It goes without saying that it’s been a difficult few years for in-person conferences. I’m sure many of us had high hopes for AARE 2022 and it certainly delivered spectacularly! From the excellent opening session on Monday morning, through all the presentations I was lucky enough to catch, to the opportunities to connect with colleagues old and new, I couldn’t fault anything (ok maybe too much cake at morning tea but a small price to pay for a lovely few days). As an early career researcher it was encouraging to see many just-graduated PhDs present their research, to audiences containing not only their supervisors, but also the many others who attended their presentations. The sense of community was certainly apparent.
It is challenging for ECRs to step into the realm of national research conferences. It takes a while to figure out whether you’re conferencing in the right way or not. AARE 2022 was the first in-person conference I’ve attended, having completed my entire PhD during COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions. I’d heard about the generative nature of these events but I had to experience it first-hand to see how productive they can be. Everyone I met and talked with over the few days – no matter their role, position or length of time in the industry – was welcoming, encouraging and interested in the future of education research in Australia. If AARE 2022 is anything to go by, the future of our field is looking very strong.
My personal highlights included:
- The welcome to country by Uncle Mickey: Thank you. We were so welcomed to Kaurna country and the theme of knowledge sharing permeated the days of the conference.
- Professor Allyson Holbrook’s outgoing presidential address which prompted me to reflect on the uniqueness of a PhD undertaken in the field of education. We are rare indeed. Supporting the progress and career development of our current PhD students, and attracting more people with educational qualifications to pursue research will be an ongoing – but necessary – challenge.
- The City West Campus of UniSA was a really spectacular location: I didn’t get lost even once! The weather was perfect and the outdoor spaces allowed many serendipitous meetings not possible in online conference format. Huge congratulations and thanks should go to all those who helped organise such an excellent event.
Finally, the many individual talks interposed by themed symposiums are always the ultimate highlight of an in-person conference. In the following section I’ve drawn together some threads emerging from several different presentations that I observed during the 2022 AARE conference.
The missing link: Considering the agency of parents in the Australian educational landscape
I think it was Emma Rowe who had a beautiful metaphor about pulling the threads of seemingly different phenomena and watching how they unravelled (Day 2, Politics and Policy in Education symposium). In a similar vein I’d like to pull out some threads from multiple presentations in disparate streams and try to capture something missing.
First the presentations: In the Day 3 Sociology of Education stream, Jung-sook Lee and Meghan Stacey from UNSW spoke about their work looking at perceptions of fairness in relation to educational inequities. The researchers presented a fictional scenario to a sample of almost 2000 Australian adults in which ‘students from high-income and low-income families have achievement gaps due to different quality of education provided to them’ (from the abstract). The scenario identified a situation where better-quality teachers for children from high-income families led to better educational outcomes for these children.
Interestingly people with children either currently in school or soon to attend school were less likely to perceive this scenario as unfair.
Prompted by the concluding questions proposed by the authors, audience discussion turned to the issue of why people – and parents in particular – might hold this oddly contradictory opinion. We pride ourselves in Australia (apparently) on being proudly egalitarian. The Gonski reviews (both the first and the second) were largely positively received in the Australian community. Yes! Of course children should have equitable access to educational resources. #IgiveaGonski.
So why might the idea of educational equity not apply when considering the educational experiences of our own children? Why would it be ok, in the perceptions of the survey respondents, that some children get a better deal because their families have the capacity to pay for it?
The second presentation in the Schools and Education Systems stream (also Day 3) was that by Melissa Tham, Shuyan Huo and Andrew Wade from Victoria University. The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Youth (LSAY) and demonstrated that attendance at academically selective schools has apparently no long-term benefits for students attending these schools. The authors looked at a range of outcomes including university participation and completion, whether participants were employed, and life satisfaction at age 19 and again at age 25. None of these differed for students who had attended selective schools versus those who had not.
The discussion again turned to the question of why parents are invested in sending their kids to academically selective schools if there’s no observable long-term benefit of doing so. [Of course, academically selective schools always top the rankings for the ATAR each year, but this is likely because the kids in these schools are already high-achievers, not because the selective schooling system adds value to their educational experience]. Indeed, there may be considerable medium-term disadvantages for some students in contexts where kids are grouped together in hothouses of ultra-competitiveness.
A third paper that I wasn’t able to attend on Day 4 in the Social Justice stream touched again on the question of whether a private school education adds any value to educational outcomes (broadly defined). The authors Beatriz Gallo Cordoba, Venesser Fernandes, Simone McDonald and Maria Gindidis, looked at the way differences in Year 9 NAPLAN numeracy scores between public and private schools were related to funding inequities between these contexts, rather than school quality differences. While the abstract argued that ‘the increasing number of parents sending their children to private schools has been a growing trend causing controversy’, I am inclined to think that if equity is not the foremost consideration for parents in their school decision-making, then it’s not a controversy for them. Like all of us, parents want the best for children. It just so happens that they may make different decisions when it’s their own children (real and concrete as they are), rather than other people’s children (in the abstract).
Anecdotally, people are aware that there’s no academic benefit to these kinds of schools – neither the academically selective type nor the financially selective type. Earlier this year in The Conversation we summarized research showing no advantages to sending children to private schools when NAPLAN results are considered as an ‘outcome’. Apart from being roundly criticized once or twice for the apparently obvious findings, the thousands of comments we received on social media channels and on the website largely indicated that parents weren’t thinking of academics when they paid for a private education for their kids. But if not academics then what? And if we ostensibly believe in equity until it’s our kids in the mix then do we really believe it at all? What is going on with parents’ decision-making that means these kinds of contradictory decisions are being made about their children’s schooling?
This brings me (finally!) to my point: it felt like the missing thread drawing these disparate research papers together is the influence of parents. After all, which is the largest group of stakeholders in this game after teachers and children themselves? I think we downplay the influence of parents in the education of children at our peril. We can train teachers to be absolute superstars, we can lobby governments for more equitable funding allocations and better conditions for teachers, we can study cognitive development and how children learn in schooling contexts, we can work on inclusion, fairness and tolerance among students in school communities. But I wonder: if the influence of parents is not directly and explicitly confronted in research that examines educational inequities, policy or social justice (whether the influences are positive or negative), do we have a confounding variable problem? And if so, how can this be resolved?
No offence intended to the (possibly multiple) papers at AARE 2022 that did consider the role of parents in the education of their children. In particular among the presentations that I wasn’t able to catch on the final day was an intriguing one in a Politics and Policy symposium entitled ‘The construction of (good) parents (as professionals) in/through learning platforms’ presented by Sigrid Hartong and Jamie Manolev. Secondly, Anna Hogan presented her work in the Philanthropy in Education symposium, examining the changing role of Parents and Citizens (P&C) organisations in public schools. The findings of this work show how ‘parents are now operating as new philanthropists, solving the problem of inadequate state funding through private capital raising’ in public schools (from the abstract). I’m looking forward to papers for both of these studies in the near future!
These last few years have been challenging times for researchers in many fields, but maybe particularly so for education. Oftentimes it seems as though we move in totally different realms to the governments that make educational policy and the school sites which contain the teachers and students we are interested in supporting. The rise of research agencies external to universities (e.g. the Grattan Institute, the Centre for Independent Studies and AERO) or those subsumed within government departments (e.g. the Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation) may mean that our research work is sidelined or ignored, particularly when the findings are not immediately applicable or contradictory to national narratives of educational decline.
AARE 2022 has reinforced to me the quality and depth of the research that is happening in universities across Australia in many diverse subfields of educational scholarship. I found out so much that I did not know before: and perhaps this in itself is a challenge for us. We know that our work is important and to whom it should apply. We can see the value in each other’s work when we attend conferences and allow the space to connect, discuss and imagine. How then do we ensure this value is recognised not only by the wider community, but also by all the teachers, early childhood educators, policymakers, parents and young people who are both the subjects and potential beneficiaries of our research?
Sally Larsen is a Lecturer in Learning, Teaching and Inclusive Education at the University of New England. Her research is in the area of reading and maths development across the primary and early secondary school years in Australia, including investigating patterns of growth in NAPLAN assessment data. She is interested in educational measurement and quantitative methods in social and educational research. You can find her on Twitter @SallyLars_27