Changing the basis of social fields in alternative school settings

Year: 2016

Author: Waters, Richard

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Central parts of the structure of mainstream schooling are the concepts of meritocracy and competition: the assumption is that those who achieve success in academic learning are the most talented and/or hard working of all. On the other hand, there are many potentially talented children from low socio-economic backgrounds who struggle with learning and achievement in the mainstream system and who eventually disengage from education through poor attendance or are excluded due to behaviour issues, and this situation has consequences for equity in education. Bourdieu utilised his theory of social fields, and the accompanying concepts of habitus and cultural capital, to explain this situation with the argument that schools help to reproduce the existing social structure through the schooling system. Bourdieu argued that social fields were based on competition between players in this social field in which there were differential advantages based on the cultural assets and ingrained dispositions of people from middle and higher social origins. This situation has been intensified through neo-liberal policy settings reinforcing the role of competition through highlighting differential performance within and between schools. Some alternative schools, especially those working with students who have disengaged or who are in danger of disengagement, are utilising non-competition, collaboration and cooperation to re-build engagement in learning and also to positively influence community engagement in schooling. This raises the question of whether the basis of social fields, as explained by Bourdieu, could be transformed from one of competition to one of cooperation and whether this could lead to greater equity of outcomes for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This paper will report on a qualitative research study of alternative education practices in three schools in regional areas in Queensland representing a spectrum of school types: an alternative independent school with a holistic philosophy; an alternative pathways program in a state high school; and an alternative school for young people who have been excluded from or opted to leave mainstream schools. This research utilised document analysis, quasi-ethnographic observation and semi-structured interviews with leaders, teachers, students, parents and other community members to gain insight into the nature and effects of alternative education practices. Data analysis highlighted schooling practices which supported the engagement of marginalised young people in education through forms of non-competition and cooperation. The analysis raises questions about whether these approaches could be adopted by mainstream schools.