I wrote this in a fury after a report in Melbourne’s Age newspaper claimed that parents who didn’t send their children to local disadvantaged schools were racist. It was published in the the Opinion section and was the site’s most read (and commented on) of the day. I was heartened that amidst the predictable – and somewhat illogical – personal attacks (‘ur white! & denying racism! So u must b racist!’) the piece did trigger a wider discussion on education and resources.
What are they playing at, these smug, middle-class families deserting their local state school just because it’s next to commission housing? (White flight: race segregation in Melbourne state schools) How dare those “Greens-voting, socially liberal” white families drain these “sink schools” of their affluence and high-achieving Charlottes, Matildas, Ollies and Finns?
I know. You know. And Abeselom Nega, community leader and board member of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, knows. It’s racism.
“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,” Nega told Fairfax Media.
Back in the day, my well-meaning, socially conscious parents refused to send my sister and I to a “prestige” state school. We joke that our parents looked for the most disadvantaged school with the lowest literacy rate as a matter of left-wing principle.
Ours was a school in which the majority of students came from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and the literacy level was so low that instead of asking us to read the assigned VCE English text, our teacher walked into class one day with a video and said, “I’d ask you to read the book, but let’s face it, none of you will, so here’s the movie version instead.”
It was a school in which, if you read for fun, you hid it lest you got your head kicked in. (A shame, since our school’s version of an “accelerated learning program” was the teacher pretending not to notice when you stopped listening and quietly read a book under your desk.)
As an adult, probably to alleviate my white, middle-class guilt (certainly not because I valued education), I volunteered to help with reading in a grade 5 class at the local primary school – one of the “ghetto housing commission schools” mentioned in The Age’s story. As the highly competent teacher struggled to teach the kids who could barely read the alphabet while simultaneously challenging the kids who had an average grade 5 reading age, it was clear she had an impossible task.
It doesn’t matter how skilled you are as a teacher – if you have a class with vastly different levels of literacy, it is impossible to adequately meet everyone’s needs – let alone educate them. One group will suffer.
So how do you choose which group will suffer?
It was a choice I had to make – which students to sacrifice? – while teaching a master’s-level writing subject at university. An hour into the first class, it was apparent that owing to the university’s hunger to tap the international full-fee-paying student market, 80 per cent of the students in a master’s-level journalism class could barely read or write English. I left the class close to tears, with no idea how I could possibly teach to their level, while still engaging the local students. In the end I defaulted to pragmatism, and taught to the level of the majority, which meant slowing the class down to the point where I had to have private, unpaid, sessions with local students just so they wouldn’t miss out.
Like Roald Dahl’s Matilda, smart kids will always find a way to continue learning. Whether they’re from the local state school in downtown Crapsville, or are recently arrived in Australia with not a book in the house, experience teaches them that many schools operate as a glorified baby-sitting service, and if they want an education, they’d best get it themselves.
The idea that it’s the so-called “high achieving” kids’ social responsibility to sacrifice their own education to somehow drag up the level of their peers (by osmosis?) is obnoxious and entitled. How do I know? After being bored witless for most of my school years, I decided to leave. The principal called me into his office and told me I couldn’t go because “we can’t afford to lose students like you in the senior levels because you bring our scores up”.
Is it so hard to imagine that a parent might not want their kid to be the one to suffer? Or, as the patron saint of the socially conscious (and Probably Not Racist) filmmaker Michael Moore said, when criticised for not sending his child to the local state school, “our daughter is not the one to be sacrificed to make things better”.
(Though frankly, I’d avoid sending my child to the local prestige state school, because it has the lowest vaccine rate in the state. Call me specist against measles.)
To call it racism is simplistic, insulting, and ignores the real reasons white flight occurs, as well as the possible solutions.
Wayne Haworth, the new principal of “disadvantaged” school Mount Alexander College, is apparently looking at ways to “modernise the curriculum, so that it caters for students excelling in certain areas and supports those whose learning has been interrupted by migration”.
This is admirable, and we need to analyse and emulate the schools that do so successfully. Lazy catch-phrases such as white flight may capture attention and tap into class anxieties, but they don’t help (any) children get a better education.