Push To Tackle ‘White Flight’

Push to tackle 'white flight'

Jewel Topsfield
March 21, 2008

REFUGEES should be housed across a wider spread of suburbs to halt the so-called “white flight” from some government schools, according to a senior Federal Government MP.

Laurie Ferguson, parliamentary secretary for multicultural affairs, said white flight where Anglo-European parents shun state schools that have a high proportion of students from other racial backgrounds had become a big challenge for multicultural Australia.

“People fear there is a monoculture in some suburbs. They believe there is an over-dominance of some cultures in schools, which is denigrating the quality of education,” Mr Ferguson told The Age.

“So they are withdrawing their kids from government schools and sending them to religious or selective high schools. This leads to further concentration of marginalised communities in government schools and the further stigmatisation of these schools.”

The term “white flight” was coined in the US. It was applied to schools after desegregation began in the 1960s, when many white people who could afford private schools pulled their children from mixed public schools.

Mr Ferguson said the “concept of white flight from the government school system” had now become a big challenge in Australia, particularly in western Sydney and parts of Melbourne.

A confidential survey conducted by the NSW Secondary Principals Council in 2006 raised concerns about white flight undermining the public education system and threatening social cohesion.

The report showed the percentage of Anglo-European students in public schools had decreased by a third in western NSW, by 42% in North Sydney and 37% in New England.

Mr Ferguson told The Age more needed to be done to avoid children from places such as Africa, who had grown up in refugee camps and had limited education, being so heavily concentrated in some areas and schools. “Deliberate policy decisions” needed to be made about diversifying the location of housing for refugees and humanitarian entrants.

He said settlement workers should also try harder to find private rental properties for their clients in a broader range of areas, rather than simply dealing with the same real estate agents.

Mr Ferguson said that in contrast to the hostility of the former Howard government, the Rudd Government was committed to making multiculturalism work, and he had been talking with the Immigration Department about how to tackle white flight.

He said while people could not be forced to live in certain areas and rent was prohibitively high in wealthy suburbs, more could be done to broaden resettlement.

“There also needs to be work from state education departments, otherwise we are going to see a worsening spiral of high unemployment, stigmatisation by employers and denigration of and further retreat from public education,” Mr Ferguson said.

The president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, Brian Burgess, said the exodus from state schools in Victoria was “more like a middle-class flight” than a white flight.

“It has more to do with middle-class people living in lower socio-economic areas moving into private education or what they would view to be a more upmarket secondary school in the next suburb,” he said.

But teachers at racially diverse schools, who asked not to be named, told The Age white flight was occurring in Melbourne.

Meanwhile, Mr Ferguson said one of his first tasks as parliamentary secretary had been to reassure the African community the Government would continue to accept African refugees, after former immigration minister Kevin Andrews claimed the Sudanese were struggling to integrate. “The biggest area of damage control was to try to counter the anxiety in the African community after Andrews' statements,” Mr Ferguson said.

He said Africans had interpreted Mr Andrews' “reprehensible” comments to mean the Government was completely cutting the African refugee intake.

The Immigration Department was also composing a multicultural policy statement to replace the former government's policy.

John Howard was famously suspicious of the word “multicultural”, saying he preferred to use “integration”. He also dropped “Multicultural Affairs” from the Immigration Department's title.

Mr Ferguson said that while it would be nice if the name was reinstated, the fact he had been appointed secretary for multicultural affairs and was pushing the agenda underlined its importance to the Government.