Schools Swimming In Contradictions: Low Ses Communities, The Opportunity Trap, And `Aspirations’

Year: 2015

Author: Brennan, Marie, Zipin, Lew

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Philip Brown and his colleagues (Brown, 2003; 2013; Brown, Lauder, Brown & Ashton 2011) analyse how contradictions in contemporary capitalism have undermined what they call the ‘opportunity bargain’: the settlement by which schools offer credentials that promise opportune pathways to good lives in exchange for compliance with school rules and processes. They argue that this ‘bargain’ increasingly functions instead ideologically, as an ‘opportunity trap’ in which young people and their families must invest longer time and greater resources in education, yet with diminishing returns in terms of employment access, social mobility, and a fairer society. Thus for increasing numbers of young people, the meritocratic promise of school diligence leading to rewards – as iterated by parents, teachers and curriculum – is turning hollow.
However education policy parameters, while contextualised by these changing world conditions, do not come to grips with them in a clear, honest and sophisticated way. Instead they conjure simplistic ‘solutions’ such as ‘lifelong learning to acquire human capital for the knowledge economy’. The case study schools, students and surrounding communities connected to the ARC aspirations project are positioned in different ways by the contradictions, with uneven effects on practices and identities, as many schools continue with assumptions that they promise social mobility through education – yet they increasingly reduce offerings of substantive opportunity to the ‘meriting’ few, in ‘gifted and talented’ programs and other mechanisms of distinction.
Exploring school strategies, family and student perspectives in relation to changing economic and social conditions, we find that most families and most school practices are strongly wedded to modernist, individualistic futures unrolled through participation in school and further education and training. Most students, however, are more circumspect, both seeing through the hollowness of educational/certification promises of future payoff, and recognising that they are all the more in a ‘losing’ position if they do not participate. A problem, we argue, is that schools are now falling well behind their students in terms of reading the complexities of changing worldly conditions. Schools thus need to elicit student insights, concerns and hopes for futures, and make these curricular, as a means for schools themselves to make meaningful bargains with students about good reasons for students, families and communities to engage with schooling. In turn, schools need to lead challenges to current educational policy, rather than absorb simplistic policy understandings. All the papers in this symposium elucidate this argument.