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Warning on the segregation of school students and the risk to business

Unilever Australia and New Zealand chief executive Nicky Sparshott.

Unilever Australia and New Zealand chief executive Nicky Sparshott.

Unilever Australia and New Zealand chief executive officer Nicky Sparshott is among corporate leaders pushing for the recruitment of staff from a broader range of backgrounds. She says the company wants to create more opportunities for people from under-represented groups.

Diversity and the elimination of bias and discrimination in the workplace helps improve financial performance through innovation, creativity and empathy. A new equity, diversity and inclusion strategy aims to remove barriers in recruitment, she says. It would make managers accountable for supporting all employees to excel and encourage the hiring of staff that were more representative of their population.

“Very rarely do you have solutions to big problems solved at the boardroom table. It is those people closer to the day-to-day operations that are able to help you find solutions to those problems more quickly,” Ms Sparshott says.

“We saw that come to the fore of 2020 when COVID hit. We are a relatively flat structure made even flatter by the reality that is all about how to survive against a crisis but move the business into recovery and into thriving in the aftermath.

“We needed to bring together cross-sections of people irrespective of where they sat in the hierarchy or what type of role they did, whether they were in the office or in the field or in a factory to come together to solve some of the problems we have.”

An example of innovative solutions found during this time included a group of factory staff quickly transforming the production of deodorant to hand sanitiser.

“It wasn’t the intervention of senior management that made that happen. It was the will of a coalition in the business who were hands on about what needed to be done very practically,” Ms Sparshott says.

Unilever has also introduced programs designed to boost the self-esteem and job preparation skills of school students.

In an interview with this masthead, Exley said that growing segregation of students from different socio-economic backgrounds in Australia and the UK was a “recipe for disaster” and part of the reason for lower levels of social mobility. He says there is a danger that people, including those who go on to become policymakers and company executives, would not get to know and understand others from a different social strata if they did not mix with them at school and in the workplace.

He says OECD data has shown that children of blue-collar workers who attended schools in which they mixed with the children of white-collar workers were twice as likely to get a university degree or enter a professional management occupation as similar children who did not have the opportunity to mix.

“The potential of schools to widen children’s opportunities appears to depend largely on whether they create social integration,” he says.

“Just as the most skilled teachers are concentrated in schools where the children least need them, so are the children who could otherwise act as friends and mentors to non-privileged children.

“The most obvious way in which privileged parents can buy their child a place at an exclusive but non-fee paying school is by buying their way into the right catchment area, which inflates local housing costs and thereby drives less affluent families out.”

Victoria University education research chair Professor Stephen Lamb has studied the effects of segregation in schooling on education outcomes.

“There are independent effects which suggest that segregation has an impact independently of everything else on the progress of kids in schools and what happens to them,” he says.

“It is also likely to have an impact on shaping career aspirations because it is related to the peers that you connect with in schools that these things are partly shaped as well as the neighbourhoods and communities you engage in.”

Emeritus professor from the University of Western Sydney Centre for Educational Research, Margaret Vickers, is among Australian academics who have warned that increasing segregation in schooling is making it difficult for teachers to achieve good educational outcomes for students attending non-selective schools.

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The NSW government has opened 21 fully selective high schools and provides gifted and talented streams in other schools to compete with independent schools for enrolments and top HSC results. Increases over the past three decades in the proportion of students attending private schools has contributed to greater segregation.

“More and more the classes that are being taught in ordinary non-selective schools have fewer and fewer talented students in them and it is becoming harder and harder to pull them up,” Professor Vickers says.

“If you end up being in one of the lower-ranked ordinary comprehensive schools, you have got far less opportunity than you’ve had in the past and you are much more likely to end up with a less advantaged life. We are seeing a larger proportion of our population having fewer opportunities and having lower career aspirations.”

A growing lack of opportunity is also felt by young people seeking their first employment opportunities.

“It can take several years to get a secure job after leaving school. That is so different from two decades ago,” Professor Vickers says.

Research released by former school principal and education researcher Chris Bonnor for the Centre for Policy Development, an Australian think tank, found high achievers were increasingly concentrated in the most advantaged schools.

Laura Perry, associate professor of education policy at Murdoch University, has researched the impact of segregation on education outcomes and says that “narrowing who you connect with and rub shoulders with within a school … is going to have long-term consequences”.

“If you are in school with future pilots, you take part in conversations that you may not have been exposed to otherwise,” she says.

“But where that is removed through selection and segregation and you are only mixing with those who have limited chances themselves because of their disadvantage, then that tends to compound the consequences.”

Those with more limited opportunities are not as likely to do well at school, are less likely to complete school or more likely to get a lower ATAR, which could limit post-school and further education opportunities.

“This flows on to the types of jobs you get, salaries and chances of being employed or unemployed,” Dr Perry said.

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