Hills Clinic 15-17
Memorial Avenue Kellyville NSW 2155
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As a child of Asian immigrants, I am concerned about sending my children to a school with too many Asians. It used be that independent private schools were fiercely criticised for having the most narrow social pool, dominated by the wealthy, Anglo-Saxon middle class. But the modern selective, public high school makes private schools look like a beacon of diversity.
It is part of a growing ethnic segregation of our school system, with a white flight from selective schools to private schools and the single minded pursuit of them by immigrant families, underlining how culture lies at the heart of educational achievement, over and above resources and government spending.
This further entrenches the perception that non selective public schools are filled with groups who least emphasise education, be it the white underclass, Aborigines and Pacific Islanders.
UTS academic Christina Ho found that in Victoria, 93 per cent of students at Mac.Robertson Girls High School and 88 per cent of pupils at Melbourne High School were from language backgrounds other than English, primarily Asian. Similar trends are apparent in selective schools across Sydney and other capital cities.
Selective school entry often translates into admission to the top university courses, such as medicine, which have similar ethnic profiles. When Sydney University first began its graduate medical degree, the joke was that it was because the Professor’s children could no longer make the grade through high school marks alone.
But the dark side of emulating the hypercompetitiveness of Asia is more apparent. My colleagues and I are seeing increased referrals from school counsellors and child psychologists of Asian derived children who are poorly socialised, losing themselves in video games instead.
The counsellors cite issues of small families living in compact apartments with almost all spare time, including weekday afternoons and large sections of the weekend, spent in private tutoring. This is beginning from a younger age, with companies like Kumon citing a growing enrolment of pre-school children. Ten per cent of its maths students and 21 per cent of its English students are now aged under five.
The same cultural values that emphasise and facilitate educational achievement may also promote silence on the expression of social and psychological needs. There is a growing diminution of the importance of play in brain development.
If it was widely known that children use more of their brain at age ten navigating the social complexities of a pyjama party than in even the hardest maths exam, might tutoring colleges start to offer courses in charismatic persuasion, telling a good joke or chatting up the opposite sex instead. This is doubly important when you consider many rote, technical tasks can increasingly be automated or outsourced. It is the creative, lateral work of the Right Brain that will be most prized in developed economies like ours.
The academic insecurity is further magnified by figures such as Yale Professor Amy Chua, the Don of Tiger mums, whose determination to produce uber achieving children bred great insecurity among the middle classes. Her essential philosophy is that children are far more resilient than we give them credit for and an over-emphasis on anti-bullying and a more gentle academic environment risks producing children ill equipped for the hyper-competitive global marketplace. She cites the triad of insecurity, cultural self belief and psychological discipline exercised through impulse control as the critical factors why ethnic groups such as Indians, Chinese or Jews tend to be more successful educationally. It may be a factor why coaching schools are now seeing a growth in non Asian ethnic groups enrolling, hoping to emulate their success.
But Chua also downplays the importance of play and incidental learning, a likely reason as to why multiple US studies show university students of Asian backgrounds had developed less career maturity and were more dependent in their decision-making styles.
This may be a clue as to why some predictions have not come to light, such as those from the controversial former Macquarie University academic Andrew Fraser, who argued in 2005 that Australia’s cognitive elite would grow into a heavily Asian managerial and professional ruling class prepared to favour the interests of co-ethnics at the expense of white Australians.
There is, understandably, considerable angst over the resourcing of our education system, as illustrated by the heated debates surrounding Gonski or higher education fees. All of it underplays the importance of culture in educational success. The growing ethnic segregation of our schools suggest cultural differences, particularly amongst those from Confucian or South Asian backgrounds, are creating marked rifts in educational choices.
There is an emerging body of evidence, particularly from the psychological sciences, that no ethnic group has quite mastered the right mix for optimum educational development and preparation for the complexities of adult life. There may be a lack of cross pollination between cultures that is preventing us from finding the sweet spot in between.