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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Addressing the challenges of cultural diversity in our schools

Nina Burridge
Dr Burridge is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Technology, Sydney

Statistics show that 45% of Australians were born, or have at least one parent born, overseas. They have settled here from more than 200 countries, speaking almost 300 different languages, including 50 Indigenous languages, and they have brought diversity in religious practices, languages and customs (Commonwealth of Australia 2009).

Schools and teacher education institutions reflect the growing linguistic and religious diversity of our communities, and need to find ways to address both the challenges and opportunities they represent. These remain complex issues to negotiate, despite recent positive departmental policy statements on cultural diversity (NSW DET 2005) and decades of support for various multicultural education programs in schools (Mansouri & Wood 2007).

A small study conducted in 2007 and early 2008 titled Representations of cultural diversity in school and community settings sought to explore how a number of government schools were responding to these changing times (Burridge & Chodkiewicz 2008). The study involved case studies of four public schools in the greater Sydney region that were characterised by differing degrees of cultural homogeneity: a primary school in the inner west; a high school in the south; and a high school and a small primary school in northern Sydney.

A series of structured interviews and focus group discussions in each school and its community were carried out with teachers, students, and members of school executives. In addition, key members of the local community were interviewed, and information on cultural diversity programs in the area was obtained from local government documents. Data were analysed using a grounded theory approach designed to allow the voices of the participants to emerge. A number of key themes were identified and the findings were discussed in the context of recent studies outlining the policies of managing cultural diversity in Australian and overseas schools (Mansouri & Wood 2007; Leeman & Reid 2006; Santoro 2009; Banks 2006), on ways of involving multicultural school communities (Mansouri & Kamp 2007) and on the debate over differing interpretations of multiculturalism (Jakubowicz 2006).

Findings about representations of cultural diversity

The study identified a number of different ways in which cultural diversity was understood and addressed at each school, and found that schools' responses to issues of diversity were shaped by the cultural context of the school and its community and by the response of the school's leadership team. The various approaches taken by the schools could be categorised as a) an active whole-school approach, b) a reactive responsive approach, or c) an inactive or indifferent approach.

The first school was a primary school located in an area characterised by a highly mixed and culturally diverse community with many recent arrivals. The school had adopted what could be described as an active integrated whole-school approach. Cultural diversity was acknowledged throughout the school, with inclusive approaches taken with students of all backgrounds. Students were encouraged to share their culture, and the school actively engaged parents through regular morning teas, the provision of bilingual newsletters, and participation in oral history projects. Cultural liaison officers were employed to facilitate increased communication between the school and parents. While some of these programs represented diversity in a 'folkloric' manner, generally their impact was one of fostering a culture of inclusion in the school.

The second, a secondary school, was situated in a largely monocultural area in southern Sydney. The impact of the 2005 Cronulla beach riots on the school population became a major motivator for this school to take action to address perspectives about and issues arising from cultural diversity. A program designed to deal with cross-cultural tensions, called Cooling Conflicts, was implemented across the junior school years, and the school also began an inter-school cultural exchange program. In the study this program was found to be an effective way of increasing levels of cultural understanding among both students and teachers, and as a means by which students could develop relationships with students from different backgrounds to their own.

The third case study took place in a high school in a largely monocultural area in the northern Sydney region. Because the immediate school context involved only a few small emerging communities and other cultural groups were largely invisible, the school did not see the need to address cultural diversity issues other than the English language needs of a small number of students. The school saw other priorities as more important, and felt that dealing with an issue such as cultural diversity would be artificial when it was not a major concern for either the school or its community.

The cultural experiences of young Muslims

A major issue emerging out of the study related to the specific experience of young Muslims. The study found that the low socioeconomic status and limited language proficiency of many of the surveyed young people limited their capacity for intercultural contact. Muslim students, however, experienced additional challenges, including significant struggles with their identity since the events of 9/11. Their comments showed that negative experiences had forced them to question their Australian-ness. Girls who wore the hijab, for example, said they were being stereotyped and were made to feel they were no longer accepted as Australians. One respondent commented:

. . . those of us from different backgrounds, where do we fit in? I have always defined myself as an Australian. You know, I was born here, raised here, gone to an Australian school, my language is English . . . If you look at the qualities that are attributed to an Australian . . . the whole mateship thing and the love of sport – well then I’m just the same as the Australian old man who screams at the television every time the sports comes on.

Having been born in, and continuing to live in, Australia was no longer seen as enough:

you know, we’ve been here our whole lives and all of a sudden it’s an issue and all of a sudden we’re being questioned.


The study found that educators are applying a range of effective methods to address diversity, and are using them to enrich their own school cultures, either on their own initiative or in response to specific events like the Cronulla riots.

However, the study also pointed to gaps which may be filled by updated and better cultural diversity resources for teachers, including resources that address religious diversity. In particular there is a strong need for the development of a better understanding of Islam. Teachers must be supported through professional learning opportunities that improve their understanding of the links between educational outcomes and cultural maintenance, including the teaching of immigrant students’ first languages.

Relationships between schools and their local communities should be developed to offer greater depth and reciprocal benefits. These relationships should be built around real connections with parents, local cultural groups, the local council, and the local business community. Schools have the potential to become a central point of connection with the community, and one that can help to better cement its social fabric.

All schools, including those serving largely monocultural student populations, should also provide opportunities for their students to engage with other cultures and perspectives beyond the immediate school community as preparation for participation in a culturally diverse society.


ABS (2007) 2006 Census of Population and Housing: Media Releases and Fact Sheets, Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Banks, J.A. (2006) Race, culture and education; the selected works of James A. Banks, London, NY: Routledge.

Burridge, N. and Chodkiewicz, A. (2008) Representations of cultural diversity in school and community settings, Sydney: University of Technology, Sydney.

Commonwealth of Australia, (2009) Population flows: Immigration aspects 2007–08, Migration and Visa Policy Division, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, www.immi.gov.au, accessed 20/07/09.

Jakubowicz , A. (2006) Anglo-multiculturalism: contradictions in the politics of cultural diversity as risk [online], International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, 2, 3.

Leeman, Y. & Reid, C. (2006) Multi/intercultural education in Australia and the Netherlands, Compare: A Journal of Comparative Education, 36, 1, 57–72.

Mansouri, F. & Kamp, A. (2007) Structural deficiency or cultural racism: the educational and social experiences of Arab-Australian youth, Australian Journal of Social Issues, 42, 1, 87–102.

Mansouri, F. & Percival Wood, S. (2007) The policy of values and the value of policy: managing cultural diversity in Australian schools, Education and Society, 25, 2, 51–72.  

Santoro, N. (2009) Teaching in culturally diverse contexts: What knowledge about 'self' and 'others' do teachers need?, Journal of Education for Teaching: International Research and Pedagogy, 35, 1, 33–45.


Subject Headings

Multicultural education
Ethnic groups
New South Wales (NSW)