Melbourne's Age newspaper has run a series of articles highlighting what it calls middle class “white flight” from inner north state schools closest to the Housing Commission towers, leading to unofficial segregation along race and class lines.
Experts say this phenomenon is mirrored around the country in areas where public housing meets affluent areas, such as the inner-Melbourne suburb of Carlton and inner-Sydney suburbs of Redfern and Glebe, as the gentrification of public schools with booming enrolments impacts on poorer students' access to a good education.
According to the Age, white middle class families have deserted schools such as Fitzroy Primary, Carlton Primary and Mount Alexander College in Flemington, which are catchments for poor students of African heritage, many of whom live in the Housing Commission flats.
These schools have become "sink schools" — schools that have been drained of affluent families and high achieving students. White families with higher incomes compete for spots in over-subscribed schools that are farther away but are seen to have greater prestige. They favour Clifton Hill, Princes Hill and Merri Creek primary schools.
These over-subscribed state schools — which offer accelerated programs, overseas trips and boast above-average NAPLAN scores —have been accused of cherry-picking middle-class kids and shutting out students they deem too challenging, too disadvantaged, or not sufficiently academic.
Parents have accused Clifton Hill Primary, one of Victoria's most affluent state schools, of asking parents living outside its zone for fees of between $1000 and $2000 to secure enrolment for their child up to a year in advance.
Co-principal Megan Smith said the payment was the school's normal fees, and not an extra charge. She said the school had asked families living outside its area to pre-pay school fees to ensure they would attend.
"The suggestion that Clifton Hill Primary School has accepted enrolments based on offers of payments in excess of scheduled fees is outrageous and untrue," she said.
This practice was apparently stopped late last year following advice from the Education Department and a review of the school fee schedule. But one parent told the Age they were asked to pay $1000 in February this year to secure a place at the school for 2017.
My School data shows that the school received $1039 per student through fees, charges and parent payments in 2014. But nearby Fitzroy Primary School — which accommodates many students from migrant families and from public housing — gained just $249 per student from such charges.
Smith said the school accepts "occasional enrolments from outside our neighbourhood boundary where we have the room", but it is "absolutely incorrect to suggest that we enrol students based on class".
But the school's website says that it is the closest school for just 65% of students, with "the remaining 35% being drawn from neighbouring middle class inner suburban areas. A minority of students are drawn from public housing."
It goes on: "The school's strong academic reputation attracts students from outside the area and waiting lists apply at all levels" but “we sincerely regret our inability to readily accept out-of-zone children”.
Under the current rules, a student from outside the zone can enrol in an over-subscribed school if they excel in a particular area, such as music, sport, or a second language. But there is very little transparency on enrolment decisions and this can lead families to feel they have been unfairly rejected.
Senior Lecturer in Education Policy and Politics at Melbourne University, Dr Glenn Savage said principals are prioritising affluent and academic students.
"I think it's unconscionable that principals choose students based on their socio-economic backgrounds, and there is evidence to suggest that this is happening at the moment."
It is also of concern to Victoria University's Adjunct Professor of Education Richard Teese. He says wealthy families have the knowledge to be more selective with their children's schooling. Newly arrived migrant families find it harder to navigate the school system and often send their children to the closest local school.
"If we start educating people separately, we run the risk of creating ghettos, and the formation of hostile social attitudes. It flies in the face of our historical mission of public schooling, which is an all-in institution in which we learn from each other and support each other."
Christina Ho, a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, said: "You get this phenomena of 'white flight' when you have schools which are seen as 'too full' of kids from migrant backgrounds or refugee backgrounds.”
She said the driver is not racism per se, but parents' concerns over learning outcomes and the social environment their children will be in.
Abeselom Nega, an Ethiopian refugee and community leader who sits on the board of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, disagrees: "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."
Dr Arathi Sriprakash, who is researching racial politics in Australian schools, believes it is common for white parents to choose schools through a "lens of whiteness".
"We don't have the White Australia policy any more. We are not talking about explicit or overt racism that you might recognise from the past, but racism exists in more coded ways. It occurs in school choice, in the way parents decide what is a good, bad or risky school."
Teese said some Australian schools are experiencing partial "ghettoisation", where disadvantaged students are educated apart and have no access to their more advantaged peers.
"The creation of ghettoes is very dangerous," he said. "It lowers expectations on people, creates a breeding ground of intolerance based on ignorance ... and it's really disastrous and quite paradoxical to have public schooling exposed to a partial ghettoisation, which we're experiencing here and there.”
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