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According to some, the reason why parents are taking their kids out of public schools is that they don’t want them next to immigrants. The reality is quite different.
“We have taken D* out of our local primary and enrolled her in St Catherines,” said AJ, during our usual visit to the MCG to barrack for the Tigers.
Why?, I asked, surprised. They had only just moved to Fitzroy from Kew East, and enrolled their daughter at the strongly multi cultural local primary school. The school year was only two terms in, and they were not hankering to send their daughter to a private school.
“I had no idea what D was doing at school over the two terms, and then when I attended the Parent-Teacher meeting, I was told that she is by far the best student in class,” he said. “If she is the best in the class, the standard is not very high, obviously.”
Now, The Age would go to town on AJ’s decision. Last year, they did an exposé on how white middle-class parents were taking their children out of public schools of Inner Melbourne. The only students left at the schools were migrant children, often black and of refugee background, who lived in the nearby housing estates.
This was just another step towards the ghettoisation of refugee migrants, the piece feared. They live in certain areas, study in certain schools and have limited interactions with Melburnians outside their milieu. How do we expect them to integrate with wider Australian culture when we are not ready to share classrooms with them, study alongside, learn their culture and teach our own to them?
The Age presented the problem as racism, the vestiges of the white Australia policy. It argued that the parents were taking their children out because they didn’t like to see their children studying alongside black children from an alien culture. They even called the phenomena “white flight”, bringing colour to the forefront of the argument.
The answer to their curious decision is more prosaic than some would like. They took their daughter out of the school because she wasn’t being challenged enough.
The reality on Melbourne streets is entirely different. Both AJ and his wife are of Indian origin. His wife is a lawyer, a strong advocate for multiculturalism in Australia, who volunteers her time and expertise to several not-for-profits promoting the cause. They don’t fit into any of the frameworks by which we define conservatives in Australia: they are both of immigrant background, AJ is his daughter’s primary carer, and as a family, they are well travelled and well read.
The answer to their curious decision is, unfortunately, more prosaic than some would like. They took their daughter out of the school because she wasn’t being challenged enough. While at her previous school, she was participating in online math competitions and reading challenges, the general achievement level of the class in the Inner Melbourne school was too low for the school to be able to meaningfully participate in these competitions.
The socio-educational background of most parents at the school meant that the children were starting school behind. The school’s challenge was to bring them at par with other Victorian children without support from the home front. A task made harder still by the tensions and anxieties of a refugee home that the children brought to school with them. The teachers and school were too busy trying to pull the median performance of the class to standard to worry about how to ensure that better-performing students were challenged to excel.
Of course, AJ’s case is anecdotal. Maybe his worries are unfounded and children are simply hardwired to perform at a certain academic level, regardless of the average performance of the class. However, research says otherwise. Grattan Institute’s report “Widening Gaps: What NAPLAN tells us about student progress” clearly support’s AJ’s anxiety. High performing students in schools with generally low academic achievements lose out the most in terms of student progression between their first NAPLAN test and their final NAPLAN test. In simple terms, their trajectory of achievement doesn’t rise as students of similar abilities in higher performing schools
What the report also points out is that colour has little to do with student performance or school’s academic achievement. Some of lowest academic achievements in Victoria can be found in white working class neighbourhoods of Frankston North and Northern Geelong.
This is not to suggest that the problem of integrating refugee families into Australian mainstream should be overlooked or that it is not our responsibility. It is to point out that there is more to the problem than meets the eye. Integrating refugees comes at a cost, but is it fair to ask children from middle-class backgrounds to pay that cost by way of their own academic trajectory?
Would we not be better off organising greater support, volunteers and resources for the refugee children, ensuring that migrant children do not end up in few schools near housing estates, but are more evenly spread across schools in Melbourne?
None of this is easy to execute. However, they are far more likely to bear a result that asking parents to ‘roll the dice’ on their children’s future. By crying racism, instead of identifying parent’s anxieties regarding their children’s academic journey, all we are doing is to make parents indifferent to the accusation.