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It’s been over a decade since Genevieve Dwyer graduated from St George Girls High School in Sydney but she still remembers one of the school’s distinguishing features - its cultural diversity.
Genevieve Dwyer

2 Feb 2016 - 4:42 PM  UPDATED 4 Feb 2016 - 11:30 AM

As a white kid, it seemed like I was among the minority in my grade – which represented a broad array of diverse backgrounds such as Indonesian, Cantonese, Indian, Sri Lankan, Lebanese, Egyptian and many more.

Turns out, it wasn’t just me. As the 2016 school year gets under way, there is a noted cultural division on the rise between the different school systems. Research by the University of Technology Sydney's Dr Christina Ho has noted a significant cultural division between the various school systems in Australia – specifically in Sydney.

“I did an analysis of Sydney high schools, using statistics from the MySchool website, which showed that public schools are much more culturally diverse than private schools,” Dr Ho told SBS Online.

“Across Sydney, more than half (52 per cent) of public school students are from a language background other than English, while for Independent schools, the figure is just 22 per cent.”

For selective schools, the statistics are even more stark: “Selective schools are dominated by the children of migrants,” says Dr Ho.

Going to a multicultural school brings a whole range of benefits, here are the things I learned along the way.

1. Your language skills are nowhere near as impressive as those of your cohorts

At St George it was normal to hear kids conversing in other languages in the playground: Cantonese, Hindi, Arabic. Some of us geeky white kids seized this excellent opportunity to brush up on our conversational Mandarin. Others (ie. me) just looked on uncomprehendingly in amazement.

“In Sydney, just about every selective school has 80 or 90 per cent of its students from language backgrounds other than English, according to MySchool.” explains Dr Ho.

As if the high academic standards set by a selective curriculum aren’t competitive enough, 90 per cent of your fellow students are tackling them coming from a background where English isn’t the first spoken language.

2. Your lunch is probably the least interesting thing on the playground

My cheese, lettuce and mayo on multigrain was pretty dull on the playground at St George -  where lunch-envy was a frequent occurrence.

Dining alongside an amazing array of delicious lunch boxes filled with everything from home-made Chinese dumplings, leftover lentil dosas or Italian meatballs it was easy to get jealous. 

When you think of many white kids who remain irked by such “exotic” dishes well into adulthood, selective school kids are perhaps lucky to be exposed to these different cultures from a young age. And it goes beyond their palates.

“Australia is one of the world's most successful multicultural societies, and one of the biggest benefits of this is that people are socialised in diverse social environments from a young age,” says Dr Ho.

3. You’ll avoid the snobby Anglo ghetto of certain private schools

Dr Ho points out a significant divide – particularly in certain well-heeled suburbs, where there has been something of a ‘white flight’ as white students are, ethnically segregated from other cultures in private schools.

“If you have a look at Sydney's lower north shore, for example, you have a public school, like Chatswood High, which has 76 per cent of students from a language background other than English, while at nearby St Ignatius College Riverview (Tony Abbott's alma mater), it's only 5 per cent.” Dr Ho explains.

Students at predominately white schools may lack the benefits that come with being exposed to a more diverse array of cultures, such as…

4. Knowing a thing or two about diplomacy

When you’re organising a school formal or attending a school camp that has to meet the needs of a variety of religions or cultural backgrounds, it gives you valuable skills in negotiations, and cultural sensitivity to equip you later in life.

“For many of us, it's completely normal to have friends, colleagues, neighbours and acquaintances from many different cultural backgrounds,” Dr Ho explains. “And this is how children gain valuable skills in cross-cultural communication and understanding.”

It’s also how you build the leaders of the future. “These are skills we all need in our globalised world. For kids, schools are the most important place where this can happen on a daily basis,” says Dr Ho. 

As Dr Ho explains: “These are skills we all need in our globalised world. For kids, schools are the most important place where this can happen on a daily basis.”

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