Gentrification is changing how people relate to each other in local primary school communities.
In certain areas of Australia, such as the suburbs in Sydney, schools are becoming more polarised. Some schools are more desirable to the new middle-class families in the area, while others maintain a more disadvantaged profile.
Gentrification, or the movement of middle-class, predominantly white people into a poor, non-white area, is transforming urban communities across the world.
With new cafes and bars, and housing renovations, gentrification can enhance formerly run-down inner-urban areas. But it can also increase inequality and division.
Focusing on one gentrifying Sydney suburb, our research found that the influx of middle-class Anglo-Australians into a traditionally working-class, migrant-dominated area has led to a polarisation between and within schools.
Schools are increasingly differentiated as gentrifiers seek to create suitable social environments for their children, sometimes avoiding certain local schools.
These shifts are intensified by the public policy of school choice. This enables parents to bypass their local school for a more “desirable” one.
In the name of “choice”, governments have increased funding to private schools and have expanded hierarchies in the public system – selective schools and gifted and talented programs being a perfect example of this.
But we found that it’s generally middle-class parents who exercise choice. They spend time and energy researching and discussing schooling options. Working-class parents tend to just use their local public school.
The combination of gentrification and school choice policies has led to a polarisation between schools.
Our research looked at two public primary schools, let’s call them “Cooper Creek” and “Cooper Hill”, in a Sydney suburb. Both have a long history of servicing disadvantaged, multicultural communities.
In the last decade, Cooper Creek has become a highly desirable school for white middle-class gentrifiers. It is “hip and groovy”, according to one of our interviewees. By contrast, many interviewees describe Cooper Hill as having been “rough” in the past, and it remains a school avoided by some parents.
Gentrification initially enhances the social and cultural diversity of an area, and so has the potential to create a form of “everyday multiculturalism”, in which ordinary interactions occur across cultural difference within people’s daily lives, making difference normal.
Cultural diversity is often a drawcard for gentrifiers, attracted to a cosmopolitan urban lifestyle.
Cooper Hill school, which has been less affected by gentrification, still has a majority of students from language backgrounds other than English.
Multiculturalism is valued by both white and non-white families there. Many proudly list the ethnicities of their children’s friends, including those “whose names we can’t pronounce”.
Migrant parents are relieved that, at this school, their children won’t stand out and that being surrounded by non-white kids becomes “normal for them”.
Meanwhile, Anglo-Australians appreciate their children mixing across cultural difference because it reflects “real life”.
However, everyday multiculturalism is only possible when schools sufficiently reflect the diversity of the larger community.
At Cooper Creek, less than a third of students come from a language background other than English. The school is much less diverse than the suburb overall – more than half of whose residents speak a non-English language.
Some of our Cooper Creek respondents were acutely aware that, though they had moved to the area for its cultural diversity, they were in fact part of a movement displacing non-white residents. One laughingly recounted her shock at seeing her daughter’s kindergarten class photo, in which “all the girls were blonde”.
At this school, cosmo-multiculturalism – best described as multiculturalism without migrants – is the dominant form.
Members of the white majority engage with cultural difference through consumption, for example, enjoying ethnic cuisine or learning foreign languages.
At Cooper Creek, the number of non-white students fell so dramatically that the school was no longer funded to teach community languages. But so many parents valued foreign language learning that the parents & citizens committee instituted its own classes, before and after school, in five languages, including Chinese.
Although there were very few Chinese families at the school, “Western parents like the idea of their kids learning Chinese”, as one respondent said.
Chinese here is offered not as a community language, but as a language with obvious future professional applications.
Another respondent lamented the school’s success in the annual state-wide Multicultural Perspectives Public Speaking Competition, because “every year, you see the whitest, most Anglo-Saxon kids standing up, winning that competition … with no basis from their own life experience, and the kids who really have a greater insight into that are completely silent”.
Even at the more diverse Cooper Hill, ethnic mixing occurred more extensively among non-Anglo families.
Although the Anglo parents valued diversity, some expressed “disappointment” that their friendship circles did not reflect the full diversity of the school.
This mirrors European research showing that gentrifiers who profess to value diversity often do not have culturally diverse social networks.
This polarisation is a direct outcome of the marketisation of education. As schools are increasingly in competition with each other in an education marketplace, division and inequality will continue to grow.
Rather than being microcosms of the community, schools are increasingly divided by class and ethnicity. This should ring alarm bells for anyone concerned with social cohesion and justice in Australia.
Christina Ho receives funding from the University of Technology Sydney.
Eve Vincent does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.