Change in school enrolments and in underlying potential demand
Change in school enrolments and in underlying potential demand at adjacent schools in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs (Spensley St Primary is in Clifton Hill). Source data: Vic Dept of Education and ABS

The Age ran a story earlier this week, White flight: race segregation in Melbourne state schools, concerning the practice of parents by-passing their local primary school and enrolling their little ones at more desirable out-of-zone schools.

The Age attributes this phenomenon to raw racism but I think it’s mostly down to avoiding poverty and different religions. Middle class inner city parents worry that children from public housing estates have low motivation and will have a negative influence on their children’s school achievement and attitudes.

Parents are put off by a concentration of children with religious backgrounds they see as having an adverse view of women. Middle class parents are already more likely to shift their daughters to private all-girls schools after grade four because of a view that adolescent boys are a harmful influence.

There seems little doubt, though, that inner city schools with large public housing enrolments are shunned by many middle class parents. The exhibit shows significant differences in enrolment growth at four adjacent inner northern Melbourne state primary schools despite strong demographic demand across the area (note Spensley St Primary is in the suburb of Clifton Hill).

Two of the schools showed modest growth over 2009 – 2015, perhaps because they limit their intake to their catchment. Clifton Hill Primary School however grew strongly over the period, increasing its intake by 42% over the six years, or by 203 students. It had 688 students by 2015.

It’s gotten so big it’s buying land from the Brotherhood of St Laurence as part of the latter’s redevelopment of its existing site adjacent to the school; that might partly explain the size of the Brotherhood’s proposed new building that’s upsetting residents (see “It’s not a NIMBY thing”: Greens, socialists block nursing home for poor).

Meanwhile Fitzroy Primary School, which was established in 1855 and served a much denser catchment throughout its life than it does today, had only 123 pupils in 2015, down from 156 in 2009. It has plenty of spare capacity and room for further expansion, but demand for its services is falling.

The practice of parents sending their offspring to an out-of-zone school seems to be pretty widespread and is a factor in high car use for school trips. I made the point recently that more than half of primary school children in Melbourne travel more than two kilometres to get to school (Surely the 30-minute city makes sense for primary school trips?).

Two thirds of those who live within one kilometre of school, walk or cycle. But for trips of between one and two kilometres, the use of active modes plummets to 20% and driving’s share escalates to 78%. Above two kilometres, active transport modes are used for just 6% of school journeys.

Parents by-pass their local school for various reasons. As discussed above, some are uneasy about their local school’s demographics. Some find schools closer to where they work, or to grandparents who provide regular after-school care, more convenient. Others seek a school with a strong educational reputation or some want a larger school that offers specialist programs.

There are cases where a child might’ve had a poor experience at the local school, perhaps bullying. Another reason is parents move address but decide to keep their child at their original school to maintain friendship networks. And I can personally attest that sometimes the out-of-zone school is actually the closest one to walk to.

The end result though is that schools that are chronically overlooked are invariably worse off. They miss out on the benefits of diversity in their student body; of scale in what programs they can offer; and of having a well-heeled and well-educated parent body to help teachers improve the school. It’s difficult for parents to contribute to a school when English is a second language for the great majority of them.

Although there might be other approaches (e.g. taxing out-of-zone enrolments), the seemingly obvious response to the “imbalance” shown in the exhibit is to argue that children should be tied to their nearest school. Sounds straightforward but it wouldn’t be.

For starters, it might not make much difference. Many parents in suburbs like Fitzroy would doubtless respond by taking their children out of the State system and enrolling them at private primary schools. So far private schooling has mostly been a secondary school phenomenon (or for girls a grade 5/6 phenomenon), but a policy of stopping out-of-zone enrolments might see it become more widespread at primary level.

Or parents might respond by being much more selective about where they choose to live; they might avoid settling in suburbs with primary schools they regard as undesirable. The influence on real estate values of sought-after state high schools is already well established. The upshot is the diversity of the local primary school mightn’t change much.

The other side of the coin is that some schools located in suburbs with very high levels of disadvantage provide a poor learning culture. Tying children to their nearest school could mean some talented or dedicated students from low income families could be prevented from attending an out-of-zone school with a culture that’s more sympathetic to their ambitions.

A policy of restricting students to their local primary school would probably result in schools being of similar size, at least within the same region. That would limit the scope for specialist programs that larger schools provide e.g. the ability to offer a choice of foreign languages. This could be another factor making public primary schools less competitive with private schools.

This is not an easy issue. Urbanists need to be careful about elevating the virtue of more active forms of transport over other considerations. The key objective here is the education and welfare of young children, not their mode of travel.

Public housing authorities are already sensitive to the problems of concentrated disadvantage, but are constrained by legacy infrastructure and limited funding. There are also benefits for residents of public housing in living in a community of similar ethnic or religious background that have to be considered.

There is scope though for the Government to do much more for schools like Fitzroy to improve their appeal to all households within their catchment. That includes better facilities, better services, better marketing and, inevitably, more funding.