Wayne Sawyer is Emeritus Professor at Western Sydney University where he remains an active researcher. He began working with the MeE Framework with the Motivation and Engagement of Boys project in 2004 and continued this work in Engaging Middle Years Boys in Rural Educational Settings, Teachers for a Fair Go and Schooling for a Fair Go. As with other researchers on the program, he has published widely on this work, and presented findings through national and international presentations. In this introduction, Wayne outlines the scope and structure of the edition and goes to the significance of the individual projects for teachers and students and the overall program for NSW public education.
The Special Edition
This issue of the Journal of Professional Learning is a Special Edition focused on the work of the Fair Go (FG) research program at Western Sydney University. The Fair Go research program is focused on pedagogy and engagement in low-SES schools through working with teachers on incorporating collaborative action research into their own practice. Fundamental to all of the research projects in which the overall Fair Go program has been involved are the principles or contexts of:
• pedagogy and engagement
• low-SES school communities
• practitioner action research
We believe that the profession is enriched when teachers see themselves as generating, as well as delivering, knowledge as researchers, and to this end, we see the taking on of a ‘researchly disposition’ (Lingard & Renshaw, 2010) by teachers as fundamental to the work of the program.
Fair Go reaches its 21st birthday in 2021 and this Special Edition is helping to mark that milestone. The history of the overall program through its various specific projects is told in the article by Katina Zammit.
Many schools in Western Sydney and rural NSW have worked with the Fair Go program. Apart from the NSW Teachers Federation, numerous professional and academic organisations in Australia and overseas have cited Fair Go as an exemplary student engagement initiative for low-SES schools, including: Learning Difficulties Australia, Education Services Australia, Australian Council of TESOL Associations, Primary English Teaching Association Australia, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and University of Toronto’s Centre for Leadership & Diversity. Fair Go has informed government policy around improving schooling outcomes in varied ways, such as being used as an exemplar program by, for example, the Departments of Education in NSW and Victoria, and in the evaluation of the Bridges to Higher Education program.
In 2011 the NSW Department of Education (The Department) reported Fair Go as ‘informing the system, school leaders and other teachers about different ways to encourage and support teachers to improve their classroom practices and student engagement’, and subsequently used FG in professional development material for hundreds of teachers. The Department’s paper on ‘Research underpinning the reforms’ in reference to the Commonwealth/States National Partnership on ‘Low SES School Communities’ traced a series of Fair Go projects since 2002, referencing its model of engagement as
showing ‘clear signs that (the relevant) changes to classroom teaching practices encouraged greater and extended interest in learning’. Fair Go was again featured in a cross-sectoral paper on the research base for the Low-SES National Partnership’s 2014 impact evaluation. This testifies to the program’s impact on the thinking of education authorities at high levels in Australia.
The Fair Go program developed in its early years an engagement framework through which to research pedagogy and engagement, and to this was later added an arm devoted to motivation (thanks to a collaboration with Professor Andrew Martin, now of UNSW). The Motivation and Engagement (MeE) Framework is discussed in the article by Geoff Munns in this edition and is referred to by the authors of the other articles.
Authors of the articles in the Special Edition have each been involved with the program in some way over these 21 years, either as academics, as postgraduate students focusing on Fair Go work in the relevant schools, as Principals in Fair Go schools, or, particularly, as teachers in individual Fair Go research projects such as School is For Me, Teachers for a Fair Go, Fair Go from the Get Go and Schooling for a Fair Go. Introductions to each article point to the background of the author and particular projects out of which the article arose. Of course, a number of other teachers and Principals have also been involved in a number of the projects listed in Katina’s history. In all, teachers in almost 90 schools in Western Sydney and rural NSW have taken part in various projects within the Fair Go research program.
Fair Go has always had a connection with the NSW Teachers Federation. Current Federation Officers have been researchers on individual projects. In 2014, the Federation co-hosted the Equity! Now More Than Ever conference in which teachers in the Schooling for a Fair Go project reported on their work and the JPL has published a number of articles in previous editions coming out of Fair Go projects. Thus, we would like to acknowledge the union for its strong support of this Special Edition, as well as for more general support of Fair Go over the past 21 years.
Lingard, B., & Renshaw, P. (2010). Teaching as a research-informed and research-informing profession. In A. Campbell & S. Groundwater-Smith (Eds.), Connecting inquiry and professional learning in education: international perspectives and practical solutions (pp. 26-39). Routledge.
Pasi Sahlberg delves into a discussion of Australia’s place in the world of education, and examines why Australia is somewhat of an outlier in that world . . .
Wolves live in extended families called packs. That helps wolves to defend their territories and ensure the protection of, and food for, the young. Cooperation is why wolves survive in harsh conditions in wilderness.
Sometimes a wolf leaves the pack and becomes a lone wolf. A lone wolf is often stronger than the others in the pack. In the wolf kingdom a lone wolf can also be a curious young adult that wants to explore new territories rather than follow the others. Sometimes it is a rebel that doesn’t get along with the rest.
In this article I wonder whether Australia has become an educational lone wolf. While Australia formally belongs to international organisations such as OECD, UNESCO, and World Economic Forum, and takes part in their education programmes, Australia is becoming an outlier in terms of the directions its education systems are heading now. A couple of decades ago the Australian education system was a role model for many others, not so much anymore. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Leading an education system is not easy. Since no one seems to have an answer to all the questions to which education ministers and their servants are expected to respond, closer professional cooperation and exchange of ideas between governments have become the new normal in global educational leadership. Collective search for solutions to education systems’ problems does not always succeed, but it can help to avoid adopting some bad ideas that sometimes only make things worse.
International experts have voiced their concerns that Australia might be on the wrong course if it aims to offer world class education to all children in the future. Already a decade ago Michael Fullan advised Australians by saying there is no way that ambitious and admirable nationwide goals, set out in the Melbourne Declaration, will be met with the strategies being used then. “No successful system in the world has ever led with these drivers”, Fullan (2011, 7) wrote. Last year he told Australian education leaders that a decade may have been lost due to the inability to choose the right drivers in education reforms. In September, speaking to a group of school leaders, OECD’s education director Andreas Schleicher warned Australia of the perils of the wrong way, saying we may end up training our youth to become second class robots instead of educating them to be first class humans. Both of these global authorities have deep personal understanding of Australian education.
During the last decade Australian education has had a trend of declining performance, similar to what most other OECD countries have experienced. For example, according to the latest international data, one fifth of Australian 15-year-olds miss adequate literacy skills targets needed in life (OECD, 2019). That figure reaches almost half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia (ACER, 2019). Trends are similar in mathematical and scientific literacy as well. Regardless of frequent reforms and steadily increased total expenditure on education, learning outcomes remain stagnant or decline.
We can change the course but not with the same logic that has caused this inconvenient situation. This would be easier through policy learning in closer collaboration with other education nations.
Living without a pack
Recent educational literature and research describes, in detail, various aspects of the state of Australian education today (Bonnor et al., 2021; Burns and McIntyre, 2017; Netolicky et al. 2019; Reid, 2020). Contemporary issues and challenges in professional publications are clear and commonly accepted among education practitioners, experts, and academics. These issues and challenges include, but are not limited to, school funding, systemic educational inequalities, and an inadequate initial teacher education system. It is good to keep in mind that we are not alone with these challenges; many other countries are trying to solve these same problems, too.
The problem is not that we wouldn’t know enough about what is behind the declining educational performance in Australia during the past two decades. There is no shortage of reviews, evaluations, declarations, and commission reports about the education system and how it is not working the way it should. The problem is that we are not good at turning these findings and recommendations into new practices that would eventually make education better.
The real issue is that during the past decade Australia has become a passive member in an increasingly vibrant international community of education system leaders. One such global platform is the International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP) that was launched in 2011 by the OECD and Education International (EI) as a response to emerging problems such as teacher shortages, initial teacher education, and professionalism in the teaching profession (Edwards and Schleicher, 2021). ISTP is a high-level invitation-only policy forum for the world’s best-performing education systems. Delegates, that must include a nation’s education minister and the head of national teacher association (i.e., Australian Education Union), take two days to explore current issues in the teaching profession and discuss solutions to current issues and challenges, such as teacher shortages and initial teacher education.
Australia has been invited to attend these summits since the beginning. Every time, it has declined to attend. A decade of valuable opportunities to learn from others and build professional and political relationships has been wasted. In absence of these professional and policy dialogues, the perspective to the challenges we try to work out becomes narrower. At the same time, Australian schools and educators would have a lot to offer to their peers in other countries. It seems like we are a lone wolf in global education.
How are Australian schools different?
In many ways Australian schools are like schools anywhere in the OECD. In most education statistics (whether is about class sizes, curricula, or how much is spent on education) Australia is like most others (OECD, 2022). There are, however, some aspects where schools here are very different from most others. These are all issues that beg the question: What do these differences mean in practice?
Here is a brief description of three things that make Australian school system an outlier among the OECD community.
1. Total number of compulsory instruction hours for children during primary and lower secondary education
Around the world, children start primary education typically when they are six years old. They then continue schooling in lower secondary and upper secondary schools. Overseas, the total length of school education is about 12 years, in Australia it is 13 years. The school year includes normally 36 to 40 weeks (or 180 to 200 schooldays). Comparing compulsory instruction hours, that students in different countries are required to attend during primary and lower secondary education, reveals the whole picture See Figure 1.
Figure 1. Compulsory instruction time in general education in hours in public primary and lower secondary schools
Source: OECD (2021)
According to Figure 1, primary and lower secondary education in OECD countries, lasts on average, 7,638 instruction hours during 9 years of schooling. In Finland, for example, that time is 6,384 over 9 years of schooling. Australian students have a total of 11 years of primary and lower secondary education that equals to 11,060 instruction hours (OECD, 2021). That is more than in any other OECD country. Schooldays in primary education in other OECD countries are often significantly shorter compared to Australia. Again, children spend more time in primary school in Australia than their peers in Finland, Estonia, or South Korea spend in primary and lower secondary education combined.
What does that mean in practice? Some might expect that because Australian students spend so much more time in school by the age of 15, their academic outcomes in OECD’s PISA or other international assessments must be much better than students in Korea, Estonia, or Finland. But that is not so. There is no correlation between students’ instruction time and academic performance in school.
2. Distribution of public and private expenditure on primary and secondary schools
Education is not cheap. Governments in OECD countries allocate 10 to 15 per cent of their national budgets to education. There are different ways to compare how much – or little – countries around the world spend on educating their youth. One common indicator is total expenditure on primary, secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary institutions as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). Total spending in OECD countries on primary, secondary, and post-secondary non-tertiary education institutions, on average, is 3.5 per cent of GDP as Figure 2 shows.
Figure 2. Total expenditure on educational institutions as a percentage of GDP by source of funds
Source: OECD (2021)
Education is quite expensive in Australia, too. Total spending on school education in Australia according to Figure 2, is about 4 per cent of GDP that is significantly more than the average spending in OECD countries. What makes Australia different in this club of world’s wealthiest nations is the share of funding that parents pay for their children’s education. At primary and secondary education, private spending from parents’ pockets accounts for 0.3% of GDP across OECD countries. In Australia it amounts to at least 0.7% of GDP that is one of the largest relative shares of private funding of primary and secondary education among all OECD countries.
In other words, private spending accounts for 10% of expenditure at primary and secondary education on average across OECD countries, but it reaches 20% in Australia (OECD, 2020).
Australia is also an outlier in terms of the relatively high proportion of students, in primary and secondary education, who attend non-government schools. Now, that figure is about 35 per cent, being higher among secondary school-aged students especially in urban areas where there is more choice (ABS, 2022). What it means to have public education has become a different question in Australia compared to many other rich countries.
3. Proportion of disadvantaged children attending schools where the majority of students are disadvantaged
Parents’ right to choose the suitable school for their children has been part of the global education reform movement since the 1990s (Sahlberg, 2016). This has served well some parents and their children but has led to growing segregation of schools by the socio-economic conditions of students. Market mechanisms don’t always work in education as expected. Absence of intelligent regulation of education markets have led many countries to see increasing number of disadvantaged students attending schools where most students are disadvantaged like them. Figure 3 illustrates what the situation was in 2018.
Figure 3. Proportion of disadvantaged students attending schools where the majority of students are disadvantaged in OECD countries
Source: OECD (2018)
There are only four other OECD countries where larger proportion of disadvantaged students are studying in schools where the majority of students are disadvantaged. In Australia, based on OECD data shown in Figure 3, that figure is 52 per cent. This is a consequence of education policies in Australia during the last two decades that have treated education as a marketplace where parental choice determines supply and demand of schooling. OECD’s (2018) analysis has revealed that when a disadvantaged student attends a school where the majority of students are not disadvantaged, by the age of 15 that student will be, educationally speaking, approximately 2.5 years ahead of students who attend schools where the majority of students are disadvantaged.
Being a lone wolf may be good if the rest of the pack is heading in the wrong direction. But, if you are alone surrounded by challenges and have lost a way to go, being without a pack may become difficult. Navigating in the wilderness alone can be difficult and risky. Solving wicked problems with others often leads to better solutions.
In 2022, Australia has a new federal government and many of its jurisdictions are electing new parliaments soon. One good decision the ministers and their education system leaders could make is to return to international education policy dialogues. There are many good opportunities to learn how other countries deal with the teacher shortages or modernise initial teacher education to better meet the needs of future schools, for example.
Every year, since 2011, the OECD and Education International have organised the International Summit on the Teaching Profession with the world’s top-performing education systems. Here education ministers and education leaders from the top 20 education nations explore current issues and innovation in the teaching profession. Collaboration between ministers and teachers’ unions as well as genuine policy learning between the nations are the key principles of these summits. Minister Jason Clare could attend in the 2023 summit that will be hosted by the Biden administration in Washington DC. This is perhaps the best next opportunity to learn what could be improved in the current federal government’s action plan and in teacher policies across the country. All ‘education nations’ are there, why wouldn’t we be?
Fullan, M. (2011). Choosing wrong drivers for whole system reform (Seminar series 204). Melbourne, Australia: Centre for Strategic Education.
Netolicky, D., Andrews, J., and Paterson, C. (Eds.) (2019). Flip the system Australia – What matters in education. London: Routledge.
OECD (2018). Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility. Paris: OECD Publishing.
OECD (2019). PISA 2018 Results (Volume I): What Students Know and Can Do. Paris:OECD Publishing.
OECD (2021). Education at a glance. Education indicators. Paris:OECD Publishing.
OECD (2022). Education at a glance. Education indicators. Paris:OECD Publishing.
Reid, A. (2020). Changing Australian Education: How policy is taking us backwards and what can be done about it. London: Routledge.
Sahlberg, P. (2016). Global Educational Reform Movement and its impact on teaching. In Mundy, K., Green, A., Lingard, R., and Verger, A. (Eds.) The Handbook of Global Policy and Policymaking in Education. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 128-144.
Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator, former schoolteacher, and award-winning author who has lifelong career in education. His books and essays about education are translated into 30 languages and read around the world.
Pasi is recipient of several honours and awards for his work for education as human right, including 2012 Education Award in Finland, 2014 Robert Owen Award in Scotland, 2016 Lego Prize in Denmark, and 2021 Dr Paul Brock memorial Medal in NSW.
His research interests include education policy and reform, equity in education, international education issues, and school improvement. He is Professor of Education at the Southern Cross University in Lismore, visiting professor at the UNSW Business School, and Adjunct Professor at the Universities of Helsinki and Oulu in Finland. Pasi lives in Lennox Head with his wife and two sons.
Mercurius Goldstein offers some reflections on why our students have become activists for the fight against climate change. He explains why teachers must ensure that our curriculum always includes discussions into such issues which directly affect the future of our students. . .
Here be activists
Conservative and reactionary political forces maintain, as an article of faith, that teachers, and public school teachers in particular, are subversive agents ever ready to imbue activism and revolutionary spirit among “impressionable” young minds. This is a frequently-pushed panic button for right-wing culture warriors, accompanied by broad-scale accusations of ‘indoctrination’, ‘brainwashing’ and, in recent years, the perverse and sinister charge of ‘grooming’.
A comprehensive corpus analysis of over 65,000 print media articles on education published between 1996-2020 provides a compelling survey of Australia’s unofficial national sport of ‘teacher-bashing’(Mockler, 2022), and is available from the Federation Library.
But what most media, and politically-driven portrayals of education, tend to ignore or downplay is the mere, but crucial, fact that teaching is a profession and that teachers are professionals charged with the delivery of a government-approved curriculum and its accompanying syllabuses, (which are in turn devised by qualified experts and authorities with specialist understanding grounded in an epistemology of realism). Such truths are not to be found in the rhetorical projections and shibboleths of the reactionary right.
If anything, the state institutional framework that resources and maintains public education (with greater degrees of care or neglect as governmental policies come and go, and defended most strongly by teacher unions) is the great counterweight to the panicked fantasies of conservative forces. For the countervailing charge has been made for decades among academia that education is not institutionally oriented to be a social-critical endeavour, and that the broad project of education affirms and maintains much if not all of the status quo (Zeigler, 1970; Connell, Ashenden, Kessler & Dowsett, 1982). From this we face a giant j’accuse that even as the project of public education aims for broader equality and fairness among the population, it offers no systemic critique of imperialist, colonialist, classist, racist, sexist, nor nationalist foundations of modern society.
Media and political portrayals also tend to overlook the sustained experience across many decades that teachers as a group evidence only slight variation in political voting patterns compared with the broader Australian electorate, and that a steady one-third or so of the profession tend to vote with conservative parties in state and federal elections – and overwhelmingly so when one includes the centre-right and what passes for the centre-left in Australia.
A recent key finding, from arch-conservative US think-tank the Heritage Foundation, is that a plurality of teachers would be categorised as political ‘moderates’, and that “[t]he average teacher response was consistently more moderate than that of the average liberal in the nationally representative sample. We find little evidence that a large percentage of teachers are systemically imposing a radical political agenda in K–12 classrooms” (Greene & Paul, 2021). Relatedly, a UK study of the longer-term political effects of schooling concluded that as an individual student spent more years in late high school, this correlated to a significantly higher likelihood that they would vote for the Conservative party later in life (Marshall, 2016).
Even so, there is a kind of poetic justice to conclude that the right may yet be half-right after all. For there remain still activists and subversives to be found in many classrooms – located among the young people sitting at their desks – also known as students.
There be unionists
In a recent Eric Pearson study grant report The #ClimateStrike movement and the future of unionism, I had the opportunity to research the key experiences and learnings of student activists in the #Climatestrike movement, their notions of collective action, participation, and organisation to achieve their goals. I also looked at the strategies through which the union movement, in general, and education unions, in particular, might remain visible, viable and prominent in the cause of climate justice for a stable and viable future for working people and the cause of public education (Goldstein, 2021, pp.10-11).
My research on this topic found that among young people engaged in climate activism there is a convergence of experiences with earlier protest movements – a commitment to collectivism over individualism, and a capacity for intergenerational partnership, within an emerging mass movement largely comprised of, and led by, women (ibid. pp.42-45).
In 2018, global media attention was drawn to Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish student activist protesting on the steps of her country’s parliament house with her Skolstrejk för klimatet sign when she was supposed to be in school. It is worth noting, however, that the student-led climate activist movement began to form as early as 2006, in our very own country, with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition developing school-based action templates among and between student activists (www.aycc.org.au). This cue was in turn picked up in the USA by the Rethinking Schools student movement who launched their own climate activist school-based organising kit in Portland, Oregon in 2016 (Goldstein, 2021, pp.17,39).
Focussing as it did on the implications of the emerging #Climatestrike events for the broader union movement, the report posed the question “whether our movement has a future without #ClimateStrike activists choosing to join our ranks as they begin their working lives over the years to come”. The report concluded that “[w]hen young people can experience the union movement as being tangibly linked to their future wellbeing and pursuit of a safe, stable global climate, they have a vector through which they can perceive purpose and relevance to joining and becoming active members of their union…” (Goldstein., 2021, pp.20,52).
Where be teachers?
But the #ClimateStrike report also offers a professional challenge to classroom practitioners and non-school based teachers 0alike: how should we properly and ethically undertake our professional duties in the context of a student population whose literal future survivability is at stake? For the world heads for global average temperatures in their lifetime most likely to exceed the 1.5°C above pre-industrial averages, and well into a perilous global range of 2°C+ by 2100 according to accepted international climate projections (IPCC, 2022).
My suggestion is that teachers as always should return to our curriculum and syllabus documents for guidance on how best to proceed. In doing so, we should remain mindful that curriculum is an ever-contested space that itself is subject to attempts at political interference which it is our collective professional duty to guard against.
On 24 December 2021, the then federal Education Minister Stuart Robert vetoed an Australian Research Council (ARC) recommendation for academic study into the very topic of my own report – climate activism amongst students (Hurst, 2021). A private member’s bill in the Senate (Faruqi, 2018) to amend the Act to remove ministerial veto of ARC grants was referred to a Senate Inquiry which reported on March 2022 and recommended that the Act not be so amended but called for an independent review of the ARC including its governance and research funding processes (EELC, 2022). As of July 2022, those powers still remain in the Australian Research Council Act of 2001.
Supporters of academic freedom and enquiry in education would be well advised to remain vigilant on government intervention in research grants and urge for repeal/replacement of ministerial “discretion” which amounts to political interference in the academic grants process.
All that said, it is…
“…hardly a new phenomenon whereby politicians have attempted to suppress topics of great importance to future generations by denying their teaching in schools. Across the decades whether the topic is evolution, civil rights, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education, health education including sexuality, contraception, drugs, and communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, one rarely has to look far for a politician insisting that such matters are not to be brought to the attention of students…
…It is sadly all too easy to imagine a world in which children are denied education about their own physical and psychosocial development, their gender, cultural needs, health needs, and the health of the planet. What greater threat to children’s freedom could be the denial of knowledge on such critical matters to their future?
(Education Quarterly, Issue 1, 2022, pp.26, 27)
Thus, I argue that it falls to educators – teachers and principals – to ensure that the curriculum remains an edifice which promotes understanding, engagement, and enlightened criticism on matters of great consequence for children’s life trajectories, the whole of society, and for the ecosphere of which we are all part (ibid. p.27).
For these reasons, I urge specialists in all Key Learning Areas to scrutinise our respective syllabuses, to perceive the ways and means in which our pedagogical content knowledge (Gudmundsdottir & Shulman, 1987) relates to the climate activist projects that students themselves have undertaken on their own initiative.
For whether the realm is scientific, mathematical, geographical, historical, sociological, whether in literature, artistic, agricultural, industrial, health, and even sporting pursuits, there is much to be learned and taught from our current syllabuses to equip students with the knowledge they need to pursue a safe, stable global climate.
In doing so, teachers are supported by the cross-curriculum priority area of Sustainability embedded in the Australian Curriculum, which includes statements that cover the applicability of environmental content for every learning area (ACARA, 2022).
And for the many teachers whose educational careers and aspirations include dipping our professional toes into the pond of curriculum consultation and development for future syllabuses, there is considerable scope for ensuring the needs of the global biosphere and its concomitant role in sustaining our students, whose very lives and futures depend upon it, are given due priority.
The extent of economic and societal reorganisation that might be required to achieve all this remains where it has always been – in the hands of the rising generation. But their capacity to do so depends crucially on the readiness and willingness of those charged with their education to teach them that which will make it possible for them to assess their world and society, and to undertake such repairs as they find necessary.
The status quo is one that delivers our students a distinct prospect of environmental, and thus societal, collapse in their lifetime. Against that prospect, we must conclude that some enlightened subversion is warranted after all.
IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A. Al Khourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. doi: 10.1017/9781009157926
Marshall, J. (2016) Education and Voting Conservative: Evidence from a Major Schooling Reform in Great Britain. The Journal of Politics, 78(2), 382-395.
Mockler, N. (2022). Constructing Teacher Identities: How the Print Media Define and Represent Teachers and Their Work. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Mercurius Goldstein holds a Master of Education (Research) and Bachelor of Education (Hons I) from The University of Sydney, and a Diploma of Government from TAFE NSW. Mercurius is a high school teacher of languages (Japanese, Korean) and EAL/D who commenced teaching in 2007. Mercurius undertook a variety of roles in the Glen Innes Teachers Association between 2011-2018 including President, Secretary, Councillor, and Fed Rep at Glen Innes High School. Mercurius was elected a Country Organiser for NSW Teachers Federation in 2019 and has since worked in the Dubbo, Tamworth, and Newcastle regions.
Mercurius is author of the 2020 Eric Pearson Report entitled ‘Whose world? Our world! The #ClimateStrike movement and the future of unionism’.
Maurie Mulheron gives us all an insight into the effects that Local Schools, Local Decisions has had on education in NSW. . .
In a choreographed media conference outside a public high school in western Sydney on Sunday 11 March 2012, the NSW Government announced Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) with the Premier and Minister for Education flanked by representatives of two principal groups. It was a plan purporting to ‘empower’ schools. But the evidence is that a far more sinister ulterior purpose, which had been some years in the planning, was driving the policy.
The issue of ‘school autonomy’ is hardly new. It has been an article of faith for many conservative politicians and some economists around the world since the 1970s. It has its origins in a neo-liberal economic theory that public provision is wasteful and ineffective, government expenditure should be reduced, taxation should be lowered and that the more competitive the environment in which government services operate the more efficient they will become. It is a theory that is applied to all aspects of public sector management. ‘School autonomy’ is not an idea relating to teaching and learning that was developed by teachers or education theorists. Its origins and purpose are based in economics and finance.
This is why two international management consultant and accountancy corporations were engaged by the NSW Treasury between October 2009 and January 2010 to conduct a detailed financial audit of the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET), the first NSW government agency to submit to the process. In time this would provide Treasury with the economic rationale for LSLD.
The overarching work was undertaken by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) which was contracted “…to undertake a scan of DET expenditure and to develop a methodology that will allow Treasury to undertake future scans of other agencies.” Its purpose was to achieve significant financial savings. The January 2010 BCG document was called Expenditure Review of the Department of Education and Training (DET) – Initial Scan.i
The second corporation engaged at the time to undertake complementary work was Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC). Its December 2009 report, DET School-based employee related costs review – Interim Report was also prepared for the NSW Cabinet. While the BCG scan dealt with all the operations of the Department, the PWC report dealt specifically with staffing costs. As stated in its objectives, the report was to “…review areas of expenditure relating to DET’s School-based employees where there is scope for change and recommend actions to reduce DET’s expenditure in these areas.”ii
SECRET CABINET DOCUMENTS LEAKED
Both of these Cabinet-in-Confidence documents were never meant to be seen by the community or the teaching profession. However, in the lead-up to the March 2011 state election they came into the possession of the NSW Teachers Federation which, in response, reiterated the union’s concerns that ‘school autonomy’ models had seriously weakened public provision of education. The evidence for this had been mounting overseas for many years. In Australia, during the 1990s the Victorian Liberal Government instigated a dramatic experiment in devolution through the passing of the Education (Self-Governing Schools) Act (1998). It was later repealed by an incoming Labor Government but not before it had seen Victoria’s performance on governments’ benchmarks for achievement, the international PISA testing program, fall below the Australian average in all tested areas – reading, mathematics, and science.iii
In the week leading up to the 2011 NSW state election, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) revealed the intent of the secret BCG and PWC reports.iv “The shock comes not so much from the report’s far-reaching findings – which cut deep – but in the way it has been kept secret for so long. The deception used to get hard-working principals and teachers to, in effect, do the dirty work, will strike them as a betrayal.”v
And the betrayal was clearly articulated in the BCG report, “We have identified some quick wins, but have focused mostly on identifying the major opportunities to drive significant savings over time.”
To achieve this the BCG, throughout the review, argued the merits of the devolved school autonomy model of Victoria and, indeed, used Victoria as the benchmark. It noted that “NSW appears to have approximately 9000 more ‘in-school’ staff than Victoria”, also arguing that “NSW appears to have 13% more school related staff than Victoria”, and that “NSW appears to have 12% more non-teaching staff than Victoria.” The review goes on to argue that once the model of devolution similar to Victoria is adopted, “DET should aim to capture as much of this gap [in staffing levels] as possible.”vi
In essence, the BCG review argued that cost cutting through devolution could provide, “opportunities … worth $500-$700 million in recurrent costs and $800-$1000 million in one-off benefits.” The BCG review even advised how the devolved model could be sold to the public, “Possible to position these initiatives as part of a broader school regeneration or schools for the future program.”vii
What was becoming clear was that the NSW Treasury was determined to reduce the number of employees across the NSW public education system, and this was the focus of the second scan undertaken by PWC. The strategy was to ensure principals delivered the savings. Indeed, one section was labelled, “Empower Principals to act” where the report states, “We believe that increasing Principal accountability for managing School-based costs should be focused on driving a positive financial impact in the short to medium term while also maintaining educational outcomes.”viii
REPORTS REJECTED THEN DUSTED OFF
These two reports could easily be dismissed, as they were provided to the NSW Cabinet in the final months of the Labor administration, with an impending March 2011 state election. It should be noted that the extreme nature of the reports’ recommendations led the then Labor Education Minister to shelve both of them. However, they cannot be so easily ignored as both reports by these two corporations were to inform, and were referenced in, the incoming NSW Coalition Government’s Commission of Audits, one released as an Interim Report into Public Sector Managementix in late January 2012 and the Final Report: Government Expenditurex published in May 2012. Indeed, in the latter paper, there are 64 references to the benefits of devolution as a means of achieving efficiencies across the whole of government.
The NSW Commission of Audit Final Report of May 2012 stated,
“For many years financial management in NSW has been confusing, lacking in transparency and below the standards expected of efficient and effective government. This situation is not sustainable.”
The answer, it argued, is that,
“The devolution of authority and accountability, specifically in the areas of education and health, means expenditure (and power) must move from the centre to more local units.”
“The Commission is generally of the view that devolution should not increase expenditure in aggregate though capabilities and systems will need attention at the start. Expenditure in local units should however increase and be offset by reductions at the centre. These are exciting reforms that offer a new era for TAFE, more power and responsibility to school principals, and more community and clinician input and responsibility within Health.”xi
THE 47 SCHOOL TRIAL
Running parallel to the work that BCG and PWC was undertaking from October 2009 until January 2010, was a devolution trial involving 47 schools called the School-Based Management Pilot which was to test some of the key BCG and PWC concepts, notably as to whether local decision-making could produce savings similar to those captured in Victorian schools. This trial, which also began in late 2009, had originally been planned to end in 2010, but continued through to late 2011. Just a few weeks later in January 2012, the Final Report of the Evaluation of the School-Based Management Pilot was released.xii
Even though the justification for the 47 schools trial model was that it would bring about a lift in student achievement, in the final report evaluating the trial the entire section on student results was a mere 85 words in length in a document that ran to 92 pages. However, this should not have been of any surprise as there was no baseline academic data collected at the beginning of the trial, nor any other key data such as that regarding student suspensions, behaviour referrals, attendance, staff turnover. In fact, the only data collected by the NSW Department of Education related to student enrolments, data that is collected from every school annually. This revealed that, for the duration of the trial, 21 of the 47 schools lost enrolments. But this data was excluded from the final report. Instead, the evaluation based its positive findings on scant empirical evidence relying on anecdotal and subjective observations which included supposed comments of four different principals who all uttered almost identical phrases: “This has created a positive buzz in the school”; “[There’s] a buzz about the school in the town”; “Another principal reports ‘a buzz around the school in the community’”; “and there is a buzz about the school in town.” Four different principals all commenting on a perceived “buzz”. However, this woefully inadequate evaluation did not prevent the new Coalition Education Minister mentioning the trial’s “success” as a key justification for the introduction of LSLD.
The true purpose of the 47 schools trial was made clear in the earlier BCG report which revealed that the quarantined devolution model had led to savings of $15-25 million.xiii Later in the BCG report it was argued, “To capture savings from devolution requires more than the current rollout of the current [47 schools] trial. Current trial involves additional costs that will need to be phased out (e.g., to cover higher than average staff costs in some schools) and does not yet address staffing implications at the State and Regional Office.”xiv The “additional costs” were the significant additional funding each of the 47 schools received from the Department, in effect a temporary financial sweetener that would ensure a positive evaluation. It was only the BCG report that exposed that there was no intention to maintain this level of funding support beyond the trial. Towards the end of the BCG report the strategic thinking behind the trial was exposed: “[Must] test and measure impact and risk of devolved model(s) to prove concept. Assess risks and put in place any mitigation strategies to manage them.”xv
When LSLD was announced in March 2012, it was marketed as an education policy. This was the first of many falsehoods promulgated by the Government. There was no mention of the Boston Consulting Group report of 2010; no mention of the Price Waterhouse Coopers report; and no mention of the NSW Commission of Audit Reports of 2012 either. Nor did the Government ever reveal the real purpose of the 47 schools trial.
In fact, it was not the Minister for Education who was first to announce the LSLD policy. Instead, it was the NSW Treasurer who, in September 2011 when delivering his first budget, revealed “[The] Government plans to reform government schools by giving them more authority to make local decisions that better meet the needs of their students and communities.” This announcement could be found in the budget papers under the section “Delivering on structural fiscal and economic reform.”xvi
In reality, LSLD was always going to be about expenditure and the efficiency savings that could be secured, “There is considerable scope in NSW to reallocate expenditure in education and training to improve outcomes, through greater devolution of resource allocation decisions to principals and TAFE Institute Directors. This can occur within existing expenditure budgets.”xvii It is worth noting that the findings of the BCG report regarding the savings that could be accrued through devolution were referenced in the 2012 NSW Commission of Audit report.
So, what did the NSW Commission of Audit’s recommended ‘reductions at the centre’, a critical feature of Local Schools, Local Decisions, mean in practice? It is important to revisit the NSW Treasury’s demand on the Department of Education at the time.
Savings measures had to be identified by the Department in the 2011-2012 NSW budget to cover the four-year budget period up to 2015-2016. These measures were implemented as “general expenses in the education and communities portfolio have still outstripped the growth in government revenue”.xviii
The Department needed to find $201 million in savings from the 2012-2013 budget and $1.7 billion over the four year forward estimates period. The measures also included the 2.5 per cent labour expense cap, as detailed in the NSW Public Sector Wages Policy which had been reinforced by changes to the NSW Industrial Relations Act.
The savings demanded of the Department were introduced at the same time that Local Schools, Local Decisions was rolled out. In reality the ‘reductions at the centre’ resulted in a significant and unprecedented loss of positions from the Department, both public servant and non-school based teaching positions. And this, not a lift in student outcomes, was the primary objective of Local Schools, Local Decisions.
Ken Dixon, the general manager of finance and administration within the NSW Department of Education at the time, later described the policy to give principals more autonomy over school budgets as being driven by cost savings. In public comments he argued, “The Local Schools, Local Decisions policy is just a formula to pull funding from schools over time.” Mr Dixon, in a key senior Departmental position at the time the policy of Local Schools, Local Decisions was being developed, also revealed that the loss of at least 1600 jobs in the Department was factored into the business case. xix
The ‘reductions at the centre’ included the loss of hundreds of non-school based teachers and support staff from programs throughout NSW including from curriculum support, professional development, staffing, drug and alcohol education, student welfare, student behaviour, community liaison, staff welfare, the equity unit, rural education, assessment and reporting, special education, and multicultural education. In essence, the capacity for the Department to initiate and fund system-wide support for teachers was decimated. To this day, the Department of Education has not been able to rebuild any significant systemic support.
6 MONTHS ON: THE CUTS ARE CONFIRMED
From the day that LSLD had been announced, the NSW Teachers Federation had opposed it, providing the evidence to members and the public that had been revealed to the union in the leaked BCG and PWC reports. An intense state-wide campaign was instigated. The union had been researching ‘school autonomy’ from at least 1988, prompted by the Metherell crisis. It had also studied closely the impact of devolution in other jurisdictions including Victoria, New Zealand and the UK. And there had been more recent experiences of ‘school autonomy’ policies that had been imposed in NSW.
Just a few years earlier in 2008, the Federation had been involved in a bitter and protracted industrial dispute with the NSW government over staffing including the loss of service transfer rights for teachers. The concern was the dramatic negative consequences for difficult to staff schools in outer metropolitan and rural areas. In a fax sent to all schools by the Federation at the time in the lead up to a 24-hour strike, the union showed remarkable prescience in sounding a warning that, “[The Government’s procedures will] establish the preconditions for the full deregulation agenda as in Victoria. Federation is in no doubt that if the NSW government succeeds in destroying the state-wide teacher transfer system that the next step is to introduce devolved staffing budgets to schools which include teacher and non-teacher salaries.”xx Just four years later this was now a fundamental element of the LSLD model.
It was also in the area of special education that the NSW government had instigated a devolved funding model which had been trialled in the Illawarra in 2011 and implemented across the state in 2012. This new method of allocating funding had been foreshadowed in the BCG report which stated that there was potential savings of up to $100 million from the “fast growing special education area”. Once again, comparing NSW to Victoria, the BCG report argued, “Victoria introduced reform initiatives in 2005 which stemmed growth of special education and suggests a broad opportunity exists to streamline NSW special education/equity programs”.xxi The scheme was promoted to the community as Every Student, Every School but it was clear that not every student in every school would receive the support they needed. The reduction in centralised support, for instance, led to funding cuts for thousands of students with autism and mental health concerns who were excluded from the Integration Funding Support program.xxii
It was not until 11 September of 2012, six months after the LSLD announcement, that the intention to dramatically cut funding to the school system and TAFE was finally revealed by the then NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell – a decision he described as “difficult but necessary”. The total amount of education funding to be cut amounted to $1.7 billion, almost the exact figure to the dollar that the BCG and PWC reports had recommended could be achieved through devolving budgets to local principals and TAFE institute managers. Also confirmed in the announcement was the loss of a total of 1800 non-school based teaching and support staff positions from Department offices – from the centre and from regional offices. This was a similar number to the total that Ken Dixon had explained had been factored into the LSLD “business case”.xxiii
For months following the March 2012 public release of the LSLD policy, the Federation had been attacked by the Government which accused the union of lying to the profession about the intention to cut funding. But even though it was now vindicated, the Federation still found the news of the $1.7 billion cuts grim. Earlier, in response to the LSLD announcement, it had called all members out on strike, firstly in May 2012 for a two-hour stoppage, and later in June for a 24-hour strike.
While not preventing the full impact of the cuts to education, the strikes did achieve some important protections, at least for public school teachers. In response to the industrial action, the Department withdrew the plan to provide all schools with an actual staffing budget, making it notional instead. A school’s staffing entitlement, which was to be replaced by an unregulated principal’s choice of the ‘mix and number’ of staff, was also protected.
The Commission of Audit had declared that all staff ratios were to be removed from industrial agreements, citing NSW public school class sizes as the first example. “The Commission of Audit agrees that some workforce management policies and input controls are managerial prerogatives and should not be incorporated into awards…Examples are: teacher to pupil ratios…”xxiv
A public campaign in the lead-up to the strikes led to references to class sizes reconfirmed in subsequent industrial agreements. Finally, the plan to abolish the incremental pay scale was also withdrawn.
GONSKI – A POLITICAL LIFELINE
Following a long campaign led by the Australian Education Union, and strongly supported by the NSW Teachers Federation, a Federal Labor Government announced a comprehensive inquiry into schools funding in April 2010. The inquiry team was chaired by David Gonski whose name would become synonymous with the subsequent report delivered to government in November 2011. But it was not until 20 February 2012 that the report was released publicly. By April the following year, the Federal Government announced a new national $14.5 billion schools funding model. The funding was to be delivered over a six-year transition period from 2014 to 2019 with two-thirds of the funding to be provided in the final two years.
At its heart was the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), effectively the minimum level of funding a school needed to have the vast majority of its students meet national outcomes. In essence, the more complex a school’s student profile, the greater level of funding it would attract, noting in the case of NSW public schools, the additional funding would be provided to the system to distribute on a needs basis.
On 23 April 2013, NSW became the first state to sign a bilateral agreement with the Commonwealth, less than seven months after the announcement of the $1.7 billion cuts at the state level. In reality, the Gonski funding model was seen by the then NSW Education Minister as a political lifeline. The NSW Department of Education was faced with a serious contradiction. On the one hand, it had built a financial model to implement LSLD, but which was designed to de-fund the system in order to deliver $1.7 billion in savings. From 2014, however, there would be additional money provided to schools. But it soon became a case of a wasted opportunity. None of the additional recurrent funding could be used for any significant and much needed whole of system improvement. Improvements such as reduced class sizes, which for junior primary and lower secondary schools had not been reduced in many decades, nor for a reduction in face-to-face loads which also had not improved in decades. Indeed, there was little funding retained by the Department at the centre to rebuild the programs that had been decimated back in 2012. In other words, the government had squandered the opportunity to capitalise on a key advantage of the public education system which is its capacity to achieve massive economies of scale.
In a crude attempt to engender support for LSLD, the Department deliberately attempted to link LSLD with the additional Gonski funding in schools, as though the BCG and PWC audits, the Commission of Audit reports, the Public Sector Wages Policy, and the demand of the NSW government for departments to reduce labour expenses every year had not occurred. This re-writing of the history led to the Department’s Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) developing a survey instrument that linked the two disparate variables — LSLD and additional funding. But neither of these variables, the system wide change to governance and the increase in Commonwealth and State funding, was dependent on the other. So, to conflate them in the first evaluation question where each variable is portrayed as being interdependent was a serious error, offending a basic tenet of research methodology. In response, the Federation raised the fundamental question as to exactly what was being evaluated: a change to the governance model of the public school system announced in March 2012 or the additional funding achieved two years later in 2014 through the National Education Reform Agreement (NERA).
The additional funding had been allocated to individual schools untied, with little guidelines, minimal accountability and almost no programmatic system-wide support. Little wonder that even CESE’s Local Schools, Local Decisions Evaluation – Interim Report stated “…we were unable to determine…what each school’s [Resource Allocation Model] RAM equity loading allocation was spent on.”xxv
Firstly, the devolution model was never designed to make funding information transparent. Indeed, it was designed to do the exact opposite, make funding matters more opaque. This was because the devolution model was expressly designed for twin purposes: deliver savings back to central government and allow governments to shift the responsibility for these savings to local managers. It was only ever intended to give local schools the illusion of control.
Secondly, the model was never designed to distribute and manage significant increases in funding. There now existed no comprehensive systemic and state-wide programmes designed to lift student outcomes across all schools: “In terms of differential change over time, we found no relationship between changes over time in these engagement measures and levels of need, with the notable exception that students in higher-need schools typically showed less positive change over time in levels of social engagement than students in lower-need schools. In other words, the gap in this measure between higher-need and lower-need schools increased over time, rather than decreased.” [Author’s emphasis]xxvi
CRITICAL VOICES IGNORED
Over the years, there has been a tendency for government departments, like the NSW Department of Education, to declare that policies are developed from ‘evidence-based decision-making’. Yet, in the case of Local Schools, Local Decisions, this assertion must be contested. Moreover, it may actually be a case that the declaration of ‘evidence’ is a strategy to shut down debate, noting that very little in education policy, practice and theory exists without competing points of view.
The extreme Local Schools, Local Decisions policy was implemented dishonestly. Its true intentions were hidden from the profession with critical voices and available research ignored. In relation to ‘school autonomy’ models John Smyth believes, “Sometimes an educational idea is inexplicably adopted around the world with remarkable speed and consistency and in the absence of a proper evidence base or with little regard or respect for teachers, students or learning.”xxvii
In his essay, The disaster of the ‘self-managing school’ – genesis, trajectory, undisclosed agenda, and effects, Professor Smyth went on to argue that ‘school autonomy’ in reality is government “…steering at a distance, while increasing control through a range of outcomes-driven performance indicators.”
Further he said, “The argument was that schools would be freed up from the more burdensome aspects of bureaucratic control, and in the process allowed to be more flexible and responsive, with decisions being able to be made closer to the point of learning. Many of these claims have proven to be illusory, fictitious, and laughable to most practising school educators.”
Dr Ken Boston, one of the members of the Review of Funding for Schoolingpanel chaired by David Gonski, expressed frustration at the continuing promotion of devolution, arguing that “. . . school autonomy is an irrelevant distraction. I worked in England for nine years, where every government school . . . has the autonomy of the independent public schools in WA – governing boards that can hire and fire head teachers and staff, determine salaries and promotions, and so on. Yet school performance in England varies enormously from school to school, and from region to region, essentially related to aggregated social advantage in the south of the country and disadvantage in the north.”xxviii
Plank and Smith in their paper, Autonomous Schools: Theory, Evidence and Policy, argued, “Placing schools at the centre of the policy frame, freeing them from bureaucracy and exhorting them to do better has not by itself generated many of the systemic improvements, innovation, or productivity gains that policy makers hoped for.”xxix
Professor Steven Dinham from the University of Melbourne acknowledged the lack of evidence for ‘school autonomy’ models: “The theory that greater school autonomy will lead to greater flexibility, innovation and therefore student attainment is intuitively appealing and pervasive. School autonomy has become something of an article of faith. However, establishing correlation and causation is not so easy.” Dinham says, “What is needed above all however, is clear research evidence that the initiative works, and under what conditions, rather than blind enthusiasm for the concept.”xxx
‘School autonomy’ was responsible for a “lost decade” in education according to one of New Zealand’s leading education researchers Dr Cathy Wylie formerly of the New Zealand Council of Educational Research (NZCER). In her book, Vital Connections: Why We Need More Than Self-Managing Schoolsxxxi, Wylie argued that schools in NZ needed more central support, and that devolution had caused the loss of ‘vital connections’ between schools.
Even the OECD was ignored. In its 2009 PISA cross-country correlation analysis, PISA 2009 Results: What Makes a School Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices (Volume IV) the OECD authors argued that “. . . greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall student performance” and that “… school autonomy in resource allocation is not related to performance at the system level.”xxxii
And yet, this OECD report was released three years before the 2012 NSW Commission of Audit argued enthusiastically for a devolution model (sold later as Local Schools, Local Decisions).
A decade on, the catastrophic policy failure of Local Schools, Local Decisions is clear. The findings of the Department’s own research body, CESE, amplify this:
“To date, LSLD appears to have had little impact on preliminary outcome measures.”
“These results suggest that LSLD has not had a meaningful impact on attendance or suspensions.”
“However, the direction of the relationship was not as we expected: students in higher-need schools showed less growth in social engagement than students in lower-need schools.”xxxiii
So, what has occurred after this lost decade? No lift in student outcomes, the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged widening, a massive increase in casual and temporary positions in schools, no improvements in attendance, no improvement in suspension rates, no lessening of ‘red-tape’, a dramatic increase in workload, growing teacher shortages, and the salary cap still in place. The paradox is, of course, that the more localised the decision-making, the more onerous, punitive and centrally controlled are the accountability measures.
The Local Schools, Local Decisions policy has left the NSW Department with no levers; no capacity to develop, fund and implement systemic improvements to lift all schools or to achieve massive economies of scale. Purportedly, the bulk of funding is in school bank accounts with the Department unable to determine what it is being spent on. Instead, we are left with policy by anecdote as revealed in the comments quoted within the CESE evaluation.
The tragedy of Local Schools, Local Decisions is that its structure remains in place, even if its name has changed. By 2021, the NSW Department had realised that LSLD had failed public schools, their teachers, and their students. It had also failed the community of NSW. Addicted to policy by alliteration, the Department rebadged it as the School Success Model (SSM). But this title reveals the continuing mind-set of both the Government and the Department. If we have learnt anything from the last decade it is that schemes like LSLD are essentially a cover for a government to abrogate its obligation to all children, all teachers, and all public schools. Instead, what is needed is for the NSW government, through its department, to accept it has an onus to provide systemic programmatic support rather than devolve the risk and responsibilities onto individual schools. Finally, the time to listen to and accept the advice of the teaching profession, and for the powerful, politically connected accountancy firms to be dismissed, is long overdue.
i Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Expenditure Review of the Department of Education and Training (DET) – Initial Scan (2010) pp 188-193
ii PriceWaterhouse Coopers (PWC) DET School-based employee related costs review – Interim Report (2009) p2
iii AEU (VIC) Submission to the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission Inquiry into School Devolution and Accountability (2012) p2
iv Anna Patty SMH Secret cuts to schools (19 March 2011)
v Anna Patty SMH Secret report administers a shock to the system (19 March 2011)
vi BCG op.cit. pp 188-193
vii BCG op. cit. p92
viii PWC op. cit. p18
ix NSW Commission of Audit Interim Report into Public Sector Management (January 2012)
x NSW Commission of Audit Final Report: Government Expenditure (May 2012)
xi NSW Commission of Audit op. cit. p10
xii NSW DET Final Report of the Evaluation of the School-Based Management Pilot (2012)
xiii BCG op. cit. p13
xiv BCG op. cit. p34
xv BCG op. cit. p146
xvi NSW State Budget Papers 2. 1- 14-15
xvii NSW Commission of Audit Op. cit. p71
xviii NSW Department of Education and Communities Saving measures to meet our budget (2011)
xix Anna Patty SMH Tip of the iceberg: warning 1200 more education jobs to go (14 September 2012)
xx NSW Teachers Federation fax to all schools (13 May 2008)
xxi BCG op. cit. p58 and p150
xxii “Reform funding on need” in Education (NSWTF) (16 August 2022)
xxiii Anna Patty SMH NSW to slash $1.7 billion from education funding (11 September 2012)
xxiv NSW Commission of Audit: Public Sector Management p83 (24 January 2012)
xxvCentre for Education Statistics And Evaluation (CESE) LSLD Evaluation Interim Report (July 2018) p8
xxvi CESE Op. cit. p8
xxvii John Smyth The disaster of the ‘self‐managing school’ – genesis, trajectory, undisclosed agenda, and effects Journal of Educational Administration and History 43(2):95-117 (May 2011)
xxviii Quoted in Education Vol 97 No 7 Maurie Mulheron On Evidence Based Decision-Making 7 November 2016
xxix David N Plank and BetsAnn Smith Autonomous Schools: Theory, Evidence and Policy in Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy Helen F. Ladd and Edward Fiske (eds) (2007)
xxx Stephen Dinham The Worst of Both Worlds: How the US and UK Are Influencing Education in Australia Journal of Professional Learning (Semester 1 2016)
xxxi Cathy Wylie Vital Connections: Why We Need More Than Self-Managing Schools (2012)
xxxii OECD PISA 2009 Results: What Makes a School Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices (Volume IV) (2010)
xxxiii CESE Op. cit. p53, p51, p51
Australian Education Union (AEU Victoria ) (2012) Submission to the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission Inquiry into School Devolution and Accountability
Boston Consulting Group (BCG) (2010) Expenditure Review of the Department of Education and Training (DET) – Initial Scan
Centre for Education Statistics And Evaluation (CESE) (July 2018) LSLD Evaluation Interim Report
Dinham, S., (2016) The Worst of Both Worlds: How the US and UK Are Influencing Education in Australia Journal of Professional Learning (Semester 1 2016)
Gonski , D et al (2011) Review of Funding for Schooling Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR)
OECD (2010) PISA 2009 Results: What Makes a School Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices (Volume IV)
Patty, A., (19 March 2011) Secret cuts to schools Sydney Morning Herald
Patty, A., (19 March 2011) Secret report administers a shock to the system Sydney Morning Herald
Patty, A., (11 September 2012) Tip of the iceberg: warning 1200 more education jobs to go Sydney Morning Herald
Patty, A.,(14 September 2012) NSW to slash $1.7 billion from education funding Sydney Morning Herald
Plank, D N. and Smith, B., (2007) Autonomous Schools: Theory, Evidence and Policy in Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy Helen F. Ladd and Edward Fiske (eds)
PriceWaterhouse Coopers (PWC) (2009) DET School-based employee related costs review – Interim Report
Smyth, J., (May 2011)The disaster of the ‘self‐managing school’ – genesis, trajectory, undisclosed agenda, and effects
Journal of Educational Administration and History 43(2):95-117
NSW Commission of Audit (January 2012) Interim Report into Public Sector Management
NSW Commission of Audit (May 2012) Final Report: Government Expenditure
Wylie, C.,(2012) Vital Connections: Why We Need More Than Self-Managing Schools
Maurie Mulheron was a teacher for 34 years, including 10 years as a high school principal. Throughout his working life he was an active member of the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) for which he was awarded Life Membership.
In 2011 he was elected President of the NSWTF, taking up the position in 2012, and serving four terms until 2020.
Between 2016-2020, he was also Deputy Federal President of the Australian Education Union, to which he was awarded Life Membership in 2020.
Maurie played a central role in the schools funding, salaries, staffing and save TAFE campaigns throughout this period.
Internationally, Maurie has been active in the global campaign opposing the growing influence of corporate ‘edu-businesses’ and their attempts to commercialise and privatise public education.
Maurie is currently Director of the Centre for Public Education Research (CPER).
Thomas Mayor explains why teachers should be aware of the significance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and outlines its history. In a thoughtful message to all public education teachers, he examines what we can do to spread the message about why an Indigenous voice in parliament must be enshrined in the Australian Constitution. . .
I have been a member of the trade union movement since I commenced my working life at the port of Darwin at seventeen years old. It is there on the wharves, through the Maritime Union of Australia, that I learnt of the value of using the leverage of unity. I have seen individual workers uniting to make change at the workplace level; I have seen ports and state branches uniting to make change at the state level; and I have seen trade unions themselves, united in very specific campaigns to make major, lasting, national change that is to the benefit of all workers.
The union movement has won many a battle for workers – from wharfies to teachers – and social justice for all. We have brought our society from one where workers were mere servants, punished for disobeying the master; we have come from a place where children were forced to labour in harsh conditions and First Nations people were slaves, to a society that now enjoys universal health care, weekends, various loadings, allowances and legislated rights. Each of these wins for the union movement and society were maligned by employers and right-wing politicians who warned of impending doom from our success. But their claims of Armageddon, should these changes happen, have been thoroughly proved as selfish fearmongering.
Workers and their communities have progressed so far because unions are organised at many levels, including at the highest political level since the establishment of the Australian Labor Party. The working class has progressed because we have built strong and unapologetically representative structures that can influence laws and policies and organise to hold employers and politicians to account.
We are always under attack because of this.
I was a 20-year-old wharfie when Prime Minister John Howard colluded with the National Farmers Federation to silence the voice of maritime workers. In the middle of the night in April 1998, Patricks Stevedores sent balaclava clad mercenaries on to wharves around the country to physically drag us from our workplaces, locking us out of our livelihoods. It was part of the Howard Government’s grand plan to silence all workers by destroying their unions.
Howard failed to destroy the MUA. Because of our long-standing structure, discipline, financial resources and the leverage of unity that the union movement had, after several months of battle on the streets and in the courts, we victoriously marched back on to the wharves to work.
Where Howard failed though, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a collective, he succeeded. He attacked the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, a representative Voice for First Nations people. He used its flaws as a weapon, instead of dealing with its issues and building on its strengths. Since ATSIC was silenced, we have seen the Northern Territory Emergency Response, or Intervention, we have seen hundreds of millions of dollars misdirected away from the communities and services that are needed, and we have seen the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens widen. Divided, we suffer.
I have briefly described how unions have achieved great progress for workers and society in general because it is one of the ways I understand the significance of establishing a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament, as called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is also how I understand that at Uluru, the 250 delegates, from throughout the Australian continent, that shaped and endorsed the Uluru Statement, made the right decision, prioritising the Voice in our proposed sequence of change.
Before I go on, it is worth briefly recapping on how the Uluru Statement from the Heart came to be, and what has happened since.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an unprecedented national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consensus that came from the rare opportunity – an opportunity only achieved through relentless advocacy – to conduct a well-resourced and intensive series of dialogues culminating in a national constitutional convention at Uluru. The Statement brings together the collective wisdom of over 200 years of struggle.
At that final convention in the heart of the nation, on 26 May 2017, we were 270 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from throughout this great continent and from many different First Nations. The difficulty, the hard work, the passion of the debate and the achievement on the third and final morning – the achievement of a national consensus – cannot be underestimated for its national significance.
The endorsement of the Uluru Statement was a political feat that should be recognised, celebrated and taught in schools.
The call for a constitutionally enshrined Voice was officially dismissed by Prime Minister Turnbull in October of 2017, misinforming the Australian public that the proposal was for a third chamber in parliament. But this dismissal has been turned around by the weight of numbers – by a majority of Australians who say that if they were to have the opportunity to answer the invitation to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a referendum for a Voice, they would say YES.
To turn the dismissal around, a mountain of work has been done by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocates and our allies. A turn around that is even more remarkable because we have had few resources with which to campaign with; there has been no government support to educate people about the Uluru Statement and the reasons we gave for its proposals, nothing from which to even build a campaigning organisation. We were starting from scratch.
The Uluru Statement itself, the sacred canvas, 1.6 by 1.8 m imbued with Anangu Tjukurrpa and the 250 names of representatives, proved to be our most powerful campaign tool. The Maritime Union of Australia, at the request of Aunty Pat Anderson who led the dialogue process to Uluru, seconded me to take the canvas around the country to inspire a people’s movement. For 18 months I hit the road and everywhere the Uluru Statement went, support multiplied. Another key moment was when Wiradjuri and Wailwan lawyer, Teela Reid, challenged Malcolm Turnbull on national television exposing his ignorance.
In the Prime Minister’s electorate of Wentworth, the grandchildren of the great Gurindji leader, Vincent Lingiari, engaged with voters to explain the bungling of the great opportunity the Uluru Statement provides – the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past in a way that the people who were wronged themselves had chosen.
At the Garma festival, the late John Christopherson, an Elder from Kakadu in Arnhem Land, spoke of the hope that the Uluru Statement gives this country, how there is nothing to lose, and 100,000 years of continuous culture to gain, by enshrining the Voices of First Nations people in the constitution.
Teachers across the nation have also taken action. Without waiting for education resources, many learnt about the Uluru Statement and proceeded to teach children who have taken the message in to their homes causing the adults in their lives to accept the invitation to walk with us.
A grass roots movement has increasingly made it loud and clear that we were not going to take no for an answer to the Uluru Statement.
In 2018, moved by this growing movement of people who had learnt about the Uluru Statement’s call for a Voice, the government established the bi-partisan Joint Select Committee into the Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Inevitably, the committee’s final report recommended that the Voice is the most desired reform, and that a co-design process begin.
This year, the co-design groups, appointed by the Morrison Government, have consulted with the public. Over 5000 of the submissions from individuals and organisations, from all different backgrounds and from across the political spectrum, called for the Voice question to go to a referendum. The Voice co-design final report recommended that the Government should not ignore the strong support for a Voice referendum in Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.
Polling since 2017 has indicated a continuous growth in the numbers of Australians who will vote yes in a Voice referendum. The latest polling by CT Group from August 2021, indicates 59% of voters would support a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament in a referendum.
Polling done specifically on Indigenous people has also grown. Support is now at 80%. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who say they will vote yes, what compels them is that a voice is a unifying reform.
Which brings me to my call out to teachers to join the movement simply by teaching the Uluru Statement to children and their families.
The campaign for a constitutionally enshrined Voice is the most important campaign in our lifetimes. Whether we are advocating for the revitalising and preserving of First Nations languages, or truth-telling about this nation’s history; whether we are trying to strengthen our land rights; reform the justice system; gain greater resources to teach Indigenous culture and languages; or simply have more homes built in our remote communities – all that we do depends on our ability to build leverage and use it in a way that moves the nation’s ultimate decision makers in Canberra, and then to hold them to account if they fail or ignore us.
A constitutionally protected Voice precedes truth-telling in our priorities, firstly because truth-telling is happening. Great work is being done on truth telling including in schools. But truth-telling needs a representative Voice.
What is the truth of the past without the political power to use it for our future?
A constitutionally protected Voice precedes treaty, not exclusively – treaty talks are already happening in the states and Territories. A Voice must be established with urgency to support treaty making where First Nations have chosen to do so, because in a federal system, it is the Commonwealth we must reckon with more importantly than the states.
Finally, I reiterate these words: A constitutionally protected Voice.
We must constitutionally protect a Voice because governments like Howard’s will always come along. As a union member, I know that when a collective of grass roots people make those in power uncomfortable, they will move to silence them.
ATSIC was one of many Voices we built to defy a government’s mistreatment and cruelty, to bring our voices together in a chorus that was hard to ignore. It was silenced as were the Indigenous representative bodies that came before it. It is time to unite and build a structure of unity for First Nations that can never be silenced again.
I believe we can win a referendum to protect and empower our Voice.
And the movement toward success will be built in the classrooms and schools across Australia. The words of the Uluru Statement – how it covers pre-colonisation; our connection to Country; what sovereignty means to us; what the problems are and how they are unacceptable; how we can rectify them with recognition, a Voice, truth telling and a settlement – can be used in many creative ways that will engage children and young people. If teachers can imagine ways that will provide children and young people with the means to take home the invitation in the Uluru Statement, to the adults in their lives, our research shows that the adults in their lives are likely to decide to vote YES.
Thomas Mayor is a Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander man. He is a union official with the MUA and is an advocate in the campaign for a constitutionally enshrined Voice – the key proposal in the Uluru Statement. Thomas is the author of four books published by Hardie Grant Publishing, and has articles and essays published in The Guardian, Griffith Review, The Saturday Paper, and Sydney Morning Herald.
Maurie Mulheron gives us all an insight into the life of the man behind the NSW Teachers Federation’s annual Sam Lewis Peace Prize. Maurie argues that Sam Lewis’ influence, both within the Federation and the wider union movement, was extraordinary and is still evident in the Federation today.
Sam Lewis 15 June 1901 – 16 August 1976
Sam Lewis was a giant of the Australian teacher-union movement whose influence is still evident today. So many of the organising principles, and so much of the political culture defining the NSW Teachers Federation, and indeed the federal Australian Education Union (AEU), can be traced back to his more than 50 years of activism.
Samuel Phineas Lewis was born in Sydney to Judah Henry Lewis and Rebecca Caroline Myers, who had been married in Sydney’s Great Synagogue.
Sam was educated at Crown Street Public School, then Cleveland Street Intermediate and Sydney Boys’ High. He enrolled in a Bachelor of Economics degree at the University of Sydney but left after a year and completed a year of teacher training at Sydney Teachers College. Years later, in 1934, he returned to the university to complete his economics degree.
Sam started teaching at a small remote school near the town of Texas on the NSW-Queensland border before being appointed to Bondi Public School in 1921. In the post-war period, many young teachers were enthusiastic about the ideal that education could become the key to creating a better world. Sam was no exception. Almost immediately he became active in the NSW Public School Teachers’ Federation, as it was then known, attending his first state Council of the union as a delegate in 1921, just three years after the union’s formation.
In the 1920s, Sam Lewis campaigned for Jack Lang, but by the start of the Depression much had changed, with Lang turning against the Left. Sam Lewis was one of many radicals within the teaching movement to look for new political formations. “Against a background of the Lang Plan, a Labor Party split, and deepening Depression in 1931 the small group of radical teachers formed a new organisation, the Educational Workers’ League.” (EWL)1.
Sam had been a key player in this development and was elected as the EWL’s Secretary at its first meeting in the Trades Hall. This group of young classroom teachers, known as ‘Assistants’, were also motivated by their opposition to the conservative Teachers’ Federation leaders at the time, who they felt had allowed teacher salaries and working conditions to deteriorate in the early Depression years.
Many of the EWL’s demands were extraordinarily prescient: national teacher accreditation, annual increments, equal pay for women, reduction in class sizes to 30, temporary positions to be made permanent, withdrawal of scripture classes, raising of the compulsory leaving age ., no discrimination against married women, for clerical staff to be appointed to all schools, abolition of corporal punishment, as well as for “elimination of all Imperialist teachings from school-books and curricula…” Publication of the EWL’s demands led to a vicious backlash by conservative forces, with accusations in the Sydney Morning Herald that “Communism was rearing its ugly head…”2
In late 1932 the NSW State Government, led by Premier Bertram Stevens, passed legislation known as the Married Women (Lecturers and Teachers) Act, forcing all married women to leave the teaching service. While some within the Federation supported the Act, arguing that it protected the male breadwinner, Sam Lewis and others campaigned vociferously against it.
Fifteen years of Federation campaigning led to the Act being repealed in 1947, but not before it had destroyed careers and led to enormous financial hardship.
Sam had joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in the early 1930s becoming secretary of the Coogee Branch. He was elected to the Party’s District Committee, having adopted an assumed surname, Curtis. Later, Sam unsuccessfully stood twice for the newly formed State Labour Party, a left-wing political group which existed only in NSW for a short period in the early 1940s.
In 1938, Sam took three months’ long service leave from teaching to organise a national conference, “Education for a Progressive Democratic Australia”, which gathered hundreds of representatives from trade unions, parent organisations, local government, and other professional education associations. One of the Conference’s key demands was for federal financial assistance for public schools, a campaign that continues to this day.
Sam’s future wife, Ethel Caroline Teerman, had graduated from the University of Sydney, majoring in Latin, and by 1930 had been appointed as a teacher to Lithgow and then to West Wyalong. Her parents were politically active, her father as a miner and her mother as an active coalminer’s wife, involved in the women’s auxiliaries supporting striking miners. Ethel became active in the Teachers’ Federation while at West Wyalong, as well as joining the EWL, where she met Sam Lewis, and the CPA. Sam and Ethel were married in 1940, but it must have been a bittersweet moment, as the 1932 Act forced Ethel, by then a member of the Federation’s State Executive, to resign from teaching.
In 1943 Sam was elected as Deputy President of the Teachers’ Federation and in 1945, as President. In 1946 he led a campaign for increased salaries, with the Federation becoming the first union, after the war, to secure significant increases for teachers, leading to successes in other states and industries.
Before the war, both Sam and Ethel had been involved in the Movement Against War and Fascism. Therefore, it was not surprising that, at the 1946 Federation Annual Conference, following the successful salary campaign, in moving the union’s Annual Report, Sam linked salaries and improved working conditions with the maintenance of peace and unity among peoples. Later in 1946, tapping into the post-war optimism, Sam was instrumental in organising a national campaign called “A New Deal for Education”, which included a conference held in Sydney attended by representatives of nearly 800 organisations: teacher associations, 276 parent groups, trade unions, labour councils, infant school clubs, and local government councils. One of its key demands was for a massive injection of Federal Government funding into public schools.
In 1947 Sam, as President of the national body, the Australian Teachers’ Federation, was endorsed to be part of the Australian delegation to the second conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), to be held in Mexico City in November 1947. By now, anti-communist forces were targeting Sam and his colleagues. An organisation called the “Teachers’ Federation Anti-Communist League” had been formed to mobilise opposition to Sam’s presidency.
In Federal Parliament, Jack Lang attacked Sam, calling him a “notorious communist”, and later devoted an entire chapter on “Samuel Phineas Lewis” in his 1947 publication, “Communism is Treason”. Lang called on the Chifley Government to withdraw Sam’s delegate credentials and to cancel his passport in an attempt to prevent his participation in the UNESCO conference, even though he was attending at his own expense. Lang failed.
Sam returned from Mexico encouraged that UNESCO had prioritised education spending over weapons of war. In his address to the union’s 1951 Annual Conference, Sam was clear:
The greatest single factor on the world scale causing inflation and leading to the undermining of the living and cultural standards of the people is enormous expenditure on production of armaments. Teachers are concerned very deeply with conservation: conservation of natural resources, conservation of human resources. They are the agents in the battle against material and moral erosion, against the scorching of human flesh and the searing of the human spirit.3
Goodall et al. (2019, pp. 200)
Despite successful salary campaigns in 1946 and 1949, Sam, targeted by anti-communist forces, was defeated as President in 1952. Sam went back to teaching at Paddington Junior Technical but continued to lead the debates within Federation from the floor of its state Council meetings.
Between 1958 and 1961, Sam was elected as Deputy President of the union, before finally being re-elected as President in 1964.
The Federation had campaigned for decades for equal pay for women teachers. Indeed, the issue was initially carried as a campaign objective back in 1920, perhaps the first union to have done so. Despite objections from some conservative quarters, even within Federation, it remained a critically important campaign. It was not until 1958 that the NSW Government agreed to equal pay for women teachers but, even then, phased it in over five years. It was widely recognised that Sam had used his position within the union to ensure it remained a priority issue: “…in the Federation there were few men other than Sam Lewis who so consistently supported … the tight group of women who were advocates of Equal Pay.”4
Throughout his working life, Sam ensured that the NSW Teachers’ Federation was an activist union. He regarded teachers as intellectual workers and fought for their rights and their professional status. Sam and his comrades believed that the industrial, the political, the social and the professional were indivisible. To this end, he also championed the creation of broad alliances and pioneered community-based campaigning alongside parent groups, other unions, and community organisations. He established democratic decision-making structures within the union, based on his strong belief that this would lead to more effective campaigning while protecting the union from outside interference.
Sam’s last address as President was at the Federation’s Annual Conference in January 1968, where he told the delegates that the “unity of teachers can be and should be part of the greater unity of the peoples – the People’s Symphony.”
A powerful and influential orator, many recognised him as one of the most engaging public speakers of his generation. He was known for his love of words, his sense of humour and his sharp wit. It was a cruel irony that, having suffered a stroke in 1974 which left him partially paralysed, he lost the power of speech. He died on 16th August 1976.
Not long after he returned from the conference in Mexico, UNESCO declared that “All Wars Are Fought Against Children”. Sam ensured that this concept was embedded into the political psyche of the NSW Teachers Federation. In recognition of his influence in this regard, in 1983 the Federation established the annual Sam Lewis Peace Award, which gives children in NSW public schools an opportunity to express a message of peace, tolerance and hope through art.
Mitchell, B. (1969, pp. 274)
Adams, M. (1979. pp. 11)
Goodall et al. (2019, pp. 200)
Goodall et al. (2019, pp. 208)
Adams, M. (1976). Sam Lewis memorial booklet. NSW Teachers’ Federation
Mitchell, B. (1969). A history of public school teachers’ organisations in New South Wales, 1855 to 1945[Doctoral dissertation, Australian National University]. Open Access Theses. https://doi.org/10.25911/5d723dc8a2f03
Maurie Mulheron was a teacher for 34 years, including 10 as a high school principal. He was an active member of the NSW Teachers’ Federation (NSWTF) throughout his working life for which he was awarded Life Membership. In 2011 he was elected President of the NSWTF, taking up the position in 2012. He served four terms until 2020, elected unopposed each time. Between 2016-2020, he was also Deputy Federal President of the Australian Education Union, to which he was awarded Life Membership in 2020. Maurie played a central role in the schools funding, salaries, staffing and save TAFE campaigns throughout this period.
Maurie is currently Director of the Centre for Public Education Research (CPER).
Associate Professor Tony Moore (Monash University) and Dr Mike Davis (Griffith University) give us an insight into the international digital history project ‘Conviction Politics’ (located in the Monash Arts School of Media, Film and Journalism). This project is researching the story of radicals and rebels who were transported to Australia as political prisoners and how they, and the many ordinary convicts who resisted the exploitation of their unfree labour, played an integral part in creating Australian democracy and our unionism.
This exciting new online resource for teachers, which melds well with many of the NSW syllabuses, will bring Australian history to life!
How did Australia go from being one of the least-free places on earth in the early nineteenth century to a country that was quite democratic by the 1860s? When did democracy actually begin in Australia? Why is it that a robust labour movement emerged early in Australia? For generations, the history books have provided the answers to these questions by pointing to the Eureka Rebellion in the 1850s, the strikes of the 1890s and Federation in 1901. Ignored is the contribution of the convicts, the raison d’être for Britain’s annexation of the east coast of Australia, who were imported en masse to labour in the colonies.
But new research, funded by the Australian Research Council along with generous support from industry partners (notably the NSW Teachers Federation), is rewriting this chapter in Australian history. Newly digitised convict records reveal a very different story of Australian democracy, where from the early decades of settlement, Australia’s first workforce resisted exploitation through inventive solidarity in the face of coercion, while a vanguard of transported rebels, industrial protesters and radical agitators changed the political direction of the colonies.
Led by Monash University’s Associate Professor Tony Moore, the four-year interdisciplinary, international project called Conviction Politics brings together leading history, media studies and information technology academics, from Australian Catholic University, Griffith University, University of New South Wales and University of New England as well as two international universities (University of South Wales and University College Dublin), media practitioners, archive collections, museums, and unions spanning Australia, the United Kingdom and Ireland. As well as the NSW Teachers Federation, partners on the project include Roar Film, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the Trade Union Education Foundation, Libraries Tasmania, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union and the National Museum of Australia. UK partners are the Trades Union Congress, the People’s History Museum and the Scottish Records Office.
The project connects collective convict protest to the early development of political and social democracy in colonial Australia, as well as to the emergence of trade unionism, documenting, for the first time the extent and character of convict activism. It especially offers fresh perspectives on the role of ‘political’ transportees in the mobilisation of the wider convict and free population for reform.
The familiar view is that the convicts sent to Australia were petty thieves and uneducated scoundrels, the criminal and unwanted citizens of Britain sent to the fringes of the known world. But arriving with the criminals were about 3900 political convicts transported for their involvement in political movements in Britain who have been largely forgotten in Australian history.
One of the first political prisoners sent to Australia was Thomas Muir, a young Scottish lawyer who was convicted of sedition in 1793 for advocating universal suffrage and the reform of the British parliament. He was transported to New South Wales for 14 years. Before making a daring escape from the colony, and eventually finding his way back to Europe, Muir argued that he and four other convicts, transported for political crimes at the same time, had the rights of free Britons in the colony. With this, the seeds of freedom and democracy were planted in Australia.
Many other political convicts were to follow. Among them were Luddites who smashed machines to protest against factory wages and working conditions and to assert greater control over their labour. Others included disenfranchised agricultural workers who demonstrated against mechanisation and harsh working conditions, early trade unionists, including the Tolpuddle Martyrs transported for forming a union of agricultural labourers, and Irish rebels demanding self-determination.
Many British working-class political reformers from the late 1830s to 1850s, known as Chartists, were transported to Australia. They brought with them radical ideas about freedom and democracy. One of them was John Frost, a leader at the ill-fated Newport Rising in South Wales, who from his exile in Australia, became a leading campaigner for the anti-transportation movement. Another was London tailor William Cuffay, the son of a West Indian slave accused of plotting an uprising following parliament’s rejection of the Chartist petition in 1848. Transported for levying war on Her Majesty, Cuffay became a crusading Tasmanian union leader who helped reform the draconian Masters and Servants Act (1867).
The Chartists are considered a failed movement in their home country, but their ideas thrived in Australia, which was one of the first countries in the world to introduce the secret ballot, the right to vote for men and payment for members of parliament – all Chartist demands. Indeed, the democratic reforms demanded by the Ballarat Reform League mirror the six points of the Charter – unsurprising given the number of Chartist immigrants and other liberal reform movements, notably Young Ireland revolutionaries, who were present on the gold fields and in the Eureka Stockade protest. The colonial constitutions and subsequent reforms achieved in the late 1850s and 1860s in NSW and Victoria, that extended male franchise, bear the marks of Chartism, while the Selection Acts, providing small land grants, are influenced by the Young Ireland program. Peter Lalor, the leader at Eureka, was brother of Young Ireland theorist James Finton Lalor, while Young Ireland women, led by activist Anastasia Hayes, sewed the Southern Cross Flag flying at the stockade. One Young Ireland prisoner, medical student Kevin O’Doherty, became Queensland’s first health minister, campaigning against the kidnapping of Torres Strait Islanders to work as indentured slave labour in that colony’s plantations.
The dispossession of Australian Indigenous people was criticised by political exiles pledged to decolonisation, such as the Young Ireland movement. Our project’s transnational frame connects capitalist commodification of land and criminalisation of customary ways of life in both the old and colonial world. We interrogate an imperial system that transported landless labour from Britain and the British Imperial world in order to facilitate the integration of land, seized from indigenous people, into the settler capitalist economy. Convicted First Nations resistors, such as ‘Musquito’ and ‘Bulldog’ from Australia; Māori from Aotearoa/New Zealand, such as Hohepa Te Umuroa, and Khoisan from the Cape Colony such as Booy Piet are, therefore, an important cohort of political prisoners.
The project will also look at the 160,000 ordinary convicts who represent a mass transportation of unfree labour, akin to plantation slavery in the Americas, deployed in the Australian colonies to build their infrastructure and to toil ‘on assignment’ for employers. Many of these convicts were politicised and struggled for their rights. Faced with harsh conditions, limited food, punishment and unpaid labour, many convicts engaged in collective action as a means of resistance. Such is the persistence of a nineteenth century ideology that we term ‘Convictism’, justifying exploitation on the basis of inherent criminality (just as racism was deployed to justify plantation racism in America), that in the 2020 debate about colonial-era slavery in Australia, the bondage of convicts to masters and the imperial state barely rated a mention.
Research by project investigators Michael Quinlan and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart has revealed that convicts were tried in the colonies for 400,000 acts of resistance, many of them for work-related dissent. Absconding strikes and refusing to work were common among the convict population. Some even tried to escape as a form of protest and a way of resisting government authority. Most significantly, the project has discovered that convicts were forming combinations, approximating trade unions, for collective bargaining as early as the 1820s – considerably backdating unionism’s emergence in Australia.
Conviction Politics maps the patterns of resistance and political impact of tens of thousands of working men and women coerced into one of the largest forced global labour migrations in human history. This is the untold story of our democracy and the fair go. It needs to be promoted and understood, especially by the young and by those alienated by the current political orthodoxies and by the precarious working conditions they produce. The project will demonstrate, through both hard empirical data and engaging, innovative storytelling, that Australian egalitarianism and the rights we take for granted were achieved by the willingness of many thousands to resist unfair laws and to bravely endure martyrdom, sacrificing their own freedom and sometimes their lives.
Most political and ordinary convicts were young, and some used the new media of their day (songs, pamphlets, stories, cartoons, banners, poetry, badges, posters, novels, memoirs and even tattoos!) to communicate idealistic ideas such as freedom of speech and assembly, strength in unity, working class political participation and national self-determination free of empires. Conviction Politics harnesses the new digital media of today to communicate these still potent ideas to a wide audience, and especially to young Australians and those who teach them. In collaboration with the Tasmanian media production house, Roar Film, the project has produced an online ‘transmedia’ text and audio-visual Hub. This Hub links partners and presents, to the public, the project’s discoveries in the form of mini-documentaries, original songs, digitised archive material and data visualisations. You can see the Hub’s trailer here.
Harnessing the powerful content of the online Hub, the development of resources for school and worker education is an integral part of the project. Importantly for teachers, Conviction Politics’ Hub now makes available over 60 short documentaries, 8 original songs, 24 long reads, over 110 short reads, and a treasure trove of images. We invite you to peruse this contenthere. You can view a video walkthrough of the Hub, explain its functionality and scope here.
Content already available on the Hub features original music composed and performed by Conviction Politics Musical Director Mick Thomas, and Melbourne’s all-female Lady choir, including Tess Hildebrand-Burke, Kirsty Joosten, Emma Heeney, Sophie Koh and Angie Hart.
Some of the experts and descendants of convicts interviewed for our digital stories include Senior Economist Alison Pennington; data researcher Dr Monika Schwarz; project academic investigators Tony Moore, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Michael Quinlan, Mike Davis and Nick Carter; Tasmanian academics Kristyn Harman and Greg Lehman; media personality and Irish rebel descendant Steve Vizard; ACTU Assistant Secretary Scott Connolly; author Tom Keneally, and singer Billy Bragg.
The Conviction Politics Hub was successfully launched at the end of 2021 at Monash University in Melbourne by ACTU Secretary Sally McManus and at the People’s History Museum in Manchester by Trades Union Congress Southwest Regional Secretary Dr Nigel Costley (watch here). The launches were part of the UK/Australia Season 2021-22, a prestigious cultural and educational exchange programme between the UK and Australia, organised by the British Council and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The launches received substantial media attention, with articles in the Manchester World (see here) and the Byline Times (see here). Tony Moore was interviewed on ABC radio Melbourne and Hobart, radio 6PR Perth, and National Radio News, with additional material on the project appearing on WIN-TV Hobart. Monash University Lens also published a substantial multimedia article about the project (see here).
Our team will continue to add more documentaries, text, images, and music to the Hub, and will be working with the NSW Teachers Federation to design curated pathways through the content for teaching and learning modules relevant to the primary and secondary school curricula and syllabuses. This work will connect Australian colonial history to the great reform and revolutionary movements sweeping the world and embed the convict experience within the story of imperial dispossession, labour exploitation and its discontents.
Conviction Politics also includes content linking the experience of political transportees and convicts to issues in contemporary Australia, such as unfair labour laws, insecure work, automation, growing inequality, encroachment on human rights such as free speech and right to strike, increasing surveillance, and movements for decolonisation such as campaigns for Indigenous sovereignty, and for an Australian republic.
The project’s SensiLab teamhas also been developing a series of convict lifeline visualisations. Bringing together information from various digitised and transcribed sources like conduct records, marriage registers, trial records or freedom certificates, these aim to present a convict’s life course in one visualisation. Project researcher Monika Schwarz has also been leading the development of a completely new analysis of Female Factories, prisons where female convicts laboured and lived together. By looking at incidents of repeated collaborative action, such as work stoppages, escapes, and riots, we can treat these incidents and their participants as a social network, connected with a larger network of resistance. The records kept by the colonial bureaucracy inadvertently reveal how these networks of women were organising themselves against the system.
Project investigators Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Michael Quinlan have also recently published a ground-breaking book entitled Unfree Workers: Insubordination and Resistance in Convict Australia 1788-1860 (published by Palgrave Macmillan, e-book available here). This new work explores the role that penal transportation played in the development of capitalism in Australia and for the first time reveals the many ways in which the active collective resistance of convicts shaped both workplace relations and institutions, helping to forge an activist labour movement.
A travelling Conviction Politics Digital Exhibition will be inaugurated in 2024 at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and subsequently hosted at the NSW Teachers Federation.
Please contact Conviction Politics, with your feedback, and ideas for documentaries, local convict stories, and for class projects email project manager Rebecca Louise Clarke (Rebecca.Louiseclarke@monash.edu).
Other resources to obtain for your school’s library include:
Associate Professor Tony Moore is Associate Professor of Communications and Media Studies at Monash University and former Director of its National Centre for Australian Studies. Tony is author of the critically acclaimed Dancing with Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians since 1868 (2012), Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788 – 1868 (2010), adapted as a TV documentary (2015) and The Barry McKenzie Movies (2005). Tony is lead investigator on the ARC Discovery Project Fringe to Famous: Australian culture as an innovation system (2014) and the ARC Linkage Project Conviction Politics: the convict routes of Australian democracy (2019): https://www.convictionpolitics.net
He is a former ABC TV documentary maker and commissioning editor at Pluto Press and Cambridge University Press. His documentaries include Bohemian Rhapsody: rebels of Australian culture, TimeFrame history of ASIO, Lost in Space: Australians in their cities and Nobody’s Children.
Dr Mike Davis
Dr. Mike Davis is Senior Lecturer of History at Griffith University in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science. Prior to joining Griffith University in 2012, he held appointments at the University of Tasmania and The University of Queensland. His publications include Crowd Actions in Britain and France: From the Middle Ages to the Modern World (2015); Liberty, Property and Popular Politics: England and Scotland, 1688-1815 (2015); and Political Trials in an Age of Revolutions: Britain and the North Atlantic, 1793-1848 (2019).
Paul Brock looks at the past and to the future and provides a profound message for all public educators…
“Any weakening of universal public education can only be a weakening of the long-standing essential role universal public education plays in making us a civilized democracy.”
John Ralston Saul, “In defence of public education”, Speech to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation Whitehorse, Yukon, July 13, 2001.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
G Santayana, The Life of Reason, New York, Collier Books, 1962
My longtime esteemed friend and colleague, Denis Fitzgerald, has invited me to write an article on the theme “A Message to the Profession”.
What follows is a fairly personal, eclectic collation of ideas / passions / pleas that I would include in any such message in my reflection over my past nearly five decades as a member of what the OECD has accurately described as the “knowing and caring” profession.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
If there is any one constantly recurring theme in those four decades, it is that we educators have so often been under attack by those who see us as perpetrators of inadequate or declining standards. Let me give one NSW example from the first decade of the last century.
“The wholesale substitution of ‘modern methods’ has been found to be unwise. The defects apparent in school children at the present day are summarised thus: a) The children are not thoroughly grounded in essentials; b) They are not accurate in their work. Business people in Sydney…. find these and similar defects in the children they are at present taking into their employment and they attribute them largely to the new methods of education.”
This is an extract from an editorial in The Catholic Press, a New South Wales publication, in 1909.[i]
Seventeen years ago I wrote a monograph on some of the myths of declining standards in literacy within an historical context, Breaking some of the myths – again (DET, Sydney, 1998). What follows is an extended quotation from that monograph – the substantial ‘message’ of which, I believe, retains its salience in 2015:
“But it does not matter where you dip into the history of education, you will find thunderous roars of utter conviction that standards are ‘now’ palpably worse than they were a generation ago. The 1990s Jeremiahs hearken back to the 1950s. It is necessary, however, to apply an informed historical perspective to untrammelled cries of gloom and doom. For example, if you go back to the newspapers of the so-called ‘good old days’ of the 1950s you will find identical lamentations for contemporary disasters, and calls for a return to the presumed halcyon days of the 1930s.
“So, let us go back nearly 50 years to those ‘good old days’ and listen to the comments of the Chief Examiner in English for the 1948 Leaving Certificate examination, Professor Waldock, thundering about the students sitting for the Leaving Certificate in 1946: “It is disappointing to find that students imagine they can pass a Leaving Certificate Examination without being able to write a sentence”. [ii]
Reviewing what he had seen in the 1948 LC Examination he lamented:
“Examiners again stress the weakness is spelling. Here are some of the words that seem to confound large numbers of students [nearly 80 words followed including those such as “tragic”, “practical”, “clever”, “hungry”, “persuade”, “believe”, “enemies” and “sensitive”]…..It was felt too that errors in grammar and syntax are still too common. It seems that many pupils are conversant with the correct theory of good usage, but from lack of practice or attention continue to commit the old mistakes. …The examiners…feel that candidates are still very weak in fundamentals – that far too many, for example, do not know what a noun is, let alone an abstract noun.” [iii]
Professor Waldock’s successor, Professor Alec Mitchell, declared in 1950 that he agreed with the withering criticisms made in the Norwood Report of 1941 on “the serious failure of the British secondary schools to produce literate students” and declared that, without a doubt, the same situation existed in NSW in 1950. [iv]
Let us not forget that these Leaving Certificate students were the creme de la creme. In the 1940s and early 1950s, of every 100 students commencing 6th class only fewer than twenty or so completed their Leaving Certificate five years later. For example, of the 50,000 who enrolled in first year government high schools in 1948, only 16.1% survived to commence their LC year in 1952. [v] The comparable figure today, of course, is around 70%.
Ah, but how the right wing media pontificators and so many talk-back radio disc jockeys love to hark back to the mythical ‘good old days’ when, they assume, everything was wonderful.
This process of lamentation for the present and exhortation for a return to some mythical halcyon past era can be traced continuously back into the 19th century and beyond. George Elliott, President of prestigious Harvard College, bitterly complained in 1871 that:
“…bad spelling, incorrectness as well as inelegance of expression in writing, ignorance of the simplest rules of punctuation and almost entire want of familiarity with English literature, are far from rare among young men of eighteen otherwise well prepared for college.” [vi]
One of the many modern scholars who have discussed the ‘declining standards’ myth, the American Andrew Sledd, has observed that:
“The discussion of this [declining standards myth] is not timely – it is timeless; for although Newsweek certified our crisis a mere decade ago …no fewer than five consecutive generations have been condemned for writing worse than their predecessors. By now our students should hardly put processor to paper; it’s a wonder they can write at all.”[vii]
Another American historian of literacy practices, Harvey Daniels traces this pattern back as far as George Puttenham’s despair about the declining standards of literacy amongst the young of his day in 1586! Daniels sums up in this way:
“To conclude: literacy has been declining since it was invented; one of the first ancient Sumerian tablets deciphered by modern scholars immortalised a teacher fretting over the recent drop in (standards of) students’ writing. It is Sledd’s cryptic conclusion that ‘there will always be a literacy crisis, if for no other reason than because the old never wholly like the young’.” [viii]
If I were revising this today, I would do some ‘tweaking’ to take account of the significant developments in the intervening seventeen years – especially recent years. However, to reiterate what I wrote prior to the commencement of the previous extended quotation, I believe it retains its fundamental salience in 2015. While there is a continuous need to ensure the quality of contemporary education, too often contemporary critics look back to the past through rose-tinted glasses, and at the present through black-tinted glasses.
When planning for the future we should retain what has been demonstrated to have been successful in the past and the present, and to transform or reject the rest! I believe that there should be at least four interdependent and interrelated basic principles that should underpin all quality policy developments in school education – now and into the future. They are: authentic research; genuine scholarship; acquired wisdom based on the collective expertise and experience of outstanding practitioners; and what is often called ‘nous’.
There is considerable educational research that merely confirms what good teachers, principals, and educators in many contexts have known or suspected for quite a while. For example, the research that has demonstrated that the quality of teaching is the most significant within-school factor in the quality of student learning; that within-school differences are often more significant than between-school differences; that the quality of leadership exercised within a school has a significant impact on the quality of learning and teaching in that school. And so on. These are really ‘no brainers’ these days.
When researchers seek to establish a compelling link between cause and effect in research, it is always necessary not to confuse causality with correlation. When reading the outcomes of any particular piece of educational research, it is always necessary to stress the importance of context when assessing the value of that research. For example, one should generally respond cautiously to any black or white research pontifications about the significance of any one, isolated, factor within the rich and diverse landscape that constitutes teaching and learning.
We must always exercise our critical powers when reading research. The questions that always should arise include the following. Who undertook the research? What is their reputation? What was the purpose of this research? What was its context? What methodology was used? What were any underlying assumptions? Who funded the research? Who may have benefitted from it? What data was included? How is the research intended to be used? Was data excluded? And so on.
The second fundamental source is genuine scholarship, ie the ideas, speculation, imagination, creativity, innovation and so on, generated and articulated by thinkers who would not fit into the mould of evidence-based researchers. For example, my friend Professor Peter Freebody has named a number of towering figures who have made great impacts upon / contributions to education – but none of whom had ever undertaken what could be called an ‘experiment’. Peter illustrated this point by reference to famous scholars and thinkers such as Jean Piaget, Shirley Brice-Heath, Benjamin Bloom, Ralph Tyler, John Dewey and Maria Montessori.
The third is the wisdom distilled from the reflection over their experience by excellent teachers, Principals, and other school leaders who may never have undertaken evidence-based research, who may never have published in the scholarship genre, but who are able to abundantly irrigate educational theory and practice because of their own reflected-over expertise and experience.
The fourth is practical, good old fashioned strategic nous, which might be described as that down to earth, insightful, flexible exercise of common sense, fully aware of the complexities of the relevant context.
I now turn to a number of other issues.
Beware the “institutionalizing of value”
Always push back against what the splendid sociologist Ivan Illich described as the “institutionalizing of value”. He illustrated what he meant by the term by referring to an historical situation in which a ‘pioneer’ would see the need for children to have schooling, but which was denied to them. He / she then built a school for these children. Then another school for other children lacking access to schooling. And so on. Over time “institutionalizing of value” would occur if the structures shifted from having a prime focus on the needs of the students towards a focus on the needs of the teachers; and then, as the organisation got larger, on the needs of larger organisations; even of governments. But our whole role as educators should be to focus on the learning needs, skills, talents, capacities, values, and so on of every student.
What is necessary is not always sufficient
Of course the skills of literacy and numeracy are absolutely basic goals of school education. But while absolutely necessary, they are not sufficient. Fulfilling only basic needs is rarely enough. Shakespeare’s magnificent play King Lear provides us with an insight into the insufficiency of addressing only needs. After haggling with his two evil daughters [Goneril and Regan] over how many retainers he really needs – involving a Dutch auction commencing at fifty, then twenty-five, then ten, then five and finally one – a distraught Lear cries out:
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady.
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm
(King Lear, Act 2, Scene 4)
Human life becomes cheapened when human aspiration and achievement do not exceed the basic animal needs. Education becomes cheapened if we stop at fulfilling only basic needs. We must seek to develop in our students not only skills, but also their knowledge, understanding, values, talents, creativity, imagination, and so on – all the richness articulated in our splendid national educational manifesto, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young People.
Practising what we preach
We public educators must practise what we preach. We have to live out our explicitly defined core values as public educators which, in NSW, are: integrity; excellence; respect; responsibility; cooperation; participation; care; fairness; democracy.
Above all, we have to be fair dinkum in striving to close the gaps between rhetoric and reality. For example there is an admirable aspirational goal to have an excellent teacher in every classroom in every public school. We know that in this case our deeds have not yet met our rhetorical aims.
How refreshing and correct, therefore, was NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli’s announcement on November 7, 2014 that, according to Alexandra Smith’s article in The Sydney Morning Herald “for the first time, every public school teacher in NSW will have mandatory performance reviews in a push to lift teaching standards and ensure ‘the very best teachers get better’ while underperforming teachers are removed from classrooms.”[ix]
Alexandra Smith’s article went on to say that, “In an unprecedented agreement between the state government and the NSW Teachers Federation, all teachers will have a performance and development plan and will need to do 100 hours of professional development every five years to retain their accreditation.” Ms Smith’s article continued, “A new approach for principals to deal with underperforming teachers will also be introduced, which will mean teachers who fail to perform in the classroom can be stood down in 10 weeks, about half the time it takes for a principal to tackle poor performance.” [x]
The crucial importance of the precise use of the English language
It is absolutely essential that educators be as precise as they can in the use of the English language, most especially – but not exclusively – in its written form, for communication with others.
In 1990, during my time as an advisor on the personal staff of the then Commonwealth Minister for Employment, Education and Training, John Dawkins, I drafted the Preface to the Hawke Government’s Australia’s Language and Literacy Policy Green Paper – The Language of Australia: Discussion Paper on an Australian Literacy and Language Policy for the 1990s. Dawkins agreed to affix his signature to the Preface I had written for him.
In the opening two sentences – which I consider to be among the best two sequential short sentences I have ever written – I attempted to articulate the power and significance of language in the following words, which I still hold to be true today.
It is through language that we develop our thoughts, shape our experience, explore our customs, structure our community, construct our laws, articulate our values and give expression to our hopes and ideals.
We aspire to an Australia in which its citizens will be literate and articulate, a nation of active, intelligent readers, writers, listeners and speakers. Such a nation will be well educated and clever, cultured and humane, and rich and purposeful, because of the knowledge, skills and values of its people. [xi]
As educators and as educated citizens we have a responsibility to be lucid in the ways we express our thoughts, ideas and values. Sludgy, clichéd, jargonistic, careless, imprecise language is evidence of sludgy, clichéd, jargonistic, careless, imprecise thinking.
A number of miscellaneous issues
Don’t be beguiled by those who regularly use hindsight as a defence for misjudgement when the real failing has been their lack of foresight.
Throughout my career I have found out if a theory does not work in practice, there is something wrong with the theory, or the way in which it has been put into practice, or both.
Don’t place work above your commitment to significant personal relationships / family.
When providing advice to those who seek or need to hear it, always strive to ensure that, as far as possible, it is frank and fearless advice.
Perhaps even more importantly, to ensure that those over whom you have some professional authority feel confident enough to provide you with frank and fearless advice.
As one of my former Directors-General, Andrew Cappie-Wood, once pointed out to me, in large [and not so large] organisations, a major problem can be not so much that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, but that the left hand does not want the right hand to know what it is doing. An organisation as large as the NSW Teachers Federation, or the NSW Department of Education, would not be immune from this potential threat. On an even larger international canvas we have witnessed the sometimes catastrophic consequences of government intelligence agencies fervidly refusing to share their intelligence information with their so-called colleagues in other agencies.
No matter what happens during your day at work, the sun will almost certainly go down on that day and, almost certainly, rise again on the next.
Is Education the answer?
Quite a few years ago the ABC TV news included what turned out to be a very short interview with an African lady in a war-torn, drought-ridden, poverty-stricken African country – holding her very young, ailing child in her arms. When asked what she needed, the woman replied – simply yet so complexly – “food and education”. With this aspiration for education as a fundamental driver for societal reform, I concluded my Keynote Address at the 2012 Annual Conference of the NSW Secondary Principals Council as follows.
In quite a few of my speeches in recent years I have pointed to education as perhaps the most powerful 21st century force to combat and eventually defeat the injustices, evils, poverty, hunger, abuse of women, triumphs of religious intolerance and bigotry, sexual slavery, wars and famines, and so on. However, today, looking at the relentless persistence of so much of these obscenities in the world, that optimism and hope is somewhat diminished.
But I am also reminded of that superb poem “1st September, 1939”, written by the great Anglo-American poet W H Auden, in which he expressed his profound fear, on the edge of despair, as he reflected on the almost certain consequence of Hitler’s invasion of Poland on that day – the outbreak of what would become the Second World War. Yet in that very powerful and moving poem, he found something to cling to in his final stanza.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Colleagues and friends, I put it to you that although we educators cannot defeat the macro forces that inflict such misery on so many people on this planet, surely we can continue to be “ironic points of light” – “ironic” in the sense that we retain the capacity to critique “our world”. That we are “just” men and women who exchange our “messages” of human dignity, aspiration, hope, respect and all of those other values championed by public education. Who, “beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair”, nevertheless continue to show to our students, to one another, and – as educated citizens – to our local, national and international communities, “an affirming flame”, cherishing our belonging to the “knowing and caring” profession.
Putting it all in a nutshell
Having being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 1996 and having been given three to five years to live, I feared that it was likely that I would not live long enough to see my daughters, Sophie and Amelia, complete their schooling.
In 2000 I was asked to give a Keynote Address on “Towards Conserving and Transforming the School Teaching Profession” at an international conference.
When I was preparing that talk I asked Sophie, who was not yet nine and in Grade 3 at Oakhill Drive Public School – along with our other daughter Amelia, who was then five and in Kindergarten – to write down her ideas on what makes a good teacher. So off she went to her computer, and this is what she wrote, aided in a few instances only by the use of the spell-checker. I was so impressed, that I asked her if I could use it in my Address. “OK Dad”, she said. This is what she wrote.
What Makes A Perfect Teacher
My name is Sophie Brock and I am nearly 9 years old. I think what makes a perfect teacher is when the teacher encourages the students to do their best and instead of treating each other like strangers make sure you get a chance to spend some time with each student. As a teacher you should know what you are doing all the time and be keen on what you teach, otherwise don’t teach at all. My kindergarten teacher Jenny Tipping and my Year Two teacher Margot Hillhouse are at Narellan Vale Public School and they are fantastic teachers because they gave me challenging work and didn’t give me the most boring work like some teachers, but I won’t say who. The most important thing about being a teacher is that you try and help every single one of your students enjoy learning, reading, writing and joining in with activities. So, that is what I think makes a perfect teacher.
In 2004, four years after Sophie wrote this, I decided to set out my aspirational ‘instructions’ for the future teachers of our children at the end of the chapter on public education in my autobiography, A Passion for Life (ABC Books 2004) – most of which I typed with the one remaining finger that then still worked. Absolutely deliberately, Sophie and Amelia were both educated only in comprehensive, co-educational public schools.
This is what I wrote.
Therefore, not just as a professional educator, but as a Dad, I want all future teachers of my Sophie and Amelia to abide by three fundamental principles that I believe should underpin teaching and learning in every public school.
First, to nurture and challenge my daughters’ intellectual and imaginative capacities way out to horizons unsullied by self-fulfilling minimalist expectations.
Don’t patronise them with lowest common denominator blancmange masquerading as knowledge and learning; nor crush their love for learning through boring pedagogy. Don’t bludgeon them with mindless ‘busy work’ and limit the exploration of the world of evolving knowledge merely to the tyranny of repetitively churned-out recycled worksheets. Ensure that there is legitimate progression of learning from one day, week, month, term and year to the next.
Second, to care for Sophie and Amelia with humanity and sensitivity, as developing human beings worthy of being taught with genuine respect, enlightened discipline and imaginative flair.
And third, please strive to maximise their potential for later schooling, post-school education, training and employment, and for the quality of life itself so that they can contribute to and enjoy the fruits of living within an Australian society that is fair, just, tolerant, honourable, knowledgeable, prosperous and happy.
When all is said and done, surely this is what every parent and every student should be able to expect of school education: not only as delivered within every public school in NSW, but within every school not only in Australia but throughout the entire world.
(P Brock, A Passion for Life, ABC Books, 2004 pp. 250-251)
As I was ‘writing’ this, I realised that I was compressing into a few paragraphs all of the knowledge, understanding, values and skills, in effect my fundamental philosophy on school teaching and learning – that I had advocated and hoped I would continue to advocate – in so many pages and in so many speeches over so many years. But this time, I was articulating it in a so powerfully personalised context.
So, in view of the teaching expectations I had set down for the journey of our children, did NSW public education fulfil my hopes and directions I set down in my autobiography eleven years ago? Too right it did!!
Sophie and Amelia both attended Oak Hill Drive Public School and Cherrybrook Technology High School: Sophie commenced her schooling at Narellan Vale Public School when we lived at Narellan before moving to Castle Hill. They both achieved brilliant results in their HSC.
Sophie, now twenty-four, is in the third year of her PhD at the University of Sydney – after securing First Class Honours in her BA – and Amelia, now twenty, is in the third year of her undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney. With my wife Dr Jackie Manuel, being an Associate Professor in that University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work, and my being an Adjunct Professor in that Faculty – we are pretty much a University of Sydney family!
Both Sophie and Amelia achieved brilliant HSC results. Incidentally, as soon as we learned of Sophie’s results at the end of 2008, whom do you think I rang first to thank (after ringing our family)? It was her very first teacher – Mrs Jenny Tipping who had taught Sophie in Kindergarten in 1995 at Narellan Vale Public School so superbly. And who was still teaching Kindergarten at that very same school all those years later, when I rang her.
As I thanked her for giving Sophie such a wonderful schooling platform, she began to cry with gratitude. I got the feeling that primary school teachers, and especially Kindergarten School teachers, don’t often get such a phone call!
I believe that what I wrote in 2004 has as much validity today – eleven years later – in scoping the aspirations of parents and the achievements of our finest teachers. And I further hope – while acknowledging that there will be so many changes in what we call ‘schooling’ in the intervening years – that in eleven years time those aspirations will still have retained their fundamental salience.
Indeed, it is my fervent hope that public education – even though it may have heavily changed in its architectural forms, in its breadth and depth of content, and through imaginative, innovative and creative modes of teaching and learning – will continue to flourish well into the 21st century as well.
The author of this refereed article, Dr Paul Brock AM is Director, Learning and Development Research, at the NSW Department of Education, and Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Education and Social Work, The University of Sydney
[i] Cited by Dr Shirley Smith in “School and the Educated Parrot” which was subsequently cited by Margaret McDonnell in a Letter to the Editor in The Australian, 11 May, 1987, p.8.
[ii] Waldock, A.J, “Leaving Certificate Examination, Examiner’s Report, English – Pass Paper 1946”, TheEducation Gazette, 1st April, 1947, p. 129.
[iii] Waldock, A.J, “Leaving Certificate Examination, Examiner’s Report, English – Pass Paper, 1948, unpaginated, Private Papers of D.B. Bowra stored in the library of the then Sydney Teachers’ College, later known as Sydney College of Advanced Education – Institute of Education, and now incorporated within the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney.
[iv] Board of Secondary School Studies, “Minutes of Meeting”, 28 June, 1951, p. 295.
[v] Wyndham, Harold S., (Chairman), Report of the Committee Appointed to Survey Secondary Education in New South Wales, Government Printer, Sydney, 1957, p. 88.
[vi] Cited in Daniels, H. Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered, Southern Illinios UP Carbonale, 1983, p. 51.
[vii] Sledd, A., “Essay Readin’ not Riotin’: The Politics of Literacy”, College English, 50, 5, 1988, p. 496.
[viii] Sledd, A., “Essay Readin’ not Riotin’: The Politics of Literacy”, College English, 50, 5, 1988, p. 496.
[ix] Alexandra Smith, “NSW public school teachers to undergo performance reviews”, The Sydney MorningHerald, 7 November, 2014, p. 4
[x] Alexandra Smith, “NSW public school teachers to undergo performance reviews”, The Sydney MorningHerald, 7 November, 2014, p. 4
[xi] Dawkins, J.S, The language of Australia: Discussion Paper on an Australian Literacy and LanguagePolicy for the 1990s. Released by The Hon. John Dawkins Minister for Employment, Education and Training December 1990, p. ix
Kalervo Gulson, Carlo Perrotta, Ben Williamson and Kevin Witzenberger reveal how Google Classroom works behind your screen…
As we write this article, our children are sitting in front of computers during yet another COVID-19 lockdown in Australia, doing their schoolwork through Google Classroom. The use of Classroom, an education platform, has been introduced as one of a range of education technology solutions to allow teaching and learning to continue when schools have been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Google Classroom is the 21st century update to the distance learning packs of the 20th century, or online radio schools in remote areas of the world.
While we all do our best, struggling at home to keep our children on track, and teachers struggling to create meaningful online interactions, behind the ubiquitous rectangles of the Google Classroom home page lies an infrastructure that connects our homes and our classrooms to a global technology company. Following mass school closures, by April 2020 Google reported 120 million users of G Suite across 250 countries and 54 languages; over 100 million active users of Classroom, doubling its reach from 50 million a month before; and a 60% share of the market in education computers in the US. A year later, Google added at least another 40 million Classroom users.[i]
What are platforms in education?
If you attended university in the last 15 years or so, you will have experienced one kind of education platform, the Learning Management System, or LMS, like Moodle, Blackboard or Canvas. If you use Facebook or Twitter, you are also using a platform. Our starting point is that digital platforms have become central to interaction and participation in contemporary societies. Platforms are basically a set of services, products and tools that combine new forms of governance, technical elements, computation and economics. Platforms are kinds of infrastructures, made by people to organise social life.
The Google Classroom platform is not just a delivery mechanism for content, it is emerging as an infrastructure for pedagogy. By this we mean that it has features and properties that channel and organise the work teachers and students do. All sorts of tasks are now offloaded on to the platform, on to third-party integrations, and on to parents and guardians. Teachers often no longer have a say about what functionalities get integrated into their classrooms. A system administrator now makes that decision. Teachers are required to accept it. They become a cog in this infrastructure. Now, this may not be that much different from how teachers feel about endless policy changes, or data entry requirements. However, what might be different is that teachers are now connected through Classroom to a larger global infrastructure, much of which has little to do with education.
Platforms operate by creating frameworks for other tools to work together and for users to engage with the platform. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Google, there are certain predetermined ways you can engage. Those are determined through a design process. An API is part of that process. APIs are formal collections of programming conventions and data restrictions that allow external applications to integrate into a platform and provide interoperability in distributed computing environments. That is, how different software packages can talk to each other across schools and systems. One feature of Google Classroom is the Google Classroom API. With the Google API, third-party entities (for example, small developers, large vendors and service providers) are enrolled in the platforms as a source of innovation, while ‘end-users’ and their interactions become sites of data extraction.
What do we mean by the pedagogy of Classroom?
Popular understandings of pedagogy emphasise its role as a framework for educational praxis, grounded in certain philosophical traditions, such as John Dewey’s moral philosophy. Pedagogies are therefore theoretical paradigms, at least they are taught that way in initial teacher education, that underpin practices and values in education. In more prosaic terms, pedagogies are what educators do as part of their jobs, often (but not always) under conditions of employed labour and in specific institutional settings. This more mundane, yet far-reaching, connotation of pedagogy is what we investigated in our research. Without doubt there are a number of benefits brought by using Classroom during the COVID-19 crisis. However, taking a longer-term perspective, the way the Classroom platform is structured takes away a degree of teacher pedagogical agency.
In Classroom, the API determines what counts as a legitimate user action. We call it a ‘data ontology.’ It determines what is actually ‘real’ in a particular context. But this ontology is actually arbitrary. Developers and corporations make those decisions in the interests of efficiency. For teachers, this means that you end up primarily doing what the platform allows. If certain teaching activities do not fit within that particular framework, if they do not fit the pedagogical framework that Classroom encourages, then, to be modified, they require additional work, technical skills, time, all things teachers may not have. The risk is that teachers just adapt and go with the flow of what Google allows rather than challenge it with something more pedagogically meaningful.
Also, there is a degree of platform literacy that is now required to teach and learn. A lot of pedagogy becomes about how to engage with the platform correctly. The ability to engage meaningfully with the platform increasingly cannot be separated from actual teaching and learning. That benefits Google first and foremost. It gets users used to the Google environment, so when they leave Classroom, they will keep engaging with the Google ecosystem. (Disclaimer: We wrote earlier versions of our research using Google Docs).
Or we could take the example of literacy, of learning how to read and write. Google Classroom now automates the process of originality checking,[ii] so it can be carried out by Google Docs itself. Teaching students how to engage appropriately with original material and explaining originality in a way that students can understand is a pedagogic process. But if that becomes automated, and it is just Classroom telling students what is original and what is not, it takes away the pedagogical dimension and becomes a matter of surveillance. Mistakes get flagged as a problem – another source of data – rather than being treated as a teachable moment, an issue of pedagogy.
But should we really worry about Google Classroom?
Schools deal with so much data everyday that it is hard to see why anyone should be worried about something like Classroom, that, especially in a time of lockdown, has provided a ready-to-use, readily available interface. Like other platforms, they make life easier and their efficiencies are undeniable. And it is understandable that teachers, and parents like us with kids using them, should just go along with them without questioning the problems.
However, the flip side is that in education systems around the world, we see a focus on measurement, accountability and high-stakes tests. The negative effects on teaching from these regimes of accountability, such as the narrowing of curricula, have been widely documented. We are interested in whether platforms like Classroom will continue a de-professionalisation of teaching, while adding to the burden accompanying the encroachment of administrative and accountability-related duties that have repeatedly undercut the educational dimension of teacher work.
Furthermore, the use of Google Classroom raises issues of data privacy and transparency in education, that are arising in other areas such as health and policing. Google is clear that any data they collect through Classroom is not being used to profile users or target them with advertisements. But Google has unprecedented scale, and is a company primarily set up on a search and advertising business model of extracting and using data from users.
For teachers and students, the moment users step out of Classroom, the traditional extractive model still applies – that is, even the data collected within the confines of Classroom is still used to refine Google’s tools. They use all the data collected from Google Docs, for example, to train the algorithms for the company’s AI models. Anyone who uses Google Docs is contributing to that process. If a teacher assigned a YouTube video to watch, that extractive model applies.
As Classroom becomes more embedded in schooling, we think there needs to be a broader political debate about regulation. Classroom is not really a fully closed environment. We call it a leaky pipe. There are gaps and holes, and current regulatory frameworks are unable to keep up with patching them all. This is hard to do in moments of crisis, but we suggest this framework should change to make Google more accountable as an educational actor that is shaping these dynamics in an active way.
Overall, Google Classroom allows teacher and students to undertake activities that seem to span what we understand as the key aspects of schooling – curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. But it seems that the Classroom platform ends up narrowing what we understand as education to a fairly narrow set of options to interact. It is not that online teaching itself narrows options but using Google Classroom may not be the best way to expand our online options.[iii]
To that end, more work needs to be done about how Classroom is used, and the ways it may or may not be changing teachers’ day-to-day practices. We would be interested in hearing from teachers if any of the above points ring true (or false).
Acknowledgement: The above is based on: Perrotta, C., Gulson, K. N., Williamson, B., & Witzenberger, K. (2021). Automation, APIs and the distributed labour of platform pedagogies in Google Classroom. Critical Studies in Education, 62(1), 97-113. [Please contact the authors if you would like a copy of this paper].
Perrotta, C., Gulson, K. N., Williamson, B., & Witzenberger, K. (2021). Automation, APIs and the distributed labour of platform pedagogies in Google Classroom. Critical Studies in Education, 62(1), 97-113.
Kalervo N. Gulson is a Professor in the School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney, Australia, and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow. His research investigates whether new knowledge, methods and technologies from the life and computing sciences, including Artificial Intelligence, will substantively alter the processes and practices of education policy.
Carlo Perrotta is Senior Lecturer in Digital Literacies in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. He is interested in the sociological and psychological ramifications of digital technology in education. His current research focuses on data-driven educational processes, digitally automated pedagogies and AI-driven education.
Ben Williamson is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Edinburgh Futures Institute and the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. His current research focuses on digital technologies and data infrastructures in higher education, and on the role of data science in the production of policy-relevant knowledge.
Kevin Witzenberger is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He researches the automation of governance in education and the potential impact of artificial intelligence on education policy.
Sally Patfield explains how teachers can support their students in light of new inequalities across the higher education sector …
In recent decades, the Australian higher education landscape has expanded significantly. Polices initially aimed at getting more people into university are now focused on widening participation; that is, encouraging a more diverse array of students to ‘choose’ higher education. Despite its social justice aims, however, this agenda has not resulted in a fair or socially just university system. Paradoxically, it has exposed new inequalities both within particular institutions and across the higher education sector to the point that equitable access to university education in Australia is, arguably, an illusion. This article shares research findings relevant to all teachers across K-12 settings.
The many myths of choice
In the context of the Australian Government’s vision of equity, excellence and quality for higher education (Commonwealth of Australia, 2016), young people are seen as rational actors who simply ‘choose’ their post-school futures.
However, two key ideas we think require further exploration are:
the unequal, hierarchical nature of contemporary higher education in Australia
the different capacities among young people to ‘choose’ higher education.
Our recent research focused on the idea of ‘stratification’ in higher education, taken here to mean deepening inequalities within the sector, such as in terms of the institution a student might attend or the degree in which they enrol. We used the lens of ‘choice’ to understand what is really happening for young Australians.
The Commonwealth’s assumption is that students will collect relevant information from a range of sources, weigh up pros and cons, and make well-thought-out calculations based on their preferences (Southgate & Bennett, 2016).
To aid under-represented equity groups in this decision-making process, universities have increasingly initiated outreach activities to build knowledge of, and dispositions towards, higher education. However, it is the newer, less prestigious universities that are frequently promoted as accessible to these students, rather than older, established institutions (Reay, 2017). To this end, students who don’t take up the offer to go to university are ultimately judged as ‘not aspirational enough’, placing blame on them for their post-school futures (Southgate & Bennett, 2016).
This simplistic view of ‘aspiration’ is not what plays out in practice. By contrast, our concern was to ask: what are the processes that lead to different kinds of higher education ‘choices’ by young Australians?
Which university and which degree?
We analysed the complexities of choice using Reay et al.’s (2005) concepts of the embedded chooser and contingent chooser. The embedded chooser has university-educated parents and is likely to come from a highly credentialled, middle-class family, where university is deeply ingrained in the family narrative. Higher education is embedded within their world and going to university is a long-term expectation. For this young person, the choice is not about whether to go to university, but which university to choose, often as an indication of status and distinction. In comparison, the contingent chooser is a first-generation entrant to higher education, typically from a working-class, low-income family. The very act of aspiring to higher education is a break from the established family narrative, and the very idea of university – not to mention where to attend – is contingent on any number of immediate concerns, such as economic, geographic and family expectations.
This duality provided a powerful starting point for exploring how ‘choice’ plays out in the post-school aspirations of young Australians. We studied this process of ‘choosing’ much earlier (during primary and secondary school), than when young people actually apply to enrol at university, focusing on when their ideas about their futures begin to form and crystallise. This approach provided a window into the early stratification of students’ post-school choices.
Early stratification of higher education ‘choice’
While access to higher education for under-represented equity groups is often seen as being about overcoming crude ‘barriers’ (Burke, 2012) such as money, distance and achievement, our research suggests that it is much more complicated than that. These factors not only structure choice-making, but also limit the capacity to imagine ‘choosing’ university at all.
How do we know?
Our analysis drew on data collected as part of a larger four-year research project (2012-2015) on the formation of educational and career aspirations, involving students in Years 3-12 (aged approximately 8 to 18) enrolled in 64 government schools in NSW (Gore et al., 2017a; Gore et al., 2017b). Of those schools, 30 were recruited for a qualitative investigation involving 134 focus groups with 553 students. Students were asked about: their experiences of schooling; the formation of post-school aspirations; key influences on aspirations; and knowledge of and experience with higher education and vocational education.
The complexities of choice
We were struck by how students at two schools epitomised embedded choice and contingent choice and conducted a comparative case study to illustrate different kinds of higher education ‘choice’ among young Australians. We compared a metropolitan high school, Harbour View High School (pseudonym), where students are more ‘traditional’ entrants to higher education, with a regional central school, Mountainside Central School (pseudonym), where students are less likely to pursue university pathways and therefore more likely to be seen as targets of widening participation initiatives. In Harbour View, the median income is twice the state average and half of the adults in the area hold a university degree. In Mountainside, the median income is half the state average and one in fifteen adults hold a university degree.
Our research showed that young people at Harbour View see no choice but to go to university; it is a long-term expectation they take for granted, and not going to university is inconceivable. They have at least one parent and many relatives and friends who have been to university, and these people provide students with important first-hand information and stories. The decision to go to university is so well established that student talk of aspirations centres on where to go, rather than if they should go to university. They often name prestigious institutions where family members have gone, and even overseas universities. These students also have access to international travel opportunities and take part in high-status cultural activities at school which they can ‘trade in’ when competing for entry into high-status institutions.
For the students at Mountainside, in a regional area with a history of mining and logging, their talk about university is characterised by language of hesitation and doubt; they will ‘wait and see’ what the future brings and believe that university is ‘not for everyone’. Financial concerns are prevalent when they speak about higher education; for instance, one student said they would go only if they got a scholarship. Some said the ‘real world’ is one of work, not study, and they had already excluded the very idea of higher education from a young age. Most do not have a parent or relative with a degree and have not visited a university campus; their information about higher education therefore comes from school. While these students rarely mentioned a specific institution to attend, Mountainside is an hour’s drive from a metropolitan university, and that local university was perceived as the best choice for those who might go to university because of proximity to family, cost, and perceived ‘fit’.
For the embedded choosers at Harbour View, there is no clear-cut moment when the choice was made to go to university; rather, the path to university is so embodied that the idea of not going is unthinkable. Given such an enduring relationship with higher education, the real choice is which university to attend. In contrast, for the contingent choosers at Mountainside, the decision about university manifests as deferred choice and self-exclusion (Ball et al., 2002), and the focus has already narrowed to the ‘local’ university. As a result, it is unlikely young people attending these schools will end up at the same university, or even the same kind of institution.
An enduring truth
The idea of equitable choice in accessing higher education can therefore be considered at best, an illusion. It is far removed from the simplistic notion of young people as rational actors making rational choices about their futures (Baldwin & James, 2000). The embedded chooser and the contingent chooser are two extremes of choice-making and higher education choice in Australia is differently experienced depending on where a young person lies on this continuum: from a wide array of global choice to a fundamental absence of choice.
Therefore, while the widening participation policy agenda aims to open up higher education to ‘the masses’, it has an unintended and quite opposite consequence – it is entwined with social sorting (Bexley, 2016).
Institutional status plays a decisive role in graduate outcomes, derived from varying cultural and social resources available to students (Ingram et al, 2018). Those who are already privileged tend to amass the additional benefits that come from attending prestigious universities while, for their less advantaged peers, simply ‘having a degree’ is often not enough to compete in the competitive graduate marketplace. In policy narratives, attending ‘university’ is often linked with social mobility. However, inequities within the academy can mean that the ‘new opportunities’ higher education represents essentially have diminished value (Reay, 2017).
What teachers can do now
Start conversations about university early, even during the primary years
An important implication of our analysis for teachers is that the stratification of students’ post-school choices occurs early. This begins not only when young people are making the decision about whether they will apply to university, but in fact when they are in primary and high school. Most research on higher education choice has focused on the later years of secondary schooling when students choose which institution to attend (Brooks, 2003; Reay et al., 2005). However, it is during the complex period of aspiration formation in primary and secondary school that higher education choice is formed. Starkly, it is also a time when some young people have already foreclosed on the very idea of higher education.
Encourage universities to engage early
Practically, widening participation initiatives need to be implemented much earlier than they are and must provide exposure to a range of institutions and degrees, as it is at this time that the very forms of inclusion and exclusion now characterising higher education begin to shape what young people see as possible and desirable.
Reform is necessary
Our analysis shows that any improvements in qualitative equity, that is, fair access inside the system, are a distant reality without reform. This is because the capacity to ‘choose’ university varies so vastly among the next generation of potential applicants. In our view, this stratification must be named and addressed as an issue requiring reform at a policy level.
There are also strategies that universities can implement, such as allocating places for students from under-represented groups in prestigious degrees, offering targeted early entry schemes that do not rely solely on academic measures, and providing financial support through scholarships and fellowships. Such information also needs to be funnelled through schools to young people and their families.
In sum, while massification has fostered the widening participation agenda as we have come to know it, there is now a critical and urgent need to address the stratification and horizontal inequity hidden in this agenda. Equity of access to university cannot simply be addressed by exhorting more young people, regardless of their background, to ‘choose’ university.
Baldwin, G., & James, R. (2000). The market in Australian higher education and the concept of student as informed consumer. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(2), 139-148. https://doi.org/10.1080/713678146
Ball, S. J., Davies, J., David, M., & Reay, D. (2002). ‘Classification’ and ‘judgement’: Social class and the ‘cognitive structures’ of choice in higher education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 23(1), 51-72. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425690120102854
Bexley, E. (2016). Further and higher? Institutional diversity and stratification. In A. Harvey, C. Burnheim, & M. Brett (Eds.), Student equity in Australian higher education: Twenty-five years of a fair chance for all (pp. 275-292). Springer.
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Gore, J., Holmes, K., Smith, M., Fray, L., McElduff, P., Weaver, N., & Wallington, C. (2017a). Unpacking the career aspirations of Australian school students: Towards an evidence base for university equity initiatives in schools. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(7), 1383-1400. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2017.1325847
Gore, J., Patfield, S., Holmes, K., Smith, M., Lloyd, A., Gruppetta M., Weaver, N., & Fray, L. (2017b). When higher education is possible but not desirable: Widening participation and the aspirations of Australian Indigenous school students. Australian Journal of Education, 61(2), 164-183. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004944117710841
Ingram, N., Abrahams, J., Bathmaker, A-M. (2018). When class trumps university status: Narratives of Zoe and Francesca from the Paired Peers project. In P.J. Burke, A. Haynton, & J. Stevenson (Eds.), Evaluating equity and widening participation in higher education (pp. 132-152). UCL Institution of Education Press.
Reay, D., David, M. E., & Ball, S. (2005). Degrees of choice: Social class, race and gender in higher education. Trentham Books.
Reay, D. (2017). Miseducation: Inequality, education and the working classes. Polity Press.
Southgate, E., & Bennett, A. (2016). University choosers and refusers: Social theory, ideas of ‘choice’ and implications for widening participation. In M. Shah, A. Bennett, & E. Southgate (Eds.), Widening higher education participation (pp. 225-240). Elsevier.
Dr Sally Patfield is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle. Sally has over 15 years’ experience working in various educational contexts, including as a primary teacher in NSW public schools and across professional and academic roles in higher education. Sally’s doctoral research investigated school students who would be the first in their families to enter higher education. Conferred in 2018, her thesis was awarded the prestigious Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education by the Australian Association for Research in Education (2019). Sally’s research focuses on the sociology of higher education, social inequalities, widening participation and educational transitions.
If you would like to find out more about our research on aspirations, you can complete our free online professional development course ‘Aspirations: Supporting Students’ Futures’. The course accounts for 10 hours of PL and is aligned with the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Find out more here.