Amanda Keddie

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.