Amanda Keddie

Is COVID-19 heralding a new way of the media representing teachers?

The sport and politics of teacher bashing, and in particular teacher union bashing, has a long and inglorious history in the Australian media. Whether this is connected to an anti-intellectual bias in Australian society, the glorification of sport and the physical as opposed to the intellect, is unclear. However research suggests that mainstream media plays a critical role in creating dominant representations of particular groups in society and these representations directly impact individuals and the groups involved.

During April 2020 when schools were rapidly moving to and from remote teaching we collected and analysed a range of media articles focussing on schooling issues. What we found makes us believe the COVID-19 pandemic might yet be an opportunity to reset the often-antagonistic relationship between the teaching profession in Australia and the Australian press.

In this post we want to tell you more about our research and why we think it could be an opportunity to herald change in the way the media connects with our teaching profession.

Major disconnect of perceptions before the COVID-19 pandemic

Two pre-COVID-19 surveys of Australian teachers and public perceptions of teaching revealed a major disconnect between the public perception of teachers as respected and trusted, and teachers own views of their reputation. In the nationwide survey conducted in 2019 with both public and non-government systems, teachers were asked to indicate their agreement with the statement, I feel that the Australian public appreciates teachers.  71% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. In contrast, a second survey of the general public conducted simultaneously reported that 82% of respondents felt teachers were well respected or moderately respected. In addition, 93% of respondents in the public survey felt that teachers were trusted or moderately trusted.

This disconnect between teachers’ perceptions of respect and trust and the public perception has serious direct consequences for the education of our children and young people, particularly in terms of teachers’ well-being, the retention of teachers in the profession and even educational outcomes. The survey reports that in order for teachers to remain motivated and committed to their profession, public recognition by politicians, communities and society of the importance of teaching is critical. They further report on international research which has “found a correlation between teacher status and student achievement”.

Why media concentration in Australia, and media discourse, matters

It has been regularly noted that the concentration of media in Australia is one of the highest in the world. And although levels of public engagement in traditional media outlets such as newspapers and television have declined rapidly, their ability to shape public opinion and political policy remains high.

Of the 58% of teacher respondents in the 2019 survey noted above who indicated they wished to leave the profession, 10% cited a lack of appreciation as the main reason for their departure. One respondent’s unsolicited comment typified these responses:

I feel under-appreciated and disrespected in community, public and media”.

Recent studies of principals shows that negative representations of teachers in the press deleteriously impact on the health and wellbeing of principals who are expected to manage the media, particularly in time of crisis. As a society we all pay the price and are poorer for it.

The COVID-19 outbreak and media representations

Health workers are rightly valorised by politicians and the media for the front-line role they are playing in the pandemic. However, teachers have been shamed in the media, for example by the Prime Minister, for raising the issue of risks associated with keeping schools open, but also sometimes praised for being on the frontline by continuing to teach.

Nevertheless at the beginning of this pandemic we were hearing more about parents doing schooling from home (not home schooling) rather than recognition of the work of teachers teaching online and face-to-face, often at the same time. 

Our research project

As part of a large scale Australian Research Council Discovery Grant examining school autonomy and social justice, we collected a range of media articles which discuss the particular issues facing schools and systems as they tackle the move from face-to-face schooling to remote learning, and back again.

We analysed 18 articles collected from a range of state jurisdictions and from a cross-section of the traditional media, as well as one article drawn from social media, written by Lyndsay Connors, a highly respected senior education adviser for the New South Wales and federal governments. These included the more right-wing News Corporation (or “Murdoch press”), the more traditionally centrist newspapers owned by Nine Entertainment (formerly the Fairfax press) and the Saturday Paper, an independently funded, left-leaning newspaper. The articles range from ‘hard news’ pieces, opinion pieces and letters to the editor.

They were collected across April 2020, a month which spanned the shift from the closure of schools across Australia due to the COVID-19 pandemic to their gradual reopening as restrictions gradually eased. As states gradually lifted their lockdown measures, there was increasing pressure from the federal government for schools to reopen across the nation so that workers could return to employment and fuel an economic recovery.

However, given that Australia is a federation and funding and governance of public school systems is a state responsibility, there were differences in opinion between the various state governments and the federal government as to the wisdom of reopening schools. This is where teachers and their portrayal within the media becomes revealing.

Prior to the debate about reopening schools, there was a brief time when the Prime Minister and Federal Government more broadly appeared to be in consensus with the media that teachers were front-line workers and required respect and trust. Lyndsay Connors reflected in her opinion piece on 15 April 2020 that

The shock of dealing with the realities of the coronavirus pandemic has forced our prime minister to realise that schools are fundamental to our democracy and that teachers are on the front line of society and should be valued accordingly (Connors, 2020).

This statement appeared to be borne out by a range of commentary both in the Murdoch press as well as in the former Fairfax media. For example, in a wide-ranging opinion piece, Teachers earn belated respect (paywalled) published in News Corps’ Herald Sun and Courier Mail,  David Penberthy argued that  “one of the most derided  professions in this country has historically been teaching” but that hopefully this perception was changing, forcing a “national rethink when it comes to the perception of teachers”.

The article was a welcomed and nuanced discussion of the competing medical advice and messages that were being faced by state governments in regard to whether it was safe for teachers and students to resume face-to-face teaching. The article finished with two keywords, “thank you”, which the journalist noted were too often lacking in the Australian public’s attitude towards teaching and teachers.

Welcome though this opinion piece was, it appeared on pages 47 of the Herald-Sun and 56 of the Courier-Mail on a Sunday, not the most newsworthy day of the week or a prominent position in the papers.

The following week in a highly critical opinion piece, Not a very class act from teachers’ unions (paywalled) published in the Sunday-Telegraph, a Sydney News Corps paper, Bella d’Abrera, the Director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute Public Affairs, castigated teacher unions across Australia for “being reckless when they ignore the science and fight to keep students out of classrooms”. This was in response to news reports, for example, in the Weekend Australian (paywalled) where the Prime Minister was quoted as taking a “swipe at teacher unions, saying that workers… were showing up each day at work despite the risk”, the implication being that teachers should take that risk also.

In keeping with the more centrist approach of the former Fairfax media, a range of articles appeared that were broadly sympathetic in their representations of teachers and the dilemmas facing teachers as workers. These included letters to the editor in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled, “Teachers can be heroes but only with proper resources”.

Media matters

Media discourses form a crucial part of a broader discursive framework of how teaching is perceived and enacted. They can also inform policy which is often used symbolically as a means to solve a ‘problem’. These discourses also shape the professional identity of teachers in ways that have profound and ultimately negative impacts on their work, their ability to commit long term to the profession and their motivation to continue in a vocation for which many have felt a deep calling. This is the cost of a constant negative media barrage about teaching.

The opportunity presented by COVID-19 media coverage

We believe COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to reflect, reconsider and set aside the poisonous politics of the media and society’s teacher blame game. Are we ready and willing as a society to grasp the potential it offers us and our children?

Jane Wilkinson is Professor in Educational Leadership, Faculty of Education at Monash University. Jane is Lead Editor of the Journal of Educational Administration and History and a member of the Australian Council of Educational Leadership, Victorian executive. Jane’s research interests are in the areas of educational leadership for social justice, with a particular focus on issues of gender and ethnicity; and theorising educational leadership as practice/praxis. She is a lead developer of the theory of practice architectures (Kemmis, Wilkinson, Edwards-Groves, Hardy, Grootenboer, & Bristol, 2014). She also draws on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work and the philosopher, Ted Schatzki. Jane has published widely in the areas of women and leadership, refugee students and theorising leadership as practice/praxis. Jane is on Twitter @JaneWillkin1994

Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Education, Deakin University, Australia. Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, educational research history, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina is a former anthropologist, archaeologist and primary and secondary teacher in Victoria, Australia. She tweets at @drfreersumenjin

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190100190) with Deakin University as the administering organisation. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or Australian Research Council. Other investigators include Prof Amanda Keddie (Deakin), Prof Jill Blackmore (Deakin), Dr Brad Gobby (Curtin), Associate Professor Scott Eacott (UNSW and Associate Professor Richard Niesche (UNSW).

Public schools DO account for their funding: Public school autonomy processes are onerous and exacting

Among the turmoil generated by COVD19 for schools – are they open, are they closed, staggered attendance, online learning – and significant planning and workload on schools leaders and educators, the New South Wales Auditor-General released a report reviewing needs-based equity funding under the NSW Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) reform.

The timing of the release was perhaps curious however the reaction to the report from public school principals was loud and immediate.

The Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) reform was introduced in 2012 in NSW by the NSW Coalition Government.  It gave public school principals new powers to spend funds and make local decisions. In 2014 extra needs-based funding was allocated directly to many disadvantaged NSW public schools to for them to spend on the unique needs of their students.

Lack of accountability

The NSW Auditor-General’s report highlighted a lack of accountability for funds being spent. The report found that the NSW Department of Education “has not had adequate oversight of how schools are using needs-based funding to improve student outcomes since it was introduced in 2014.” And it accused the department of not being “able to effectively demonstrate the impact” of equity funding.

 This is consistent with recent political pushes reported in mainstream media where political leaders suggested public school principals needed to earn their autonomy and that extra funding has not delivered better results.

Reaction to the report of “lack of accountability”

This message from the Auditor-General was however met with counter examples from overloaded public schools principals working hard despite contradictions to achieve equity within their schools.

In response to the Auditor-General’s report and newspaper articles on the topic, many principals took to social media with stories of what accountability under Local Schools, Local Decisions was like for them.

A screenshot of a computer

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Permission was sought and granted by Ann Caro to include the screenshot of her Tweet in this post.

Examples teachers gave of what funds were used for included hiring paraprofessionals to provide tuition for students, subscriptions to software programs to support student learning, updating technologies and learning spaces, resources (e.g., science equipment, textbooks, calculators, musical instruments, and novels), additional counsellors, and professional learning for staff to be meet the needs of students in the school.

These are hardly extravagant and as mentioned in the tweet, all auditable by the system.

Our project on School Autonomy and Social Justice

The NSW Auditor-General’s report and the reaction of NSW public school principals was of particular interest to us. We are a group of educational researchers conducting extensive research across four Australian states in order to generate an evidence base and new knowledge around the impact of greater autonomy in our school systems. The ongoing tension we are currently witnessing between oversight of spending and the freedom to deliver context-sensitive solutions, is consistent with data we have generated as part of our ongoing Australian Research Council funded project on School Autonomy and Social Justice.

Our interviews with principals

While bureaucrats and politicians bemoan the lack of explicit accounting for dollars spent and direct links to impact and performance, school principals and educators are spending more and more time on administration and accounting for activities.

Interviews with principals and principal groups in our research project have reported numerous concerns with increased workload and burdensome administrative accountabilities (compliance) under Local Schools, Local Decisions. In addition, there has been the reduction in systemic supports for the work of schools. For example, some responses we collected include:

There are a lot of people in principal positions now who feel pressured to comply with everything, all the time. They are being pursued by people in the department. They are being pushed. And the stress levels have gone up enormously. People are burning out…people are having nervous breakdowns; people are drinking too much. And that’s something the department should be concerned about. I don’t see that level of concern. They just lay on more and more requirements that go against the spirit of autonomy. (Erin)

So much has got pushed back on the schools that principals were just coming apart at the seams. (Charles)

So, I think burnout is a big issue and health and well-being is a really big issue (Ursula)

Well part of the issue for principals is there is so much work…it’s the emotional labour…quite often because of the way they have to operate, quite often they are isolated. (Ursula)

The role is now sort of 24/7 principal…you have got to be contactable at all times; and you have got to manage situations when they pop up. (Russell)

There’s a lot more compliance, policy implementation that’s mandated…because there’s no consultation to it, there’s no feedback, or the famous thing when we’re doing policy implementation review – “look the deadline for that is tomorrow, can you get your feedback on that policy by 4pm tomorrow?” and you are ‘well I am just trying to stay afloat here at the moment’ (Russell)

 The high stakes of achieving equity

There are very few who disagree that context matters in schools. And there are very few who disagree that those closest to students and schools should be making decisions on how best to meet educational needs. However, the tensions for school principals in terms of increased autonomy, compliance and accountability with public funds remains difficult to balance. This is particularly important when the equity funds are to alleviate disparities for disadvantaged schools and communities and are not necessarily ‘extra’ funding above what public schools need.

Granting additional funds to compensate for social disadvantage while reducing systemic supports means that the schools needing to do the most work to achieve a socially just education are left with a higher share of the burden. Generating more administration and compliance further takes educators and school leaders away from the work that matters – providing high quality education to all students.

Delivering a high-quality equitable education for all students is always a challenging task. The diversity of communities makes a one-size-fits-all solution next to impossible. Finding the balance between systemic supports and local context-sensitive initiative remains the desired utopia of school autonomy reforms.

The stakes are high. Australia is often considered to have an inequitable school system and finding an approach that delivers high-quality context-sensitive schooling is the key to addressing inequities.       

Scott Eacott is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. His research interests and contributions fall into three main areas: i) developing a relational approach to scholarship; ii) educational leadership; and iii) school reform. You can find out more about his work at scotteacott.com. Scott is on Twitter @ScottEacott

Richard Niesche is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. His research interests are in the areas of educational leadership, the principalship and social justice in education. He has published his research in a number of peer reviewed journal and books. His latest book (co-edited with Dr Amanda Heffernan) is “Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research” published with Routledge in 2020. Richard can be found on Twitter @RichardNiesche

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190100190) with Deakin University as the administering organisation. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or Australian Research Council. Other investigators include Prof Amanda Keddie (Deakin), Prof Jill Blackmore (Deakin), Prof Jane Wilkinson (Monash), Dr Brad Gobby (Curtin), and Dr Katrina MacDonald (Deakin).

Gender respect: how can we better engage boys and men?

It is September 2016 and I have been invited to speak on a panel with Rosie Batty, former Australian of the Year. We are speaking about the role of education in preventing violence against women and children. The conference title is pertinent: Prevalent and Preventable. The panel is mostly education leaders. One by one, they articulate stories of inspiration and hope about the practical role that education can play in making a difference in creating a world free from violence. When it is my turn to speak, I feel like I am puncturing this hope.

I tell the story of my morning walk to the venue from my hotel through the city streets. It involved passing two strip clubs, one of them, The Firm, Premier Gentlemen’s Club and the other the Crazy Horse which you cannot miss given the huge neon sign of a naked woman out the front. Life-sized advertorial images of sexualized barely clad women stare back at me as I walk past. I relay to the audience the sense of irony I feel being asked to speak about how education can teach gender respect when a culture of gender disrespect engulfs us. It is embedded in our spatial and social landscape. I also note that the attendance at this conference is almost entirely female; women telling stories of violence against women and their children – chilling, devastating stories of survival and great inspiration.

But stories that only women are hearing. ‘Where are the men’, I ask? We cannot change the story of gendered violence without working with men.

The problem

Violence against women remains a serious, widespread problem in Australia, and elsewhere, with enormous impacts and social costs. We are all aware of the shocking statistics:

  • On average, at least one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia.  ​
  • One in three Australian women has experienced physical violence, and one in five sexual violence, since the age of 15 (the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).

We all felt the horror, only weeks ago, when Hannah Clarke’s estranged husband doused her and her three young children in petrol and set them alight.

Violence against women has its roots in our gendered society where ideal masculinity continues to be associated with strength, power and wealth and ideal femininity with deference, softness and physical objectification.

Why engage boys and men in this problem?

The significance of engaging boys and men in the work of feminism or gender justice is well recognised and more important than ever.

The current #MeToo climate has attracted public and political support for gender justice, but also a strong anti-feminist backlash. New forms of backlash are casting men and boys as the real victims. Perhaps the most extreme and violent of this backlash is the INCEL movement. This is a group that commits acts of violence in response to, and in resentment of, their state of involuntarily celibacy –that is attributed to and blamed on women. Moreover, there is a dominant view as professed by President Trump that it is a ‘very scary time’ for boys and men given they may be held to account later in their lives for sexual misconduct perpetrated in their youth.

This view bears out in recent research with concerns expressed for falsely accused men. Commentators such as Bettina Arndt fuel these concerns. Arndt labelled efforts to prevent sexual assault of university students as a “rape crisis scare campaign” and accused women of making up claims of domestic violence to get back at men.

The reality is false reports of sexual assault are rare (as research shows).

Gender justice will not be realised without profound changes to boys’ and men’s lives and without them working with girls and women to challenge gendered structures and practices. This engagement necessarily involves men and boys grappling with their identities, especially around relations of privilege. This is a difficult and contentious undertaking – fraught with emotional intensities.

The emotional intensities of gender politics

Replying to @clementine_ford online

“Go and get gang raped ya f**king dumb slut. Soldiers fought in the war for us to live in this mad f**king country and c**ts like you deserve to head-butt a knife will get raped and watch the whole family die you dirty dog.”

Clementine Ford has attracted a lot of trolling from unhappy boys and men (and probably some women). In these comments we feel the intensity of emotion in the anger, rage, resentment and violence expressed towards her, women and feminism.

Similar intensities of emotion were expressed towards a recent Gillette Advertisement, ‘The Best a Man Can Get’. The advert showed a number of powerful vignettes capturing sexual harassment, masculine entitlement at work and boys fighting boys. The key intention was to call men to challenge the harmful masculine norms that lead to violence and sexism. The public backlash was overwhelming with over 1.5 million ‘dislikes’ on YouTube. It was perceived as insulting and blaming of boys and men; as presenting all men as toxic and as ‘virtue-signalling’ political correctness. Many men vowed to boycott the company. Let boys be damn boys! Let men be damn men!

Resistance and backlash

These intensities of emotion have been a key concern of masculinities research. As Australian sociologist, Michael Flood, argues, hostility and defensiveness are frequent responses amongst men when they are invited to consider their entitlement and privilege in gender relations. Talking with boys and men about contentious topics such as sexual harassment and consent, homophobia and hegemonic masculinity, can be difficult and discomforting, and can produce shame, anger and rage.

Such discomfort arises especially when we are invited to confront our own privilege and complicity. It is suggested in this quote from a boy (a student in a recent study) about sexual assault

I think a lot of … straight guys’ reluctance to talk about it … at least in some part they recognise that they have been part of the problem; that they have been part of, you know, encouraging other people. I am sure even some of them recognise they, themselves, have maybe ‘grinded’ on somebody without their consent … which is sexual assault…

From Engaging boys in gender activism: issues of discomfort and emotion

This discomfort when it leads to feeling strong emotions such as indignation, embarrassment, fear, anger or shame can ‘block, defuse, and distract’ from an engagement with the experience of others (as explained in an academic paper by Michalinos Zembylas, Professor at the Open University of Cyprus).

As educators or those working with and relating to young men in this space, we need to better deal with this discomfort in ways that engage and not alienate.

Addressing resistance and backlash

There are strategies to address men’s resistance. Men can be inspired to support gender equality through, for example, the presentation of stories that bring to life gender inequities and that foreground and listen to women’s experiences, and through addressing men’s own experiences, including perceived and actual disempowerment.

In education contexts and other learning spaces, there has been a history of educators supporting boys and young men to critically examine how they experience gender – how masculinities are socially constructed and how harmful versions of masculinity are reproduced (i.e. spoken into existence) through for example, peer culture, family, girlfriends and media, and how they might be transformed through alternative ideas about masculinity.

However, it is evident that such approaches do not tend to explore the powerful role emotions play in shutting down conversations about gender but also in opening up these conversations.

A framework that recognises the intensities of emotion

Recently, I have been working with my colleagues Doris Bartel and Maria Delaney to develop a framework that can help explore the intensities of feelings and emotions that arise when having difficult conversations about gender. This framework is based on the work of Sadar Anwaruddin, a researcher from the University of Toronto, Canada.

The framework could be used as a self-reflective tool to support educators or workers in this area and could be used when interacting with boys and young men who might be experiencing strong emotions in relation to difficult conversations about gender. We are all on a learning journey of gender transformation.

There are four pedagogical principles around four key questions (I have adapted these from Anwaruddin’s work in Critical Affective Literacy):

Principle 1: Why do we feel what we feel?

This principle asks us to examine what we feel in particular situations and why we feel what we feel. It is also concerned with examining what emotions do. To return to the Gillette advertisement, this principle would ask us not to dismiss the backlash responses as ill-informed anti-feminism, but to engage with them, with boys and men feeling insulted, offended, patronized; with why such feelings are incited – e.g. perhaps this advertisement incites blame and shame? Importantly, it would draw attention to what these feelings are doing – that is they shut down important conversations about gender.

Principle 2: How do we stand in the shoes of others?

This principle invites us to imagine standing in the shoes of others. It asks: How are we to understand the sufferings of others when we try to stand in their shoes? Cultivating empathy for gender transformation is important. However, we must approach this concept with caution. What happens when we can’t empathise with others? Are some people and groups more open to our empathy than others? What happens when our empathy produces feelings of pity and sentimentality for the ‘other’ rather than leading to behavioural or structural change? For some time, research in this space has highlighted that we can never really know the other. In terms of working with boys and men, a more productive focus would be to continue to support them to engage critically on their understandings of themselves and others, the limits and possibilities of these understandings, especially in relation to their attempts to empathise.

Principle 3: How do particular emotions become attached to particular people, objects and ideas through everyday politics?

This principle invites us to think about how and when masculinity becomes an object of emotion in everyday politics – in the classroom, the workplace, the media? The term ‘toxic masculinity’ is a useful example here.

This term is currently being mobilized in social and media discourse to describe a range of male behaviours. The idea of masculinity as toxic and dangerous is (re)produced through a politics of emotions. Strong emotions such as defiance, fear and anger shape how we think, feel and know boys and men. In relation to the term toxic masculinity, such politics have not been helpful and have alienated many boys and men.

This principle asks us to consider how these emotions have been produced (for example through the media) to generate a specific emotional response; how they attach themselves to particular men and boys (in, for example, classist, racialized and heteronormative ways) and what this might mean in how we work with boys and men.

Principle 4: How can what we say and feel become what we do?

This principle asks, how can what we say and feel become what we do? How can we channel strong emotions in positive ways towards social action and solidarity for gender equity?

The emotional discomfort that boys and men experience in relation to examining their ‘unearned’ advantage can (as noted earlier) produce alienation and resistance. However, it can also produce a sense of responsibility and activism. In programs that promote gender equality such connection and solidarity are often mobilised to support boys and men to engage in activist activities with feminist groups. This is far from simple or straightforward – compassionate feelings do not guarantee activism to transform structures of oppression and injustice nor do they assure action to redress inequity.

At a minimum, it is important that this engagement encourage young men to acknowledge and reflect on their own emotions, motivations, and behaviours, and to make personal commitments to continue to reflect and act in ways that embody the kind of man they wish to be, and to convey respect and honour for women’s decisions and autonomy.

The power of emotions for gender justice

Emotion remains a significant component in the production or prevention of greater justice. Any understanding of social justice requires a fundamental recognition of the integral role of emotions in reifying or disrupting injustices. As Deakin University’s Professor Bob Pease argues…

When men are emotionally engaged in the injustices experienced by women, they are more likely to interrogate their own complicity in women’s oppression and to recognise their responsibility to challenge their unearned advantages (Pease, 2012)

Amanda Keddie is a Research Professor at Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia). She leads the program Children, Young People and their Community within REDI (Research for Educational Impact). Her published work examines the broad gamut of schooling processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in schools including student identities, teacher identities, pedagogy, curriculum, leadership, school structures, policy agendas and socio-political trends. Amanda is on Twitter @amandaMkeddie

Acknowledgement: Research exploring the utility of this framework for engaging boys and men in gender justice is forthcoming: Keddie, A. & Bartel, D. (in review) The affective intensities of gender transformative work: an actionable framework for facilitators working with boys and young men, Journal of Men and Masculinities

Is there a need for multi-faith education in all Australian schools?

Australia’s diversity is frequently celebrated by politicians as a multicultural success story. Schools, particularly public schools, educating children with diverse cultural and social backgrounds, are seen as the lynchpin to such success. Yet schools and other education sites in Australia constantly confront tensions and difficulties in their efforts to be inclusive and to create a climate of social cohesion.

Our research looked at the potential and limitations of current approaches used by teachers and school leaders who work in a school community experiencing high levels of racialised, gendered and religious conflict, often fuelled by fear politics, mainly Islamophobia, in mainstream media.

What we found supports calls for critical multi-faith education courses to be taught in Australian public schools.  We believe this would be a welcome resource for teachers and schools.

Our research findings also point to the need for support and professional learning for teachers who face these complex social and religious tensions in their classrooms, schools and school communities every day.

Our research project

This research project was generated from a larger study (still to be published) that sought to examine school-level responses to social cohesion in Victorian schools. In this project we focused on one of the case studies, a small state primary school situated in an outer suburb, that we refer to as  ‘Starflower’ Primary School. It is recognised as exemplary in its efforts to support social cohesion especially in relation to fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance for students and parents of minority faiths.

Starflower Primary is located in a community (of low socio-economic status) that has experienced much change over the past thirty or so years. The cultural diversity has markedly increased from a largely white Anglo population in the 1980s to a vibrant mix of ethnic cultures where approximately 70% of students speak a language other than English. The majority of students identify as Muslim, followed by Christian and then a mix of other religions. The majority of teachers and administrators identify as Anglo-Australian. The school performs well on external and public measures of academic learning such as NAPLAN.

Although the teachers and leadership team who participated in the study generally saw the climate of Starflower Primary in a positive light, they did relay many stories of social conflict. This conflict occurred within and beyond the school community and was associated with racial, religious and gender discrimination.  For example the teachers spoke of one Muslim family who had been “chased” out of the community by an Anglo-Australian family who “used to go in and trash their house at night”. Children from both families were enrolled at the school.

They also told of gendered reactions and attitudes from “Middle Eastern” boys and men towards female staff members, including a father telling the female principal that he would not speak to her about an issue at school because she was a woman.

Our research included interviews with the school principal and leadership team, data collection and debriefing conversations with the principal. This study was largely interview-based.

Secular Christianity and Australian public education

Anxieties around terror and rising social unrest

The terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001 and those that followed have fuelled a demonizing of Muslims. As a result the Muslim community is bearing the brunt of increased levels of discrimination. Also the fear of terror has generated intense interest and resourcing (from the state) to the growing industry of countering terror and fostering social cohesion.

There has been a range of different responses to these anxieties and unrest within the context of public education in Australia

Public school policy reactions

Some of these responses have been driven by fears that schools are becoming breeding grounds for radicalisation, for example, the state-wide audit of prayer groups in all NSW public schools and the instating of training for educators to identify students who may be at risk of radicalisation.

Others are focused on security such as the Federal Government’s Schools Security Programme (2015-2018) that provides ‘at risk’ schools with funding for security infrastructure, such as CCTV.

There have also been responses that are more educative in their focus on countering religious racism, especially Islamophobia, through embedding the teaching of religious beliefs and spirituality across the curriculum.  A good example of this is the new Victorian curriculum for state schools (Foundation to Year 10) that includes Ethical Capability as a key learning area. The aim here is to broaden students’ understandings and appreciation of different religious perspectives. The content includes opportunities for critical thinking and reflection towards developing students’ capacities to apply these understandings to the investigation of ethical problems.

Teacher understandings of secularity

As outlined in the Victorian Government’s Education and Training Reform Act Australian public schools are governed by an overriding principle of secularity that does not permit the promotion of ‘any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’ but that provides for general religious education that ‘assist[s] students to understand the world around them and act with tolerance and respect towards people from all cultures’.

In our research, the first part of this definition of secularity provided justification for dismissing religion as a topic or area of discussion and learning as one teacher’s story suggests.

The teacher tells of interrupting an argument between two young Muslim girls about gender modesty and what it means to be a good Muslim. One was telling the other that she could not be a good Muslim and wear shorts to school. The teacher said her response was to tell them:-

‘…we don’t bring religion into school … Religion is personal. I don’t tell you about what religion I am. I don’t push that on you guys. And you guys should not be talking about religion here at all.’

This dismissal of religion was understood as consistent with the secular position of public schools in Australia – to not promote ‘any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’ (Victoria State Government 2017). Like fellow teachers at the school this teacher was particularly mindful of not offending the Muslim students and parents.

Another teacher from the same school commented:

I’ll be very honest, I think some [teachers] go, ‘Well, okay … we’ve accepted different cultures, but then you don’t want to respect ours’ … as one teacher said, ‘Well, it’s a state school … it’s secular’ … If you want your child brought up in the Catholic system, well, you can send them there. If you bring them to the state system, you’ve got to understand, be accepting of what goes on in that culture…

Secularity in this regard was associated with a rejection of religion – a common but narrow view based on avoiding the promotion of any particular religious practice, denomination or sect (consistent with the Education and Training Reform Act). In our research, we noted the potential for this exclusion to reinforce understandings of secularity as distinct from and oppositional to religion, within a binary where secularity is associated with rationality and objectivity and religion is associated with irrationality and subjectivity. These understandings and practices do not reflect a nuanced understanding of secularism, nor do they recognise the Christian privilege embedded within Australia’s public education system.

Christian privilege

Christian privilege plays out in Australian schools in explicit and implicit ways. Explicitly, it plays out through the National Chaplaincy Program (which provides funding for schools to employ a chaplain but is primarily serviced by Christian organisations) and the conducting of religious instruction classes during school hours, which is predominantly un-regulated and delivered by evangelical religious groups.

Implicitly, it plays out through the normalising of practices (sometimes masquerading as secular) such as timetabling around the Christian calendar which does not recognise non-Christian occasions and days of worship, curriculum choices that reflect Eurocentric (typically Christian) perspectives, standards and values, and dietary norms, which tend not to include Kosher or Halal foods. Such structures and practices reflect an infusing of Christian hegemony that reinforces the marginality and stereotyping of non-Christian religions.

Educating for religious inclusion and social cohesion

Teachers are not well equipped

Schools are confronted daily with new and increasingly complex forms of racial, religious and gender conflict. What our research indicates is that teachers are not well equipped to productively respond to and address some of the contentions arising from the cultural and religious diversity in our classrooms.

Teachers’ personal beliefs and perceptions about secularity and religion are significant in shaping their practice and relations with students. Engaging in ongoing self-critique is a crucial personal resource that is necessary for teachers to identify how their beliefs might impact on countering or contributing to racialised, gendered, religious-based or other oppressions.

Teachers require ongoing, regular and targeted support and professional learning to develop the personal resources and pedagogic skills to support their students’ critical understandings of religious and non-religious views

An interpretive, reflexive, critical and student-centred approach is needed

Such teaching requires a particular level of content knowledge about religious, secular, philosophical and ethical concepts that are important for facilitating informed and critical discussions that can broaden students’ understandings and appreciation of different perspectives on the world.

Important here is an interpretive, reflexive, critical and student-centred approach that

1) is inclusive of, and sensitive to, the views and beliefs of students from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds;

2) adopts an interpretive approach where there is the opportunity for productive discussion around multiple perspectives;

3) is conducted in a ‘safe space’ where students feel comfortable to express their views but where there are agreed ‘ground rules’ to moderate behaviour (such as respect for others, democratic process and due regard for accuracy);

 4) reflects a spirit of openness in which personal views or theoretical positions are not imposed upon students; and

5) encourages an attitude of critical enquiry

Such an approach reflects potential in teaching for religious inclusion and social cohesion. It can engender a sense of belonging and acceptance in relation to religious identities.

As professor of sociology at Monash University, Gary Bouma, argues

 ‘for Australia to continue to be a harmonious culturally and religiously diverse society, it is in our national interest to invest in multi-faith education as a strategy to promote social inclusion’.

Rolling out multi-faith education and support for such education across Australia would take commitment and dedicated funding from our governments. We believe it would be an invaluable investment in ensuring the continuation of Australia’s multicultural success story.

Amanda Keddie is a Research Professor at Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia). She leads the program Children, Young People and their Community within REDI (Research for Educational Impact). Her published work examines the broad gamut of schooling processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in schools including student identities, teacher identities, pedagogy, curriculum, leadership, school structures, policy agendas and socio-political trends. Amanda is on Twitter@amandaMkeddie

Jane Wilkinson is Associate Dean for Graduate Research, Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia and Associate Professor Educational Leadership. Jane’s main research and teaching interests are in the areas of educational leadership for social justice and practice theory (feminist, Bourdieuian and practical philosophy). Jane has conducted extensive research with refugee students, schools and universities in regional and urban Australia. Her most recent study examines the role played by school and community leaders in building social cohesion. Jane’s new books include: Educational leadership as a culturally-constructed practice: New directions and possibilities (with Laurette Bristol, Routledge, 2018); and Navigating complex spaces: Refugee background students transitioning into higher education (with Loshini Naidoo, Misty Adoniou and Kip Langat, Singapore: Springer, 2018).Jane is lead editor of the Journal of Educational Administration and History and a member of the editorial boards, Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice; Journal of Gender Studies and International Journal of Leadership in Education.

Dr Lucas Walsh is Professor of Education Policy and Practice, Youth Studies, and Interim Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His work explores responses to the questions: what does the world beyond school look like for young people and what types of education and training do they need to navigate it? He is currently a chief investigator on The Q Project (Quality Use of Evidence Driving Quality Education) funded by The Paul Ramsay Foundation. Recent books include Educating Generation Next (Palgrave), and with Rosalyn Black, Rethinking Youth Citizenship after the Age of Entitlement (Bloomsbury) and Imagining Youth Futures: University Students in Post-Truth Times (Springer). He next book with Amanda Third, Philippa Collin, and Rosalyn Black is Young People in Digital Society: Control Shift (Palgrave Macmillan).

Dr Luke Howie is Senior Lecturer, Politics and International Relations, School of Social Sciences at Monash University and Deputy Director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC).

Read more about our research in our paper …we don’t bring religion into school’: issues of religious inclusion and social cohesion

Power of emotions and gender in education and in the work of educational researchers

Emotions and gender identity play powerful roles in education. Every day, every child and every educator in every classroom will be affected in some way by their emotions as well as their gender identity. The times we remember so clearly from our own school days will likely be moments of high emotion and they will probably be connected, though often not in obvious ways, to gender identity.

Understanding the relationship between gender and emotions is especially important because it involves young people’s experiences with learning and can profoundly influence the outcomes of their schooling. It is a field of academic study that requires deep engagement by researchers. Gender and emotions remain complex areas to comprehend and research.

In this post we want to discuss emotions and gender identity in education and how emotions and gender identity shape the work of educational researchers like us.

While there is a strong and robust history of education research in the role emotions and gender play in education, there seem to be particular challenges for educational researchers who are working in this field today. For instance, educational researchers are negotiating issues such as the current pre-occupation with ‘toxic masculinity’, online social movements such as #metoo, and their backlash counter-movements #HimToo, the ‘click bait’ sensationalism around gender identity, and continuing broader struggles such as gender parity of political representation and equal pay, to name just a few. And all of this is within the ever-shifting economic, cultural and political landscape that is Australia today.

At the same time, we researchers see the need to acknowledge our own emotions and the link to our personal lives. Desire, envy, aspiration, fear, and so on, can affect our own understanding of our culture and our personal politics and thus the way we design and do our research. We believe it is important to recognise this and discuss it.

What is gender identity? 

Gender identity is how you personally experience your own gender, often aligned with societal norms, pressures and stereotypes, that is, what we know as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’  Most young people understand their core gender identity and may find it difficult to think about themselves in any other way. However, gender identity is best thought of as a continuumas gender identity, gender expression, biological sex and sexual orientation. We know some media have sensationalised the Genderbread person occasionally but it is the easiest way to describe the continuum.

Gender identity can overlap with gender expression, how an individual outwardly shows their gender identity, but this is not always the case and can differ from assigned sex at birth.  Examples of this include body (including appearance) and expression (including how you act, how you dress).  In terms of emotions, some would say that feeling able to express your ‘authentic’ gender identity is important to one’s emotional and mental health. However, the notion of authenticity is necessarily problematic given the powerful gender norms that speak us into existence as male or female even before we are born. 

Many scholars call for a need to think critically about how gender and emotion inform how we live and work and how our gendered position influences us as researchers.  

How do gender identities and emotions affect learning spaces?

In considering norms, pressures and stereotypes concerning gender, researchers continue to be concerned with how certain spaces are gendered and gendering. Such spaces are imbued with emotions, for example, dominant ideals of masculinity tend to be aligned with emotional stoicism (and rationality) rather than weakness (and irrationality) which tends to be aligned with traditional femininity. As there are certain spaces where some emotions are considered normal, there will always be other spaces where there may be emotions that are considered inappropriate. For example, it may be considered appropriate, maybe even expected, for men to cry on the sports field but not in the classroom.

In spaces of learning, emotions powerfully circulate in ways that can build positive connections and relations, on the one hand, or aversion and disconnection, on the other hand. The power of emotions is important for people working in education to keep in mind.  Furthermore, some educational spaces may be considered ‘safe’ while others, in contrast, more ‘risky’ depending on one’s gender identity. For example, students have spoken about how there are certain pressures to enact or perform a certain gender identity and failure to do so can result in bullying.

How does this influence the work of educational researchers?

When designing and conducting our research in schools and other spaces of learning, many educational researchers continue to grapple with our own questions of gender, identity and emotions. We ask what does this confusion mean for how we research the lives of young people?  

In considering the relationship between gender, identity and schooling, feminist scholarship has argued that we must value our past and present experiences. For example, scholars cite the importance of thinking historically and what this may mean for “making the personal political” or “the person is the political.”  In other words, our own personal past experiences influence how we think and act politically in the present, so we need to reflect on those experiences and think about how they are affecting us now. These experiences and their affect create and re-create the contexts and processes of our research. They shape our views of what constitutes social justice, they open up particular spaces and enable particular avenues for our research as well as closing down other spaces and avenues. 

Why is it important for researchers to reflect on their own gender identities and emotions?

Professor of Feminist Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Clare Hemmigs, argues that ‘in order to know differently we have to feel differently’. We need to reflect on how emotions powerfully impact on how we know our gender and thus how we might work towards knowing gender differently. Knowing gender differently is imperative if we are to change the destructive and harmful gender injustices that continue to permeate our world. 

As emotions and gender are powerful influencers in spaces of learning, it is important to consider how teachers teach and how children learn are constantly impacted in myriad of emotional and gendered ways.

We believe the more we interrogate our own assumptions, stereotypes and biases as educational researchers, and understand how we are influenced by the landscapes in which we work, the more we will be able to share our educational research into what is happening with emotions and gender in spaces of learning. 

For those who want more

A one-day symposium, Doing gender: relationships, emotions and spaces of learning was held at Deakin last August, involving scholars engaged in critical reflection on previous and current research in gender and emotions. It was a very challenging and productive day. Central to the symposium was reflecting on the role gender and emotions play in our current climate of toxic masculinity, equal pay, #he4she, the #metoo movement, etc.  Throughout the symposium, scholars discussed how our emotions arise out of how we understand our culture as well as our politics and what this may mean for research.

Find a detailed report of what was discussed that day HERE . The report includes some of the main themes of the day, a selection of significant theorists as well as recommended further reading

Garth Stahl, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Education at the University of South Australia and Research Fellow, Australian Research Council (DECRA). His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality, and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, gender and youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference, and educational reform. Garth can be found on Twitter @GarthStahl

Amanda Keddie is a Research Professor at Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia). She leads the program Children, Young People and their Community within REDI (Research for Educational Impact). Her published work examines the broad gamut of schooling processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in schools including student identities, teacher identities, pedagogy, curriculum, leadership, school structures, policy agendas and socio-political trends. Amanda is on Twitter@amandaMkeddie

Why Australia should not follow (English politician) Nick Gibb’s advice on how to run our schools

As an Australian educator and researcher, I am regularly taken aback by what seems to be a residual cultural cringe when we turn to other countries for insight and inspiration about education. I believe all the insight and inspiration Australian politicians and policy makers need is right here!

Australia has a long history of rich and insightful educational research that is highly instructive and highly regarded within the Australian education community and indeed the global education community. But it is often dismissed or drowned out in the current social climate where the lust for solutions, for ‘hard evidence’ of what works, has us running to experts in other countries to borrow their policies and ideas.

Australia has been particularly enamored over the years with English education policy and practice and this is currently being played out with our hosting of the English Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb.

One of the purposes of Gibb’s visit is to outline England’s recent education reforms with the view to informing education policy here in Australia.

This blog post is my reaction to the ideas outlined in Gibb’s recent speech in Sydney especially those relating to school ‘autonomy’ reform in England.

I believe the rosy picture Gibb presents about this reform glosses over ideologies that promote a particular narrow vision of education. I take serious issue with these ideologies.

But first, let me explain my interest in English education.

My interest in English education

My interest in school reform in England and, in particular, the ‘academies’ reform movement, came about several years ago during some cross-cultural research I was conducting that examined matters of social justice, cultural diversity and schooling in Australia and the UK. One of the English secondary schools in this study had recently converted to academy (school ‘autonomy’) status. The deputy head teacher described the process of conversion as ‘liberating’ for ‘schools like us’. For this large, well-resourced and ‘outstanding’ school, the freedoms of becoming an academy in terms of staffing and curricular flexibility were welcomed and seen as leading to school improvement.

One of the other schools in the project was a traditional ‘local authority’ primary school of around 300 students. At this school, the leadership team expressed highly negative views of this reform. The head teacher described the process of opening up the education system to a ‘disparate group’ of stakeholders as ‘undemocratic’, ‘a nonsense’ and ‘a mess’. In several other schools in this project, the head teachers expressed indifference to academies reform – seeing it as largely a change to their management structure. While in others, the change of management incurred under the process of academisation was so profound that it led to a complete renewal of staff to align with the new academy ethos (i.e. the old staff walked out!).

The need for caution in following the UK

School ‘autonomy’ (i.e. generating conditions for schools to self-manage) has been ‘adopted around the world with remarkable speed and consistency’. Indeed, it is presented by proponents as not only positive but inevitable – a necessary condition to enable education systems to compete on the world stage.

Of course, Australian education has already experienced a long history of school ‘autonomy’ reform. It was promoted over forty years ago in the Karmel Report (Australian Schools Commission, 1973) and has had many and various iterations. In the 1990s, for example, driven by a conservative government in Victoria, the public education system experienced radical reform with the introduction of self-managing-schools. Creating a more autonomous system under the Schools for the Future policy as it was driven by a combination of economic rationalism and external accountability, resulted in the closure of over 350 ‘under-performing’ schools. The most recent iteration of school autonomy reform in Australia is the Independent Public Schools (IPS) initiative introduced in the states of Western Australia (in 2010) and Queensland (in 2013). Early accounts of the impacts of these initiatives, unlike the situation 20 years ago in Victoria, seem to be positive.

The point to be made here is that there is great variance across and within nations in terms of how this reform is being approached and enacted because, as Professor Bob Lingard from the University of Queensland points out, school autonomy as with all education reform is ‘grounded in a particular politics at a particular time’. Thus, we need to tread with caution when thinking about how the current reform agenda within English education might inform our education system.

Many would agree with the idea that responsibility for schools should be devolved as much as possible to the people involved in the task of schooling – as argued in the Karmel Report – that greater independence, flexibility and freedom for schools to manage their affairs will lead to school improvement.

This idea was certainly evident in much of Gibb’s account of school autonomy in England in his recent speech and reflects how this reform tends to be promoted by politicians. Here ‘autonomy’ is aligned with ‘freedom’ and ‘innovation’ and with placing education decisions with, as Gibb stated, ‘those best placed to implement improvements to education’. On the surface, this idea is difficult to argue with. However, when coupled with words like ‘common-sense’ and ‘evidence-based’ improvement, a different picture of ‘autonomy’ and ‘innovation’ comes to light – one that is really not about providing head teachers or teachers with more autonomy but rather more about driving them towards a particular vision of schooling.

External accountability, competition and their ‘perverse’ effects

‘Autonomy’ for schools under the policy of academisation is strictly regulated within highly prescriptive assessment frameworks. In England, as in Australia, student performance on standardised tests is audited and converted to a public ranking of schools with school ‘effectiveness’ additionally policed and regulated through various departmental audits and inspections. These external forms of accountability have become increasingly ‘high stakes’ given that a school’s reputation and effectiveness are based on its performance on these measures. The increasing emphasis on global measures of school effectiveness such as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) has worked to validate these forms of accountability in England as they have in Australia.

A key problem here is that these measures have escalated a climate of competition where schools must compete with each other for their student share. This climate has produced many perverse effects. It has narrowed curriculum and degraded pedagogy to a teach-to-the-test mentality, it has intensified ‘gaming’ practices (for example, engaging in selective and exclusionary enrolment practices) and it has reinforced the hierarchical tiering of schools already pronounced within education systems in places such as England and Australia (Glatter 2012; Smyth, 2011). In this climate, those schools that do well on these external performance measures (generally those in privileged areas, serving privileged students) tend to thrive, while those that don’t do well (generally those in under-privileged areas, serving disadvantaged students) struggle.

Prescriptive curriculum, the English Baccalaureate and phonics testing in the UK

In England, autonomy is also highly regulated through prescriptive curricular frameworks. While the Education Reform Act of 1988 heralded in a national curriculum, and there have been various iterations since, the recent conservative shifts within this curriculum are a concern to many. Gibb applauds in his speech these shifts – stating that they are a move towards more ‘rigorous’ standards. He notes here the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBAC) and the phonics test.

Of course, rigorous academic standards and high expectations are key to an excellent education. However, many have argued against the narrowness, conservatism and elitism of the EBAC (e.g. this curriculum does not include social and creative subjects like The Arts or Citizenship Education) and the problematics of the phonics program.

I do not want to delve into the contentious debates between phonics and whole language that have been raging for decades. Suffice to say, it is clear that it is insufficient, if not damaging, to take a singular approach to the teaching of reading and that phonics instruction may be one of many approaches in a robust and productive reading program.

Certainly, the English phonics test might be leading to improving pupil standards in relation to reciting phonics. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that these pupils are necessarily on ‘track to be fluent readers’ as Gibb claims. I have met many teachers in English primary schools who are devotees of the phonics system but who also recognise its limitations and the imperative of augmenting this approach with many others.

A narrow vision of schooling

For many, the vision of schooling along the lines currently being promoted in England (as, of course, it is elsewhere) is excessively and increasingly narrow. It privileges the private goals of schooling which are about social efficiency and social mobility (i.e. preparing a credentialed and productive work force) and pays little heed to the public goals of schooling which are about democratic quality and active citizenship (i.e. towards the betterment of the social world).

For Gibb, such a narrow view of schooling around private goals is clear in his equation of social justice with social mobility. Yes, social mobility is, as Gibb states, a ‘defining challenge’ for education systems’ that will be focused on ‘levelling up opportunity and making sure all pupils get every chance to go as far as their talents will take them’. However, if education systems are only focusing on social mobility through credentialing, we may be producing learned people but they may be learned monsters. Given the heightened social polarisation and hostilities of the present era and the racism and xenophobia driving new forms of inequity, violence and suffering across the world, the urgency of education systems to think beyond these narrow purposes has been no more pronounced.

Does school autonomy lead to school improvement?

It is concerning that Gibb indicates that there is a definitive link between school autonomy (under academies reform) and school improvement. The research literature tells us that this reform has, in general, had highly varied but minimal impacts on raising educational standards in England. From studies into the efficacy of ‘self-managed’ schools within Australia to research into the impact of charter schools in the US, there is little evidence to conclusively indicate a relationship between school autonomy and school improvement.

Indeed, comparative research between schooling in NSW (a very centralised system) and Victoria (a highly autonomised or devolved system) finds no significant difference in student performance on standardised international and national measures such as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and NAPLAN (National Assessment Plan Literacy and Numeracy).

What this tells us is that school autonomy is not a magic bullet for school improvement, as it is often presented in political and public discourse. Simply instating the structural changes to bring about greater autonomy for schools within public education systems will not necessarily lead to an improvement in academic outcomes.

Academy reform in the UK: some worrying trends

Indeed, there is much to worry about in relation to how school autonomy reform has changed the landscape of English education as it has to a lesser extent in states such as Victoria. This reform, since the Academies Act of 2010 (which set out the national government’s aspiration for all schools to convert to academy status), has shifted responsibility for school governance from a state to a non-state matter. This has decimated the system of local authority governance traditionally responsible for schools and generated a new style of governance that involves a proliferation of new players or stakeholders who are now funded by the state to take responsibility for schools and schooling from government agencies and businesses to charities and faith groups.

The increased role of private bodies in the delivery of school-based education is normalising the private provision of education in England.

The new administrative structure of English education is described as a disarticulated system that reflects a ‘heterarchical’ structure of relations that is increasingly complex in its overlap, multiplicity and asymmetric power dynamics. There are concerns that transparent and democratic governance is impossible given this disarticulation. There are also concerns that the dismantling of the local authority (a democratically elected public body) through the academies movement is profoundly undemocratic and inequitable in drawing public money away from the public sector. Such shifts are seen as antithetical to ideologies of schooling as a public good – especially given that the new education providers in this space do not necessarily hold public sector values and sensibilities but, rather, the ideologies of business and enterprise. In relation to this latter point, the infiltration of the philanthropic sector in the governance of education has attracted particular criticism. At issue here are the ways in which philanthropic (i.e. social enterprise and business) rather than educative (i.e. learning and teaching) principles are now driving the management of many academies in England.

Look to exemplary Australian research for education reform ideas

We must tread with caution when thinking about how the current reform agenda within English education might inform our education system. Indeed, rather than looking abroad, we can look to, and learn from, the long history of exemplary and insightful research, policy and practice in the area of autonomy, accountability and school improvement in Australia. Our most recent version of school autonomy in the states of WA and Qld seems to be working pretty well.

Unlike in England, the Australian state education system is less devolved and less subject to the unfettered enterprise and market logic of the non-state sector. This is a good thing. The more centralised and regulated system in Australia would seem far more amenable than the English system to pursuing a common social justice vision that reflects both the private and public goals of schooling.

 

Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. She leads the program: Children, Young People and their Communities within the REDI (Research for Educational Impact) Centre. Her research interests and publications are in the broad field of social justice and schooling. She began her career as a primary school teacher in 1998 while studying for her PhD in Education at Deakin University. After being awarded her doctorate in 2002, she worked in various lecturing roles in the Faculty of Education at the University of Southern Queensland before taking up a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the University of Queensland in 2005. Since 2005, she has pursued a research-intensive trajectory with Research Fellowships at Roehampton University (London), Griffith University (Brisbane) and The University of Queensland (Brisbane). She has recently completed an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, which involved a cross-cultural analysis of socially just schooling in Australia and the UK.