This is a repost from November 3, 2016.
“Across Sydney students from a language background other than English (LBOTE) regularly make up 80% or 90% of enrolments in selective schools.”
As families increasingly turn away from their local public schools, our kids are less likely to experience the full range of our diverse society.
Growing up in multicultural Australia, I first really understood multiculturalism by going to school. Not via textbooks, but through my lived experience of making friends with kids from a dozen different cultural backgrounds, and being exposed to the range of different ethnic groups with whom I shared my suburb. I learned to get along with people very different from myself, or at the very least, I accepted their right to share my school community.
For young people, schools are unique in their ability to foster these cross-cultural communication skills, and for orienting kids to the realities of our globalising world. British geographer Ash Amin describes schools as “micropublics”, places where people from different backgrounds are thrown together on a daily basis to work together. In the process, they learn acceptance and cross-cultural understanding.
However, not all schools are equally well-placed to achieve this. As families increasingly turn away from the local public school in favour of private schools that are often restricted to particular religious groups, and of course, restricted to those who can afford the fees, Australian children are less and less likely to encounter the full range of our diverse society within their school communities.
The same can be said for selective schools, the focus of my latest research. As education policy increasingly emphasises competition, school choice and elite programs for the “gifted and talented”, a growing number of schools have become demographically unbalanced, so that they can no longer operate as “micropublics” or microcosms of the wider community.
Selective high schools routinely top the annual league tables of HSC results in NSW, often outperforming prestigious private schools. For instance, James Ruse Agricultural high school, in north-west Sydney, has outperformed all other schools in the HSC every year for the past 20 years.
The outstanding achievements of selective schools come at a cost however, to their students and to the community more broadly. Apart from the allegations that these schools are “hothouses” breeding stress and anxiety among their pupils, my research examined another dimension of these school communities: their hyper-racialised environments.
Almost all selective high schools in Sydney are dominated by students from a language background other than English (LBOTE). According to the MySchool website, at James Ruse, 97% of students were from a LBOTE in 2015. Across Sydney, LBOTE students regularly make up 80 or 90% of enrolments in selective schools. Most of these students are children of migrants from various Asian countries, especially China, Korea, other east and south-east Asian countries, and increasingly, India and south Asia.
This reflects Australia’s elitist migration policy, which for the last 20 years, has favoured well-educated or wealthy applicants, who arrive as skilled or business migrants. As migration from Asia has grown, a new middle-class has formed in Australia, one that is more highly educated than native-born Australians. According to the Department of Immigration, among Australia’s China-born and South Korea-born populations, nearly 40% hold a university degree, approximately double the national average. Among the India-born population, more than 50% hold a university degree.
It is not entirely surprising that these families pay a great deal of attention to their children’s education. They see education as the key mechanism for ensuring their children’s future, in a society in which migrants lack the social networks and local knowledge that the native-born might use to get ahead.
Arriving in Australia during an era of intensified educational competition, Asian migrants often adopt highly instrumental approaches to education, particularly around school choice (and residential choice), private tutoring, close monitoring of children’s time use, and targeted training for selective admissions tests. As a result, their children now dominate the enrolments of most selective high schools.
This ethnically unbalanced profile of selective schools has created a hyper-racialised environment within these school communities, in which people are eternally defined by their ethnicity. In Australia’s multicultural society, we would hope that people working together would get to know each other as individuals, rather than perpetually seeing others as members of a particular ethnic group. Cultural difference could then become normal and unremarkable.
In selective schools however, cultural difference is hyper-visible and a key means by which people identify themselves and others. As a minority group, Anglo-Australian students feel their whiteness more keenly in selective schools, while many Asian-Australian students feel more “Asian”, or adopt a more “Asian” identity than they might do in a more ethnically balanced environment. Even the homogenising label “Asian” – widely used by students from all backgrounds – fails to capture people’s precise ethnic identity, and seems almost designed to emphasise difference from “white”.
My interviewees, who included current students and recent graduates of selective schools, described how people’s interests, abilities and preferences were seen in terms of ethnicity, and even subjects were racialised. Maths and sciences were “Asian” subjects, while the humanities and extra-curricular activities like debating and sport were “white” pursuits. These stereotypes could be damaging. For example, the notion that white students are “hopeless at maths” could undermine their confidence in the subject, as one interviewee told me.
In the playground, students often organised themselves by ethnicity, with “all white” or “all Asian” friendship groups sitting in their own demarcated spaces. One student told me that the “white girls” in her school even invented their own language, which they spoke loudly to each other whenever other students spoke Chinese. Another student described how the boys’ lunchtime soccer teams were based on ethnicity, with the Indian (“curries”) and white students teamed up against “the Asians”, an arrangement known as “checkerboards versus the Asians”.
While hyper-racialised environments do not necessarily foster racism, and most of my interviewees denied that there was racial tension in their schools, they artificially inflate the importance of ethnic identification. This may make it more difficult to broaden one’s outlook by transgressing cultural boundaries, or develop full-bodied cross-cultural understanding.
Of course there are some students who do cross those boundaries and befriend people from different backgrounds to themselves. Among my interviewees were two Anglo-Australian students who joined “Asian” friendship groups, became fluent Chinese speakers and developed ambitions to live and work in China. One even dreams about becoming Australia’s ambassador to China.
However, systemically, selective schools are all about segregating a select few from the mainstream. These schools are also segregated from their local communities. Their enrolments do not reflect the demographic profile of the local areas in which they are located. In most cases, students of selective schools do not reside locally, but often commute long distances.
While the local public school can be a significant site of “everyday multiculturalism” for young people and their families, selective schools rarely function as local schools, depriving their local areas of this potential micropublic.
Ultimately, as Australia’s education system becomes increasingly segmented by policies encouraging choice and competition, our schools are less and less capable of providing environments for young people to encounter diversity and learn how to deal with the rich mix of cultures found in our globalising society.
For me, the extreme imbalance in selective school communities highlights the importance of the local comprehensive public school, where all are welcome, and where students encounter maximum diversity, not only in terms of ethnicity, but also socioeconomic status, religion, ability, aspirations and interests, and all the strange and wonderful subcultures that make up our community. Exposure to all of this is an education in itself.
Christina Ho is Senior Lecturer & Discipline Coordinator, Social & Political Sciences, UTS. This article first appeared in The Guardian on 27 October 2016.