Andrew Stevenson’s recent piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, The White Bread Playground , commented on the lack of ethnic diversity in some independent schools.
As the principal of an independent school that has a tremendous diversity of culture and languages, I ask myself questions about how we are measuring up not only in the area of welcoming students from diverse backgrounds to our school, but in providing them with equal access to all that the school offers. I know my colleagues across the sectors ask themselves similar questions. I note below some indicators and ideas from PLC Sydney: others will have programs and practices that could add much wisdom to this topic.
One way of testing if we give a voice to the variety of cultures in our schools is if the students of the school pay no heed to cultural background when they are selecting their student leaders. In a student election we have a real test of staff and student attitudes. The stakes are high and the outcome provides an indication of what our community is really thinking. It was therefore very heartening for us at PLC Sydney that the five students with the most votes for 2013 came from five different backgrounds: Southern European (Captain), Pacific Islander, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Anglo-Saxon. We will keep watching this indicator.
A second measure is whether or not students join together in cross-cultural groups in the playground. I observe at PLC Sydney that the majority of social groups are mixed but that some are homogenous. It is not productive to socially manufacture friendship groups, but, like many schools, we do provide students with opportunities and encouragement to get to know students from other backgrounds. The sport and co-curricular programs are a very helpful means of breaking down barriers.
A third measure is if students from different cultures are achieving excellence. The various honour boards, lists of achievements, or recognition assemblies should reveal names from a variety of backgrounds. I am pleased that ours do.
A fourth measure is parental involvement. Do the parents from different cultural backgrounds feel welcome to contribute to the school? It is here that the leadership of the Parents and Friends Association plays an important role. At our recent Fair and Open Day our convener, Cameron Townshend, discovered that parents from one cultural background were not volunteering. He asked some questions and found out that some of the parents were nervous that their level of English might embarass them. He found a confident parent from this background and she organised a stall where they could all use their native language and she would provide the expertise in English when required.
It is also the case that we don’t have to have students mixing cross-culturally at every point. In our Boarding School we have a diverse population, with students from Rural NSW, ex-patriate families across the globe, international students and some Sydney-siders who live-in at school in their final years. These groups get on well together in the Boarding House. Sometimes, however, they want to get together with other students who speak their language and think about home. Sometimes the rural students make close friends with others who love life on a farm. It is important to allow students to develop deep friendships with people who share their interests.
One important aspect of cultural diversity is the one highlighted by Andrew Stevenson: enrolment. It is also important to note that school communities create a cohesive school climate by making a multitude of smaller choices.