Monday, March 10, 2008

Economic and demographic change, education, ethnicity and the maintenance of social cohesion in Australia

Today's Sydney Morning Herald carried a series of campaigning articles dealing with the growth of ethnic divides in Australia with a special focus on public education.

I will not give you the links, you can find them here, because I believe that the paper has trivialised and sensationalised trends that I have been writing about with concern for some time. As I see it, the paper is very low on substantive analysis as to the real causes of the problem(s), lower still on anything approaching solutions. Given all this, I thought that best thing that I could do is to deconstruct some of the issues, drawing on my previous work.

Like Appeals to Like

There is no doubt that European and especially Anglo-Celtic Australians have been withdrawing from Sydney since the late 1980s. The census data has shown this clearly. The reasons for this are simple.

We all tend to mix with those we feel comfortable with. We also like our familiar scenes, the patterns of life around us.

In my case, for example, I have tended to mix socially with two groups - those who share my more academic interests on one side, community activists on the other. The second group has traditionally crossed a wide range of divides, something that I have enjoyed. One reason I still dislike living in Sydney is that I find it much harder to meet a real variety of people across social divides.

The combination of overseas migration with emigration by locals to other parts of Australia has changed the face of Greater Sydney. This change has been reinforced by other changes, part demographic, part cultural.

Migrants from particular countries tend to gang together. There is nothing wrong with this, nor is it new in Australia. However, it does change the appearance and feel of parts of the city, especially where people are ethnically different. Hurstville, for example, has come to look almost like a Chinese city.

This effect combines with other changes.

Once working class inner Sydney has become a mecca for younger Australians from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who like appartment and inner city living. In statistical terms, the city of Sydney local government area is now markedly different from other parts of the country, so different that if you just looked at the statistics themselves you could think that it was in a different country. Perhaps it is.

As Sydney changes, out-migration increases. A week or so back, I went to a farewell for some-one who has chosen to take a North Coast sea change. Her sole reason for going was that she no longer felt at home in the inner city areas she had lived in since a child.

Within Sydney there are considerable differences between migrant groups in terms of culture and opportunity. This is a mine-field area because it is almost impossible to discuss these matters without getting caught in race and racism issues.

If we just focus on opportunity, there are certain groups that lack both education and money. Others combine a powerful advancement ethic with access to resources. The first group languishes in the western suburbs, the second dominates our selective schools.

Again, this is not new. On my father's side, my grandparents were working class English who left school at twelve. They came from a strong protestant tradition (in our case Methodism) whose emphasis on work, abstinence and education in combination with migration allowed all their children to break through into the middle class in a way that would have seemed inconceivable at the turn of the twentieth century.

What is new is that, as I see it, the barriers to social advancement are now far greater than they were in my grandparents' day. This brings me to an initial comment on the school system.

The Role of Public Education

Our public education system has been central to social harmony and advancement because it provided a mechanism for advancement for all people. Its decline, the rise of alternative systems, is central to the problems we now face.

The Sydney Morning Herald articles trace to some degree the way the school system in general is segmenting on ethnic lines. However, the articles are also simplistic because they do not trace all the variables involved. Take three cases to illustrate the point.

In our case we came down to Sydney and had to find a school fairly quickly. A selective high school was out in part because of the exam system, this requires a lead time, but also because we were opposed to selective schools. We were prepared to consider a state school, but they vary in quality and we did not have the time to do a full investigation. We also had a preference for a Christian education and had doubts about the overall approach within the state system. So we chose an Anglican girls' school.

Case two involves a Chinese colleague. Her child has just sat the exam for entry to a selective High School. This is a key aim, one supported by special coaching, because the selective school system is seen as giving the greatest choice for a career future. It is hard to overstate the emphasis on personal achievement within many Chinese families.

Case three involves a small business family. They took their daughter out of our daughters' school and put her in a Catholic school in part because she was unhappy, more because they felt that the savings in school fees would allow them to spend more on other aspects of her education.

Now the point in all three stories is that parents make the best choices they can within available resources. All sorts of things come into those choices, including cost. Some parents simply do not have any real choice, others do.

In all this, the public school system suffers from two main problems.

First, for better or worse, many parents want their children to have access to culture and values that they believe cannot be provided by a state education. Secondly, many now believe that the state system can no longer provide the quality of education they want.

None of this is connected in any way with racist views. However, the problem is that as parents withdraw their children, aided by Government subsidies based on the concept of choice, it becomes harder for the state system to provide universal high quality education for all. The problem becomes further compounded should individual schools become dominated by particular ethnic groups, creating a minority feeling for others.

To tease all this out a little more, I want to look at New England schools. These were highlighted by the SMH because of the growing dominance of Aboriginal students.

New England's Problems

According to the SMH, 37% of New England school principals, the second highest in NSW, report that the proportion of Anglo-European pupils is declining. No less than 56% of principals, the highest in NSW by a very considerable margin, report that they are losing students to private or Catholic schools.

We need to define New England. This is not New England as I normally use the term to describe the broader New England, but the Northern Tablelands and North Western Slopes and immediately adjacent plains.

I have written and written about New England's problems at both the broader and Tablelands' level. Despite population growth on the coast, despite the area's natural wealth, this is an area where long standing systemic problems connected in part with governance have led to structural decline and growing poverty. This is my home and I write about it with passion.

The problems that New England's state schools face have little to do with race, much to do with systemic economic discrimination against the area.

Focusing just on inland New England, we have been losing population for ninety years. Those who have gone are first the young, then those who used to occupy the now much diminished management and professional positions.

At the same time, the Aboriginal population has been growing, partially by natural increase, partially by in-migration from further west attracted by better facilities. This has led to a marked rise in the Aboriginal proportion of the total population. The results have been complex and difficult.

Take Armidale as an example.

Between 1988 and 1994 Armidale lost something over 600 technical, education and manageral jobs due in part to educational cut-backs at the University, in part to broader structural change. Their place has been taken in part by Aboriginal in-migration, migration that to some degree concealed the aggregate population loss, but also created tensions within the local Aboriginal community while adding to an economic underclass.

Armidale had been something of a model for Aboriginal advancement. But no community of Armidale's size can easily cope with such large scale change. I actually think that Armidale has done a bloody good job.

Armidale's public schools have suffered in these changes. At the time my parents decided to send me to The Armidale School, Armidale High was dominant in academic terms. The private schools had a tiny number of local pupils. Most university staff chose to send their children to state schools.

Now, however, Armidale's private schools are sucking up an increasing proportion of local students.

To some degree at least, the Armidale experience is replicated throughout inland New England. As the children of better off parents leave the state system, the Aboriginal proportion of the public school population rises. These moves have little to do with race as such, everything to do with parental choice as parents strive to do the best for their kids.

The lessons in all this

In all this, I have come to a small number of conclusions.

First, we cannot assume that Australia will retain social cohesion in the face of unprecedented ethnic and social change. The evidence is already against this. We have to consciously build integration across communities.

Second, we must spend more money on public education. If, as now seems to be the case, the state system is going to end up with the more difficult kids, then we have to be prepared to pay for this. Our state schools have to be able to match it with non-state schools no matter how difficult. Choice that creates social problems for us all is no choice at all.

Third, we have to recognise the real nature of problems.

New England's core problems have nothing to do with ethnicity, everything to do with general failures in public policy and economic development. Solve this, and you will solve other problems.

Finally, note that nothing that I have said actually has anything to do with race or racism. Race is relevant only to the degree that it allows, as the SMH has done, labels to be attached.

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