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Middle class flight: Why some SA private schools are losing students

Opinion

Certain Adelaide private schools are losing students in large numbers - a tell-tale sign that parts of South Australia's middle class are abandoning the economically-challenged state, writes Malcolm King.

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As the gully winds of economic change blow through the eastern and inner southern suburbs of Adelaide, middle and upper middle class families are leaving for Sydney and Melbourne.

We can see some evidence of middle class flight in falling enrolment numbers in some of Adelaide’s most established private schools.

According to the MySchool website, Loreto College had 708 students in 2015, down from 928 students in 2009. Mary MacKillop has fewer than 400 students, down from 507 in 2009.

Rostrevor College recorded 833 students in 2015, down from 1114. Enrolments at Westminster and Pulteney Grammar are sliding and even Walford, one of Adelaide’s most prestigious private schools, which had 663 students in 2009, is down to 625. Enrolments at Mercedes College are flat.

While some of these falling enrolment figures can be blamed on organisational upheaval, I believe the central dynamic is middle class evacuation. When the leading edge of the global financial crisis hit Adelaide in 2010/11, well-heeled families voted with their feet.

There was a small rise in student numbers at St Peter’s Girls’ School, St Peter’s College, Prince Alfred College (PAC), Wilderness and Scotch College. Some less expensive outer suburban independent schools also gained enrolments. According to the ABS, between 2010 and 2015, the total number of students in South Australian schools flatlined, while total independent school enrolments increased by just over 2000.

However, this does not mask the fact that hundreds of students have left the sector and the state during the last four years.

Middle class flight is a vote of no confidence in the state. It is also a part of a wider movement of people, which has changed the demographic character of the Adelaide, which is thinning the middle class and especially those in the upper wage brackets.

Of the 6500 people who left SA in 2016, I estimate about 500 were upper salary earners who moved interstate, in the search of greater career opportunities, larger salaries and job security. They took their families with them.

Middle class flight has created increased competition among private schools for students from a smaller pool of prospective applicants. Some private schools have increased their fees to cover the shortfall in enrolments.

While parents may have moved younger children to nearby public schools with solid academic performance, such as Unley and Marryatville high schools, feeder primary schools, especially for local private girls’ colleges in Unley and adjacent suburbs, are being hit by low enrolments. These too are the victims of middle class flight.

Schools have increasingly become a sign of a neighborhood’s vitality and good schools are a means of attracting more affluent families to urban areas. But if the economy is contracting, one doesn’t need to be Maynard Keynes to know that to minimise financial risk, the only logical path is to leave.

The economic fallout from this middle class exodus is being felt in retail stores from Unley to Kensington Gardens. While landlords have maintained high rents on the high street, shop revenues are crumbling.

If my theory of middle class flight is correct, we should have seen more premium houses come on the market in Adelaide’s south eastern quadrant in the last five years.

Using Netherby and Unley Park as sample areas, there has been a three per cent rise in the number of houses placed on the market in the $1.5-$2 million range since 2012. This is not a rush for the exits but it is worrying.

These are not homes being sold after ageing parents have died. These are renovated, executive houses for families of upper wage earners. The pictures are on the web for all to see. Large houses in the upper price ranges are taking up to a year or more to sell.

Middle class flight is a vote of no confidence in the state. It is also a part of a wider movement of people, which has changed the demographic character of the Adelaide, which is thinning the middle class and especially those in the upper wage brackets.

South Australia is not the only state to witness middle class flight. California is in the throws of an exodus of almost biblical proportions due to high property values, state taxes and power bills. According to 2013 data (the most recent available), 102,972 Californians left for other states and only 66,294 individuals from other states have replaced them. The majority of those leaving are middle class working families.

In SA in the 12 months to June 2016, there was a net interstate outflow of 6400 people – that’s 70 per cent higher than the previous year. In the year ending 2015, there was a net outflow of 5000 people – 81 per cent higher than in the previous year. Young people continue to abandon the state. This is not a recessionary impulse. It is a major structural change in the South Australian economy.

In the 12 months to June 2016, the largest contribution to SA’s population came from overseas migration of about 9200 people. That’s down 14 per cent from the previous 12 months, according to the ABS. Prospective skilled migrants now recognise that the claims of employment made by the SA government, through its state sponsored visa program, are highly dubious.

Middle class flight and a falling population of young people means there is a general decline in public services as the city struggles to spread fixed costs across a stagnant and often poorer population. This affects everyone.

The preservation and recruitment of middle-class families is vital to reverse the decline in property values and prosperity that has challenged Adelaide for the last 30 years. Easier said than done.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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