Issue 5, May 2007 | Martin Forsey

The Great Education Consensus - Why Do We No Longer Seem to be Really Interested in Equity?

Walking my dogs a little over twelve months ago in my local neighbourhood, I noticed an A-4 size pamphlet on the pavement in front of me. Upon observing that it was a newsletter from one of the prominent, high-fee private boys schools in Perth, I picked it up. Having just begun research into school choice in the state capital of Western Australia, the subject was compulsory reading for me. Especially striking was the section titled ‘Annual Giving 2004’ which highlighted the amount of money raised by private donation over the course of the year. The ‘big ticket items’ were the ‘Boy-Tech Classrooms’, for which $59,250 had been raised, but the item that really drew my attention was the $12,790 donated for the school’s ‘Gymnasium Entrance Statement’. The contrast between a school spending a significant sum of money on adornment for its gymnasium with schools – both government and non-government – that do not have a gymnasium, and where some teachers reportedly supply their students with pencils and crayons from their own personal funds, is striking in what it tells us about Australian society.

To borrow a well known marketing slogan, “schools are us”. More than any other social institution, a school offers a powerful lens for viewing and comprehending the wider society in which it is produced and replicated. As a former Editor of The West Australian once commented, “a school is more than the sum of its buildings, equipment and education programs. It is an expression of the values and aspirations of the community it serves”1.  The ways in which schools are structured, positioned, funded, managed, appreciated, critiqued, cared for and neglected, presents us with a means for seeing beyond the rhetoric of a nation state to the lived realities faced by its citizens.

A later Editor of Western Australia’s only daily newspaper recently asserted that Australians ‘hold dear the ideals of egalitarianism and the fair go’, an unsurprising statement that reflects a powerful mythological strand woven into Australia’s social fabric2.  More importantly for the arguments being mounted here, the Editor concluded his assertion about the great Australian commitment to equity with the observation that ‘these [ideals] are not always evident in everyday life’3.  It is a classic understatement, one that has become even more wry in these so-called neoliberal times.

In exploring some of the ironies and contradictions of contemporary Australian life, my aim here is to consider some of the recent shifts in educational policy and funding, using them to reflect upon the sort of society we are currently re-producing in Australia4.  I write as an anthropologist/sociologist who has been researching schooling for more than a decade. As the sub-title of the paper suggests I wonder why Australians seem to have lost interest in, or perhaps more accurately the hope of, building a society based on the promise of a fair go for all. The answer seems to lie, at least partly in the ways in which we are all encouraged to become neoliberal subjects. It is fitting then to move to a discussion of what this might mean and to begin linking this to the ways in which our various education systems are currently being shaped in Australia.

Becoming Neoliberal Subjects

According to neo-liberal theory, markets are most efficient and most moral when freed from state interference and allowed to compete openly with each other5.  Neoliberalists are apparently happiest when privatization and deregulation are brought together into a competitive atmosphere. Doing so, according to the advocates of this philosophical approach to human organization, not only eliminates red tape but also, “increases efficiency and productivity, improves quality, and reduces costs both directly to the consumer through cheaper commodities and services and indirectly through reduction of the tax burden.”

We live in an era when the welfare state is apparently ‘on the nose’ and when the private is favoured over the public because of the apparent ability of the private sector to deliver greater levels of efficiency more economically than can a bloated, oppressive bureaucracy. This is, in part, what the term ‘neoliberalism’ is attempting to capture. What is often missing, and missed, in discussion of neoliberal reform is the contradictory role played by the State in promoting a rhetoric that appears to guarantee its own demise at the same time as those responsible for running the organs of the State enhance their influence over individual citizens by creating the conditions by which we become individual entrepreneurs and clients of the new business-like government enterprise. As Olssen argues in his ‘defence of the welfare state’, the positive conception of the role played by the state in creating “appropriate markets” marks the major difference between classical and neo-liberalism: “In classical liberalism, the individual is characterized as having an autonomous human nature and can practice freedom. In neo-liberalism the state seeks to create an individual who is an enterprising and competitive entrepreneur.”7 

In arguing that academic analysis of neo-liberal reform is overwhelmingly negative and cynical, Larner urges researchers to avoid using standard mantras of national economic decline and the loss of social welfare. As she suggests, neo-liberalism is not a monolithic, “top-down ideological project,” rather it is a complex, multi-layered, multi-vocal, and deeply social phenomenon8.  Not surprisingly most people absorb the commonsense positions of our time and become neoliberal subjects. All sides of the political spectrum tend to be wary of big government and bureaucracy. Most people defend their right to choose what is best for them and their children. The loosening up of bureaucratic strictures is attractive to many, there is something in it for most people otherwise the uptake of the opportunities presented would be sparse. The implications of this refashioning of citizens as clients of the state for funding and choosing schools are the subjects of the remainder of this essay.

Funding Schools

I began writing this reflection almost simultaneously with the Australian Labor Party making it absolutely clear to voters in this election year that "Previous attitudes by federal Labor to a so-called hit list in non-government schools was (sic) wrong”, and that "A Rudd Labor government will support parental choice …by funding all schools, whether they are government, non-government, religious or secular, based on need and fairness."9  It is clear that the Rudd camp is not going to make the apparent mistake made in the Mark Latham-led campaign of alienating those who are either involved in so-called private schooling, or who aspire to be.

The current political consensus regarding public and private education – there is very little by way of debate by politicians – stands in stark contrast to the situation in most of the Colonies, which were soon to become States, a little over a century ago. In Western Australia for example, the 1894 election gave a clear mandate to the incoming Government to cut all ongoing financial support to non-government schools. In the twenty three years prior to the election in question, denominational schools were guaranteed funding that was set at approximately 70 percent of that granted to public schools, a commitment that was instigated by Frederick Weld, a committed Catholic, was appointed Governor of the Colony in 1869. The funding guarantee triggered immediate expansion of the Catholic school system in Western Australia. So successful were Catholic schools in this period, they soon came to outperform government schools both in terms of academic performance and enrolment growth. By the time of the fateful election, 34 percent of all students attending primary schools in Western Australia were in Catholic schools10.  When one considers that today the proportion of students enrolled in Catholic schools in Western Australia is just under 15 percent, and that non-government schools in Western Australia currently cater to 27 percent of total enrolments it is not surprising that the late nineteenth century expansion of Catholic education in the soon to be named State of Western Australia, was causing alarm to those committed to either a secular society, or to Protestantism11

Unlike the current period the conflict about funding non-government schools said more about sectarian divisions of the time than it did about commitment to equality; indeed the decision to defund religious schools was fundamentally unfair to people who were committed to Catholicism, many of whom were of working class stock. The inequity of the situation became a major political issue in the second half of the twentieth century and culminated in the Whitlam government guaranteeing funding to Catholic schools on the basis of justice and need. Having attended Catholic schools in the 1970s and worked as a teacher and consultant in the Catholic Education system for more than a decade I write as one who benefited from these shifts in government funding. They marked a welcome and necessary change in a society priding itself on egalitarianism. Not surprisingly, however, they also brought a number of probably unintended consequences, although some of the more trenchant critics of neoliberalism argue that the concentration of wealth and restoration of class power that has accompanied recent government reform is no accident12

The peculiar history of Australian society has produced a robust system of non-government schooling. After more than seventy years of operating without significant government support, Catholic schools were understandably keen to maintain their independence. Given the sense of autonomy charging fees to parents bestows upon a school, unlike their counterparts throughout most of the Anglophone world it is difficult to imagine Catholic schools willingly relinquishing their fee-paying status, no matter how small that fee may be. Because funding also flowed to what has become known as the Independent Schools’ sector, there are now very few truly independent schools in Australia13.  The vast majority of all Australian schools now receive some form of Commonwealth and/or State funding and the term private is a misnomer.

Since the 1970s we have witnessed a slow, and ultimately significant, leakage of students out of the government school system into the non-government, or fee-paying sector, a trend that is particularly apparent in secondary schools. This has coincided with a growing loss of confidence in government schools, which early in 2004 the Prime Minister, John Howard, attributed to the perception that government schools are simultaneously devoid of values and much too politically correct. Apart from the fact that political correctness and a lack of values seem to be at odds with each other, it is interesting to note that the issue of funding and resource bases did not emerge in the Prime Minister’s discourse as alternative explanations for the net flow away from government education.

An interview I conducted with a married couple in 2005 helps illustrate some of the shifts that have occurred and the ways in which the flow of funds, and changes in conditions even to low fee Catholic schools has shifted the equity balance to the point where government schools are disadvantaged in the current market conditions. Lisa is a primary school teacher in a government school in a relatively affluent part of Perth. Her husband, George is the Principal of a K-12 Catholic school located in one of the poorer parts of town14.  Our conversation had been focusing on the perceptions and realities associated with both systems of schooling and it caused Lisa to comment on how people often talk with her about the sacrifices parents at non-government schools are willing to make, not only in paying fees, but also in raising significant funds for the school. Without discussing the fund-raising capabilities of people located on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder Lisa let me know that parents in government schools also raise fees. The knowledge that comes from being married to a Principal in a non-government school however allowed her to point to a little known, but important disparity between the two systems that affects the sorts of funds that the different types of schools can raise for significant infrastructure projects – the availability of low-interest loans.

The parents and staff in the school in which Lisa teaches would dearly love to renovate their library, but unlike the parents and staff in the school in which George works, they are unable to apply for a low interest loan to help them. As George readily pointed out, such loans are only available to the non-government sector, a comment which caused Lisa to lament the ways in which “We have to wait ‘til our name comes to the worst school on the maintenance list and if they come and check and we’re not as bad as other schools then we don’t get anything until the next round.” George alluded to the ‘strong political campaign’ waged by some of the key leaders in the Catholic system to secure these loans. Commenting that the loans carry an interest load of “something like one and half percent”, he observed that this particular device had allowed the school he oversees to “really expand and improve our facilities”.

In comparing the situation in her school, Lisa told me of the hesitancy among those involved in planning the development of the government school to do anything to the library because they might be ultimately wasting important resources:

“Well if we do put our money into that [it] will that mean that ... we might have been coming up for our turn, will they then not give us the money because we’ve put the money in? They're in this situation of just not knowing which way to go. Do we sit here on our list waiting what might be another five years? If we do it now and we were going to get on the list ... you know then we’ve wasted that money which could have gone elsewhere”.

Choosing Schools and the Public Good

George and Lisa were interviewed as part of an interview-based research project focused on school choice, the cohort for which were teachers, parents and students who had changed systems, that is they had moved from a non-government school to a government school, or vice versa. One of the fifty persons I spoke with was Jim who was interviewed because he had recently taken the decision to remove his son from a low-fee protestant high school that was run by the church of which he was a member, and enrol him at Juniper High, where Jim now works as an industrial arts teacher. The interview took place on a student lunch table at Juniper High, a school with a reputation as one of the more academically successful government schools in Western Australia.

Reflecting on the decision to enrol his son at Juniper Jim put it to me that a generation ago he would not have worried about where he sent him to school – the local government school would have been good enough. Thinking further about the changes he has witnessed with regards to schooling and choice of schools, Jim made the following observation.
What you’re creating is little enclaves of likeminded, wealthy people and enclaves of people who are of all the same type and I think if we’re not careful it’s going to happen with our government schools, those who have no choice have just got to accept what’s there and those who have got double incomes and highly motivated and … I mean years ago most of those people would have been happy with a government school to be quite honest. I think schools like this [Juniper High] probably reflects what people were getting 20, 30 years ago to a certain extent … What a lot of people are paying for … is what they got for free 30 years ago. Does that make sense?

Jim’s comment about what people were getting two or three decades ago suggests that while Juniper High is currently seen as exceptional in the government education system, it is what used to be more like the norm in the public system. What is now considered to be an outstanding educational institution was once more or less the standard offering among the government schools of Western Australia, or at least that is Jim’s perception of what has happened to government schooling in the state.

Aware of how the choices he was making for his children were influenced by forces that were sweeping across Australian society, Jim was struck by how he was part of a significant historical development. As a product of a working class family, who had had attended his local Catholic schools up until Year 10 and which he left in order to take up an apprenticeship as a mechanical fitter, Jim was very conscious of how his own recent choices and decisions were influenced by what he saw as a competitive, materialistic ethos that has come to dominate contemporary Australian society.

Jonelle was interviewed because she had recently removed her two children from a government school in the Southern Industrial Zone of Perth. I was particularly interested in talking with her because we had heard about how she drove around the suburbs with a bumper-sticker proclaiming her commitment to public education despite having sent her son and daughter to the local Catholic high school. When asked about this in the interview, it drew the following response:

Yeah. I mean it’s like I still run around with my government education sticker sitting on my car and people say, “You’re sending your kids private, why do you have this on your car”? And I say it’s because the government system is still important and just because I don’t want to send my kids in there to be the so called sacrificial lambs to fix it doesn’t mean I don’t care about the kids that are in there you know! Like it’s still got to be fixed and I think a lot of us have still got to lobby to get them fixed particularly for the funding and just the things down here”.

Four of the ten parents interviewed who had recently moved at least one of their children from a government to a non-government school were teachers in the public system. Along with Jonelle and two of the other parents in this cohort, they expressed strong support for the public system, and they each explained the obvious tensions between their public mindedness and their parental interests in fascinating ways. Ultimately it came down to the need to do the best thing by their individual child, a position that Almond has noted among parents in the USA. Writing in defence of school choice policies Almond (1994:70-71) points to something similar in the ways in which parents put their progeny’s interests ahead of those of the community: “Although there are undoubtedly some people who place political or ideological principle before personal consideration, it would be generally true to say that most parents are not prepared to sacrifice their own children’s welfare for the public good”. Despite an apparently strong, if vague, commitment to principles of equity among Australian parents15,  the situation does not appear to be very different here to the one described by Almond.

Losing a Commitment to Equity?

As is always the case, we live in interesting times. Among those who lean left on the political spectrum a certain amnesia has developed about the sort of consensus built up around the post war commitment to the welfare state and more particularly for the situation under consideration here, to comprehensive education. Forgotten is the trenchant critique of class reproduction that was said to be part of schooling that emerged from conflict theorists in the 1970s. Public education is under siege and needs defending appears to be the prevailing logic among left-leaning commentators. I raise this not only to highlight the ways in which “the left” has been outflanked by neoliberal reformists, but also to suggest that egalitarianism has always been more of a vague desire than an actual practice in Australian social life. However, we do appear to have moved further away from even a rhetorical commitment to equity and social justice, a situation that Beck, Bonns and Lau attribute to the increased individualisation they claim marks what they identify as a second phase in modernity. This second modernity is a period in which those living in European societies and their derivatives are actively stripping away the nation-state and the welfare system that has been associated with it for the past fifty years or so16.  It is useful to read Jim’s musings on the changes he claims to have noticed regarding parenting and the ways in which schooling is organised as helping to exemplify the ‘intensification of individualization’ that Beck and his colleagues claim to be a defining feature of second modernity. According to them (2003:6), the impetus for this increased emphasis on the emancipation of the individual, derives from one of the major products of first modernity – the welfare state17.  Put another way the class compromise that helped build the first modernity paved the way for the destruction of the very consciousness that helped produce it. The increased governmental expenditure on education and social protection that marked the post-war period in most Western nations produced “a more predictable, institutionalized childhood, greater consistency in the period when children grow up and leave home, a narrowing of childbearing years and a clearer demarcation between when working life begins and when it ends”18.  The predictability that this institutionalization of the modern life-course brought to the lives of most citizens increased the possibilities of, and desire for, the exercise of flexibility and choice. As Higgs & Gilleard help show, an increased emphasis on individualization flows readily enough from the conditions produced out of this predictability and stability.

While I think that Beck and his colleagues take too much for granted in their assertions about second modernity, nevertheless their ideas seem to have some power in helping to explain how so-called Westerners, among others, have more or less become neoliberal subjects over the past two decades or so. If it is true that in this time a critical mass of people have become increasingly focused on individual needs over and above the collective good, then this has important implications for Australian society. We need to ask whether it is time to become far more realistic about our expectations of schools and start toning down the utopian rhetoric that envelopes education systems. We will need to start acknowledging that while, ideally, schools are places where future generations are given every opportunity to maximize their potential and where everyone gets “a fair go”, in practice we are not prepared to finance this adequately. We are not prepared to pay the requisite price for becoming an egalitarian society. We should concede that in devolving some decision-making power to individual schools what we are really seeking is to run education on the cheap. In so doing we also ensure that government is not held accountable for some of the tough decisions associated with running schools. Furthermore, issues that can be associated with broader structural inequality such as poor student achievement, illiteracy, discipline problems, faulty infrastructure and so on, are now clearly the responsibility of individual schools; they have to find the revenue to take care of this. And those that can not will either have to merge, close or battle on as best they can. Dare we be so brutal in our rhetoric, notwithstanding the fact that this has been the reality produced by education systems since their inception?

As structured agents, we are all profoundly influenced by the grand narratives and practices of our time. Neoliberalism has undoubtedly been incorporated into our commonsense understandings of the world. However, becoming neo-liberal subjects is not just something that happens to us, we make decisions and choices in getting there. The increased emphasis on choice in schooling that is very much a part of a neoliberal commitment to small government and private enterprise, raises important questions not just about how we want to organize our schools and education system, but ultimately about the sort of society  we are seeking to re-produce right here, right now. I venture to suggest that many people would like to think that they are not involved in practices that intensify the privileges of elite classes. But we are. And the question continues to arise – what are we going to do about this?

  1. Editorial The West Australian Tuesday May 26 1998, p.12.
  2. But as Benedict Anderson in his seminal book about nations as ‘imagined communities’ observes, all nations imagine themselves as constituted by relationships of horizontal comradeship. Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London & New York, Verso
  3. The Editor, The West Australian, April 29, 2006, p.18
  4. While education reproduces, it also produces. Hyphenating the word “re-production” points to the double significance of a system that simultaneously reinforces the status quo by socialising students to accept their place in society, and also provides the conditions for questioning of this status quo, allowing for the production of new forms of social structure and the potential for other forms of self to be created. See Bingham, C. (2001). 'What Friedrich Nietzsche Cannot Stand About Education: Toward a Pedagogy of Self-Reformulation'. Educational Theory 51(3), p.342; Forsey (2007) Challenging the System: A Dramatic Tale of Neoliberal Reform in an Australian High School. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.
  5. Cahill, D., and Beder, S. (2005). 'Regulating the Power Shift: The State, Capital and Electricity Privatisation in Australia'. Journal of Australian Political Economy 55, p.5.
  6. Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, ####, p.65
  7. Olssen, M. (1996) 'In Defence of the Welfare State and Publicly Provided Education: A New Zealand Perspective', Journal of Education Policy, 11, p.340.
  8. Larner, W. (2005). 'Neoliberalism in (Regional) Theory and Practice: The Stronger Communities Action Fund in New Zealand', Geographical Research 43(1), pp.10-17.
  9. ‘Rudd tightlipped on private school funds’ The Age March 19, 2007.
  10. Tannock, P. (1979). Pp. 142-143 ###
  11. (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004:7) ####
  12. Harvey, D. op cit, p.68.
  13. This is by no means an inevitable development as the lack of funding to schools other than Catholic schools in the Canadian province of Ontario attests.
  14. All names used are pseudonyms.
  15. Bullock, A., and Thomas, H. (1997). Schools at the Centre? A Study of Decentralisation. London: Routledge, p.55.
  16. Beck, U., W. Bonns, W,. and C. Lau. (2003). 'The Theory of Reflexive Moderniaztion: Problematic, Hypotheses and Research Programme'. Theory, Culture & Society 20(2), p.2.
  17. Ibid p.6
  18. Higgs, Paul., Gilleard, Chris. 2006. 'Departing the Margins: Social Class and Later Life in a Second Modernity.' Journal of Sociology 42(3), p.230.