”, which a decade ago in NSW changed the way students in NSW were able to enrol in schools.
Previously students attended their “local” school, based on where they lived. With few exceptions, it was a century-old tradition which ensured a genuine mix in schools – the smart, the scholastic pedestrians, the talented musicians and the sports-obsessed, the immigrants, the local Aboriginal kids, the funny, the socially inept, the goofy – all mixed together.
This widespread and predominantly secular approach allowed Australia to claim, with some justification, that its supposed egalitarianism and lack of class pretension was nurtured and cemented in the nation’s schools.
Now students can effectively enrol anywhere. They do, and one of the results is the abandonment of schools such as the ones identified in the principals’ survey, often for no other reason than distaste by parents in their thousands at having their kids rubbing shoulders with others from a different ethnic, class or religious background.
The second institutional factor is the deliberate effort by federal and state governments to pour billions and billions of dollars into supporting private schools and making them more and more attractive options for the well-off.
These schools, with a few exceptions, generally enjoy far better facilities, lower student-teacher ratios and more “choice” and they make their pitch for a “specialness”: the antithesis of the secular equality of opportunity which underpins Australia’s boastful egalitarianism.
It’s difficult not to see this officially sanctioned abandonment – so starkly revealed by school principals in a report that was kept under wraps for two years – as evidence of plain, old-fashioned racism at work. (See his full article here).
I think the claim of “plain, old-fashioned racism” is a little simplistic. What this case shows is that a lot of individual choices which are not necessarily racist per se — just wanting the ‘best’ education for one’s kids — can add up to a sort of racism at a much broader level. This is not to say that racism is not an issue, but just addressing individual attitudes to race will not fully ‘explain’ the situation.