Saturday, October 29, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - selectivity, ethnicity and universality in Australian schools

Interesting piece in the Guardian by Christina Ho headlined Hothoused and hyper-racialised: the ethnic imbalance in our selective schools. I will just quote the first part of the article:
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.
I found myself nodding at certain places. Then, thinking about it, I concluded that I had problems with Ms Ho's analysis because of the way she mixed things together. Take the selective school example. These are government schools which base entrance on competitive merit measured in particular ways. By its nature, a selective school is unrepresentative. It should therefore not be surprising that particular groups with a particular ethos should come to be over-represented. Since Chinese parents, for example, are driven - the stories here are legion - by a desire for their children's success combined with a work ethic that would make the Puritans proud, it is not surprising that their children are disproportionately represented in the selective school intakes.

I saw this at first hand while working with a Chinese parent. The planning, the coaching, even consideration of moving to make it easier to access the school in question, was deeply thought through. As a child, I would not have wanted to go through this, I had enough problems with expectations as it was, but I could understand and even sympathise with what she was trying to do.

That says a lot about selective schools, a lot about the cultures and ethos of particular groups, but not necessarily a lot beyond that. To extend an argument based on the experience in selective state schools to the broader school sector is a stretch. That does not mean that it's wrong, rather that the argument is about the importance of the universality of the school system using the selective school system to provide an example.


At this point, I sidetracked. I was curious first about Ms Ho. She is a University of Technology Sydney Senior Lecturer & Discipline Coordinator, Social and Political Sciences, within the Communications program, based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
Christina researches migration, cultural diversity, citizenship and identity, and has focused particularly on Chinese migration, Muslim diasporas and migrant youth and belonging. She is currently working on projects investigating ethnicity and education and community building in urban areas.
She was also a Green's Senate candidate. Here we learn:
I migrated to Australia from Hong Kong with my family as a young child, and grew up in the northern suburbs of Sydney, surrounded by a rich mix of other migrants and longer-term residents. I’m now a resident of Sydney's inner-west, a colourful, multicultural part of the city. I’m inspired by the community around me, by the people who care about their local area and work hard to make it a vibrant, friendly place to live. I know that there are active local communities like mine all around the country and I believe they need to be strengthened and supported. .......
My older daughter started kindergarten this year at our local public school, and I couldn't be more impressed with the wonderful school community we have joined. My area is lucky enough to have some fantastic public schools, full of passionate staff and the resources students need to get a good start to their education. I’m a big supporter of public education and I believe that all kids should have access to quality education, like my daughter is lucky enough to have. .....
I’m a Senior Lecturer teaching social sciences and my work focuses on issues around migration, gender and cultural diversity, issues I have a personal passion for.
 I must say that she sounds a thoroughly nice, interesting and involved person. I also think that the excerpts provide the frame within which her opinion piece is written.

My next sidetrack took me to James Ruse Agricultural High School (and here), one of the selective schools Ms Ho mentioned. The school consistently out-performs every other school in NSW in the Higher School Certificate results.

The competition to enter is intense. According to the My School website, 86% of the school's students are in the top 25% academic student quartile (none are in the bottom half), 97% come from a non-English language background, while the school's ICSEA (Index of Community Socio-Economic Advantage) score is 1262. To put this last in context, the equivalent ICSEA scores for two of Sydney's most prestigious and high fee schools are The Kings School 1163 and Scots College 1166.James Ruse has no indigenous students.

James Ruse is clearly not your representative school! Interestingly, though, agriculture is still an important subject at the school, being compulsory to year 10. I have to say, though, that the art result in the photo is a strange amalgam. Given that so few modern Australians know anything about the country, less about agriculture, it is nice to think that newer groups are receiving some exposure!

The other thing I noted in my investigation is just how modern Australian the school felt. This is a point that I will come back to later, but the school teaches a common curriculum within a common framework. So the description of activities and ethos would fit most schools.To illustrate, this is a shot of part of the cadet corp on ANZAC Day.        

My next excursion was to a 2014 blog post, Will Girls And Asians Dominate HSC Results This Year? Probably. The post is written to entertain, it may annoy some, but it actually shows how HSC results are now dominated by relatively narrow number of schools and indeed of ethnic backgrounds.

My final excursion came after I had posted the first part of this post via a comment from Neil Whitfield pointing to an earlier posts of his, 07 — a controversy — For the record: the great SBHS race debate of 2002. Sydney Boys High School is both a member of the GPS (Greater Public Schools NSW) sporting competition and a selective school. The apparent genesis of the 2002 imbroglio was a feeling among some SBHS Old Boys that the selective school test had become unfair, preventing Old Boys sending their children to the school, thus breaking the nexus between the school and its past. The discussion that followed introduced many of the same themes that we have been talking about.

There is one really big difference between the two discussions, however. The 2002 SBHS discussion was set within a frame of then debates about multiculturalism. The discussion quickly shifted from a question of sport to one of ethnicity. Some of the same elements are there now, but Ms Ho (a committed multi-culturalist) has a very different focus. In a way, she has turned the argument on its head. Selective schools are, she suggests, in fact monocultural, suffering from lack of connection to the broader community.


I accept that I have wandered all over the place, so perhaps time to pull this together.

I am sympathetic to the idea of schools as micropublics in the sense of meeting and mixing with a broad cross-section of people with different views and backgrounds. I know that with my girls when we came to Sydney that I was worried about the relatively narrow slice of the Australian population they were mixing with. I think that it's still true that they know a narrower slice than I did at their age. Mind you, eldest working at HO for a global multinational means that she has a detailed exposure to a very different and especially European slice.

I think the most important learning experience in mixing with different groups is learning when you have to shut up to maintain harmony. This doesn't mean that you have to change your views, but you do learn to deflect, to argue gently, to see the strong points in others even when you detest some of their views.

Perhaps the idea of the Australian public school as a micropublic was always something of an illusion, Australia was always more diverse than people realise, but in any event I think that it's gone beyond recall. I would still support moves to reduce Government funding of non-government schools beyond a certain minimum point with redirection of savings to the public sector, but I don't expect it to recreate a micropublic school system.

My general thinking has also changed here in two important respects. I am less supportive of diversity in education. More precisely, the more the school system moves away from the micropublic model, the more important is is that there is an imposed common core across schools to create a base uniformity.

The second and perhaps more important thing is a formed view that Australian popular culture is, for bad as well as good, far stronger than I once thought. That actually imposes a common world view on people regardless of variations in schooling and indeed parental influence. This was a point I hinted at in the context of James Ruse.

And on selective schools in general? Yes, I think that they should be more representative. SBHS would have been better of if there had been more recognition of Old Boys and the School's past. That view was shared by a James Ruse old boy (boy?) mentioned in Neil's 2002 post. However, in the end I don't think that it matters. A selective school is a selective school; by its nature its unrepresentative. If a small number of groups dominate because of their ethic, that's fine. It will also pass because the world changes.

Mind you, looking at the high socio-economic status now attached to those schools, I would charge fees and then use that money for scholarships to help poorer bright kids attend.


Neil said...

If you care to go back to 2002, Jim, this may interest you.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Neil. Thank you. Will respond tomorrow

Neil said...

Thanks for your extensive references to those 2002 documents I saved back then. One point where we may differ is that I don't think SBHS in 1955-59 when I went there or 1985 - 2005 when I (mostly) worked there ever had a problem recognising its past, and it has ever had a particularly powerful Old Boys network. The problem some were having in 2002 was coping with the school's quite wonderful (in my view) present. There are times when tradition/nostalgia may not necessarily a blessing, much as we need to treasure a history such as that of SBHS. The school site has an enviable archive section. All this century too it has been a place where despite the stats on ethnic background anyone there would have encountered, as I did in the 1950s, a remarkable range of ideas and viewpoints plus a unifying sense of being part of an institution/tradition.

Neil said...

Just a note: "I would charge fees and then use that money for scholarships to help poorer bright kids attend." In that direction: The Phillip Day Memorial Scholarship means the Scholarship, founded in 2007, for study in Years 7-12 at Sydney Boys High School, which is administered by Sydney Boys High School staff. And see Sydney Boys High School - Enrolment Policy Fees: "School Contributions" are currently $2427:00 pa in Yrs 10-12, $2310:00 in Yrs 7-9.

Correction to last comment: "There are times when tradition/nostalgia may not necessarily BE a blessing..."

Jim Belshaw said...

That's very interesting material, Neil. As you know, I have a soft spot for SBH. A few points I did pick up.

It's good to see the emphasis on history and indeed on the requirements imposed by GPS membership. The scholarship fund itself seems to be very limited (it does allow broader considerations to be taken into account I note) and seems to imply that there is one. Have I got this wrong? The school contributions are quite low give the socio economic status of parents (again its higher than Kings or Scots)and none of that money goes to scholarships. Perhaps it can't legally.

Jim Belshaw said...

As a brief follow up comment, and I haven't attempted to do the maths on this properly, a $1,000 annual scholarship levy on parents would create a $100,000 plus fund per annum. TAS whose parents on standard measurements are not as well off as SBH parents and which is a smaller school, appears to have far more scholarships - TAS also has 3% indigenous enrollments, I think most of those kids are on scholarships, whereas on the latest SBH data it has none.

I'm not knocking SBH, but I think that we need to reframe the debate on selective schools.