Imagining a system-less system: A critical analysis of federal strategies to align schooling through funding and data

Year: 2018

Author: Savage, Glenn, Lingard, Bob

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper examines complex relationships between the federal funding of schools and attempts by successive federal governments to reshape schooling policy in the Australian federation. Through an analysis of policy developments from the Gonski (2011) report on school funding to the Gonski (2018) report on achieving educational excellence in schools, we examine how federal funding has been harnessed as a policy lever for driving reforms that seek to reshape schooling at the national level and bring subnational (state) systems into alignment. Our key argument is that successive federal governments have used funding to justify a vast array of initiatives that seek to standardise policies and practices in all schools across the nation. As time has progressed, these funding reforms have been increasingly tied to federal political agendas and preferences. In making this argument, we suggest that federal government agendas and initiatives increasingly imagine schooling policy in terms of a ‘system-less’ or ‘border-less’ national field, insofar as reforms are seen as ideally driven not by state politics, histories or preferences, but instead by so-called de-politicised data infrastructures and evidence repositories that tell us “what works” to improve schools. We suggest the federal Quality Schools policy, the Gonski 2.0 report, and the National Schools Interoperability Program (NSIP) are exemplary of this depoliticised trend and pay close attention to analysing these policy developments and how they interact. We highlight two primary concerns about these developments. First, we suggest current and emerging reforms pose significant issues for state governments, in terms of producing new forms of ‘democratic deficit’ through increasingly tying state policies to federal agendas. Second, we sound a warning against the unwavering faith in data, evidence and technology as apparently de-politicised forces that will allow governments and stakeholders to transcend partisan agendas or territorial politics. In contrast, we argue that the emerging faith in data actually serves to further conceal political agendas and powers at play. It also further contributes to the emerging ‘democratic deficit’ by opening up new spaces for edu-businesses and a relatively small body of experts and edu-preneurs to shape policy trajectories through producing the technologies, research and ideas that shape dominant understandings about “what works” in the classroom. The community and the teaching profession also appear increasingly absent from these emergent developments.