‘White flight’ parents are missing the big picture

It isn’t racism – middle-class families are deserting schools based on class prejudice.

Julie Szego –

Last weekend I went out with a friend who, like me and my ilk, is a professional middle-class parent, healthily invested (subtext: is a neurotic basket case) in their children’s schooling.

Our conversation went down the checklist of the federal election, Gonski funding, and then I said, “Have you followed the controversy about –?

A so-called ‘white flight’ is leading to unofficial segregation in Melbourne’s school system.

” – white flight,” she said.

It is a perennial talking point: white middle-class families in socially liberal Greens-voting enclaves, shunning their geographically closest state school because it’s populated by African kids from the housing commission towers.
There is a difference between relative and absolute mobility. The former is a zero-sum game; the latter is about your …
There is a difference between relative and absolute mobility. The former is a zero-sum game; the latter is about your parents. Photo: Eddie Jim

The implication being these inner-city lefties love refugees as long as their own precious darlings aren’t mingling with them in the schoolyard – a contemporary version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, minus Sidney Poitier, and with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy remade as Melbourne hipsters.

As The Age recently reported, rich families in Melbourne’s inner north are jostling to enrol in over-subscribed schools in Clifton Hill, Princes Hill and Merri Creek, while schools such as Fitzroy Primary, Carlton Primary and Mount Alexander College have become “sink schools”, with 60 to 80
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per cent of students among the poorest in the state and overwhelmingly hailing from non-English-speaking households.

My friend said she blushed at the reports: her daughter attends a state school with a diverse population, and its NAPLAN results cause her occasional concern.

But we rejected the assertion of an Ethiopian community leader, that the “white parents don’t send their kids to these schools because all they see is black kids. They may not view it as racism but it is … you can sugar coat it, and put it differently, but I won’t.”

Sugar coating nothing, but putting it differently: the white families fleeing the “sink schools” aren’t racists, though they are prejudiced. It’s old-fashioned class prejudice; their problem with the local kids is not one of skin colour, but of home address.

The middle-class families would desert the “sink schools” just as emphatically if the kids from the commission towers were white rather than black, because they would still be poor.

Few of us are immune to prejudice but I was shocked to read how explicitly this bias is being paraded as a virtue, without even a flicker of self-consciousness. Clifton Hill’s website reassures parents that “a minority of students are drawn from public housing”.

Fear, even hatred, of the poor remains stubbornly resistant to the edicts of political correctness, however much some might delude themselves into thinking it’s the exclusive preserve of the News Limited editors, and their political fellow travellers, who vilified the welfare-dependent Duncan Storrar.

Now — as always, a Marxist would say — on a subliminal level rich people regard poverty as a disease; a self-inflicted disease, like that caused by smoking, and an infectious one.

The next day my friend and I continued discussing “white flight” via text messages. Her: It’s ironic the people complaining of white flight say it’s racist to want the best for your kid, but they want the same, to peg up the ladder. So perhaps hypocritical. Just sayin.

Me: Yes. And yet isn’t that the real irony – or the flip-side of the original irony; the whites flee because they assume there’s no aspiration in the commission flats. This controversy shows there is aspiration there – maybe more aspiration than you’d find in the “white” school where people are simply trying to maintain their privilege as opposed to striving to get some privilege themselves. That’s the problem with prejudice; it’s, well, prejudiced.

Her: Yep, and white bogans are the biggest problem! But. If you have 85 per cent non-English-speaking background, chances are the teacher can’t teach at a level suitable for kids who can speak English already and the standard for the class is lower than if everyone was English speaking. A lot of African refugees are illiterate or non-educated – sure they’re aspirational but it’s an issue about the starting point.

Me: Which is another conceit of the privileged; they think it’s all about where you start. The migrants (and the tiger economies of Asia) know it’s all about where you end up.

Her: It’s all about the ratio … and if the school is 80 per cent refugees…She’s only partly right. A slew of studies suggests the greatest single factor in shaping how kids will perform academically is family background – my friend’s eight year-old daughter is practically reading Tolstoy on her own, notwithstanding her “diverse” classmates.

Admittedly the school environment, including its demographics, influences outcomes when it comes to zero-sum games such as VCE in which differences between students are measured in decimal points. The student cohort and the school resources have a multiplier effect and can shift individual scores up or down.

But even the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the rich nations’ club, is starting to look beyond academic results as the sole indicator of educational success. On the weekend the OECD announced it was a developing a test to gauge students’ “global competence,” as “schools increasingly need to prepare young people for an interconnected world where they will live and work with people from different backgrounds and cultures.”

In a globalised world, the rich, white parents stampeding to a hermetically sealed school – populated with others just like them – might be making their kids worse off in the long run.

Source: ‘White flight’ parents are missing the big picture

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