Suffering selection for 'success' in power-marginalised high schools

Year: 2017

Author: Lew

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper emerges from an Australian Research Council funded project: 'Capacitating student aspirations in schools and communities of a high-poverty region'. Attending to students in Years 9 and 10, in schools serving power-marginalised groups of Melbourne's west and northwest, we investigated: (1) how these students were forming perceptions of present social worlds, and aspirations towards futures; and (2) how their perceptions and aspirations were influenced by within-school and beyond-school dynamics. In this paper we focus on interview testimony from a sub-set of students who were selected by their schools for academically 'accelerated' programs during Years 7-9/10. We apply tools of political-sociological analysis: from Appadurai, Ball, Berlant, Bourdieu, Brown, Maguire, Teese, Lamb (and colleagues), among others.

Our data and analysis finds these young people self-reflexively aware that they receive preferential investment relative to other cohorts in their schools. Most appreciate benefits of this selective treatment: in terms of educational offerings, resource provisions, and trajectories towards further education and life chances. However, they also harbour substantive concerns that social contexts verging from the present may configure their futures with precarious uncertainties that stymie best-laid life plans. Focal to this paper, these young people-currently immersed in their schools years-register painful burdens, emotively expressed, that accompany special selection for 'success' within their schools. They feel isolations of social stratification within the school, and guilt about preferred treatment. Most pronounced, they suffer pressures of being their schools' 'showcase kids'. They comments critically, with analytical nuance, about how school rhetoric about care for their futures in 'a competitive knowledge economy' has more do with bolstering their schools' reputational capital in market-niche competitions, hinging on performance accountabilities. They testify to exhaustion, even torment, in shouldering pressures to perform. And they express loss and dismay at trends towards reduced academic offerings-particularly in arts, humanities and social sciences-as their schools invest thin resources in literacy and numeracy as weightier metric indicators of school performance.

We diagnose how, in some ways, the 'accelerated' programs in schools of our research reflect 'poor cousin' strategies of elite schools, as chronicled by Kenway et al. (2016). However, effects diverge significantly from elite schools. Most disturbingly, these programs in power-marginalised schools select only for small portions of a school's total student numbers, while marginalising the majority in their care as 'non-academic'. They thus 'count' less in performance measures; but their future possibilities are foreshortened.