More How, Less Why: Changing educational governance in the Australian Capital Territory

Year: 2015

Author: Roberts, Philip

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper examines changing modes of educational governance over the last forty in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). It does so using Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) as a framework for interpreting the changes that have occurred.

The ACT school system separated from New South Wales in the 1970s and quickly developed a distinctive character built on an ethos of school-based governance with high parental and community involvement and, perhaps more strikingly, the adoption of school-developed curriculum across the system. Parallel to this was the establishment of the School of Education the new Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE, now the University of Canberra). In its early days, the CCAE program developed an international reputation for its vision of an intellectual teaching profession with its courses focussed more on the why of teaching, and less on the how.

Forty years on, the educational environment of the ACT is markedly different. Apparently overtaken by national and international policy directions, the Australian Curriculum is bringing to an end the era of school-developed curriculum, while teacher registration and standardisation is seeing teacher education heavily focussed on working on the self of the teacher. Historical examination, however, suggest that local changes in governance are more complex than a response to global policy. In exploring these complexities, this paper joins a growing body of literature in educational policy studies that seeks to move beyond use of the term ‘neoliberal’ as a catch-all phrase for something negative and to offer more meaningful explanations that help to illuminate specific changes.

To do this, the paper will make use of Engestrom’s Activity Theory as an interpretive framework for examining the effects of the ACT’s move to self-government in the 1990s. While perhaps novel in historical analysis, Engestrom’s theory is deployed with an understanding that governance and policy enactment are part the expansive activity of the schooling sector, and the framework is particularly useful here for its approach to understanding the multi-directional interactions between people and their context. Based on an extensive oral history collection and the examination of historical documents, we will argue that while the stated objectives of the education system in the ACT remained largely unchanged through the move to self-government, that the changes in the tools, cultures and divisions of labour that occurred within the activity of educational governance fundamentally changed the way in which the objectives were enacted.