Friday 28 August 2015

Our Cultural Mix

There has been considerable discussion this week about the interpretation made by Dr Christina Ho, from the University of Technology of Sydney, of the My School website data.  In exploring the ethnic mix of schools, she last year suggested that there were Caucasian families refraining from sending their children to government selective high schools because of the high proportion of students there from non-Anglo students.  This was a large claim to make from the data then.

This week Dr Ho comented on the low proportion of students with a language background other than English in schools on the lower North Shore compared with the State average.  She lauds the benefits of a rich cultural mix in a school population.  I agree with her entirely on this point.  My time as Principal at Loyola College Mount Druitt underscored that particular value absolutely.  But there seemed to be an implicit suggestion that a school like ours (which was named in her report) has either a deliberate policy of excluding the students of other backgrounds, or is not interested in responding to the challenge.  Once again, she is drawing large conclusions from the data available.

It is true that being a school in the Catholic tradition, as we are, means that more culturally and religiously diverse families are not represented here.  In the same way, I assume there would be few Caucasian families in Sydney’s Islamic schools.  That is a given.  Unfortunately, for the most part, Catholic populations of other cultural backgrounds do not live within striking distance of Riverview.

Unlike a number of both private and government schools, we are not registered to accept full fee-paying students from overseas countries, so that pool is not one of our options.  But as it so happens, there has been recent media criticism of some government schools both here and interstate who are enrolling such students as a lucrative “cash cow” – at the expense of enrolment of local students.  Motives can vary.

Fr Gabriel Codina SJ, who was Fr General’s Secretary for Schools a number of years ago, was keen to challenge us that “if the poor cannot find a place in our schools, then our students must go out to engage with the poor”.  That challenge fostered both a focus on bursary schemes and service or immersion programmes in our Jesuit schools.  Therefore, at Riverview, we take seriously the need for our students to engage with and live in other cultures whilst they are with us.  There is mandatory community service/outreach in Years 7 to 12 to work in (and often live in) poor, disenfranchised or marginal communities.  Rural Australia and indigenous communities to the north are regularly part of this programme.

In Year 11 the boys have an opportunity to spend three weeks on immersion in developing countries such as India, the Philippines, Cambodia, Timor Leste, Micronesia and Nepal.  They undertake work in orphanages, schools, prisons and villages where they experience the richness of cultural life and the challenges that exist for the marginalised on a daily basis.  Almost half of the Year 11 cohort engage in such programmes in their own holiday time.

The study of language is another avenue to enter different cultures.  To that end, five languages are currently taught at Riverview.  Boys who study languages regularly spend time overseas to experience and understand those cultures first hand.

Our boarding community is yet another window into cultural awareness.  Many students in city schools would have no firsthand knowledge of life in rural Australia, the richness of that culture, and the challenges often faced in such communities.  City boys regularly spend holidays in these very different regions of Australia – and they learn from it.

As part of the school’s significant inclusion agenda, there are presently around 100 boys on bursaries.  This adds to our socio-economic mix.  Furthermore, 35 Indigenous boys are currently enrolled in the College – in fact, the College community represents the largest indigenous population on the North Shore!  In addition there are refugee boys from various African countries, plus a Special Inclusion Unit for boys of significant intellectual disability.

It is inaccurate and unfair to suggest we cultivate a monoculture here.  I would suggest the data collected from the My School website for such research is never able to fully reveal the many layers of the true reality of a particular school’s community constituency or external engagement.  Certainly not ours.

Fr Ross Jones, SJ