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The Boundary Umpire

All children should have access to a high quality local government school. That’s easier said than done, and as Tina Jacks and Henrietta Cook from The Age have shown, all sorts of trouble can ensue when parents want to exercise choice. And this can be compounded when schools themselves make decisions on enrolments. These articles, White Flight: race segregation in Melbourne state schools and Only ‘Doctor and lawyers’ get into popular state schools  and Clifton Hill charges some parents $1000 to secure a place are definitely worth a read. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Government schools generally have a ‘neighbourhood’, most commonly referred to as a ‘zone’, and students living within that zone have guaranteed access to their local school. Many schools have greater capacity for enrolments than can be met by the number of students in their own zone, so they are able to accept enrolments from people living outside the zone. This is consistent with the philosophy that parents should have some choice in which school their children attend. So parents can apply to have their children enrolled in a school outside their own zone. If you’re a school capable of holding 500 students and there are only 400 in your own zone this also makes sense from the school’s point of view.

A school may receive many applications for enrolment from children living outside their zone. This is where the difficulties arise. Who makes that decision and on what basis? It’s sensible for the school to make that decision. The education department is not close enough and doesn’t have the capacity to get involved in those decisions. But the criteria on which those applications are assessed seem to be unclear, and given some of the concerns raised in the articles referenced above perhaps the department needs to consider issuing further advice to schools about how the process should work. What are the criteria? Is it proximity to the zone? Academic ability? What else? It can’t be racial background or capacity to pay an upfront fee. If someone has to be the boundary umpire, what rules do they play by?

There is no suggestion here that students are being denied a place in their local school. The complaint is that some parents are not being treated fairly when applying to enrol their children in a school outside their own zone. So the aggrieved parents have themselves made a decision to bypass their local school. It’s worth pausing for a moment to ask yourself why they might be doing this. It wouldn’t be the case if their local school met their needs, so we return to the importance of having a great government school in every neighbourhood. And perhaps to the question of what constitutes a great school.

In theory a rigid application of zone boundaries would push students back into their neighbourhood schools. In reality many of parents, being denied the opportunity to enrol at the government school of their choice, would send their children to a non government school rather than to the local school that they consider undesirable for some reason. So do you keep them in the government system or not?

As for the matter of ‘white flight’ that’s very disappointing but it’s nothing new. Parents make decisions on a school for their children based on many factors, of which proximity to the family home is just one. The place of work for parents often is significant for primary school aged children, as is the philosophy of the school and the programs they offer (often including after school care). And while the racial composition of the school seems to be an issue for some parents, the socio economic composition of schools has long been a key driver of parental choice, particularly in the enrolment of children into non government schools. Parents will make decisions on who they want their children to be educated with and mix with socially. That’s a form of discrimination that’s emerged in Australia over the last couple of decades and it’s been aided and abetted by government policy and funding in the name of choice. But we seem to accept that. Don’t we?

To digress for a moment, I have some sympathy with parents who have a strong desire for their children to be at a school with their friends. Indeed, that’s what we want for our two girls. But I would prefer that to be in an inclusive government school.

In any event, it appears some ‘non white’ faces are seen as more desirable than others when it comes to school choice if we believe the ‘white flight’ argument. Have a look at the racial composition of Melbourne’s select entry schools and some high performing schools in the eastern suburbs. Or at the names in the list of high performing VCE students. There’s no shortage of demand for places in those schools. Perhaps a Chinese face is acceptable but an African face is not.

Charges for enrolment in a government school? Not on, but it’d be interesting to dig a little further into what’s happened in the Clifton Hill case referred to above. Is it a fee to guarantee enrolment, to cause the school to enrol your child before others? Or an advance payment on booklist or other fees that the parents will eventually pay anyway? Is it a way for the school to ensure that parents don’t get their place at Clifton Hill then shop around for other opportunities and perhaps leave the school in the lurch by enrolling elsewhere at the last minute? I’d have some sympathy with the latter approach, being the victim of this behaviour many times over each year.

I’m not sure what the answer is here but I doubt that it’s denying schools the opportunity to exercise discretion in their enrolment policy.

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