Refugee students, teacher agency and neoliberalism in Australian education

Year: 2017

Author: Rose, Angela

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Given the continuing global refugee crisis, the number of refugee students entering Australian schools is set to increase significantly. As a result, school and state responses to refugee education and their support of this student group is of renewed importance. Within Australia, and NSW particularly, reference to refugee and asylum seeker students is embedded within much broader policies which often render this student group invisible. Arguably, funding for schools enrolling refugee students is available, in part, to enact these policies. However, the introduction of neoliberal school funding models such as Local Schools, Local Decisions, has placed increased pressures on schools, with principals now positioned as gatekeepers to their own refugee support. Principals now require the business acumen to not only make strategic financial decisions for the schools, but also ensure all students, particularly refugees, are successfully identified and supported. As part of a larger case study of Australian secondary teacher beliefs towards refugee students, the purpose of this paper is twofold: to examine the historical effects of economic rationalism (now known as neoliberalism) on current refugee education and policy, and to explore the significance of teacher agency in negating these effects, particularly at a leadership level. Research questions sought to determine teacher beliefs towards refugee students, and the effects of working conditions (such as education policy), or significant individuals within the school which may influence the (re)formation of these beliefs. This paper draws upon semi-structured interviews with the relieving principal, deputy principal and refugee support teacher from a large, multicultural school in Western Sydney with a high enrolment of refugee students. Analysis of these interviews determined the importance of having key agents of change within schools, in this case the school principal and refugee support teacher, to establish and drive the school's practical-evaluative response to their refugee student population. Further, it was identified that in light of neoliberal reforms, greater responsibility has been placed on schools to properly identify refugee students and fund appropriate support. With school principals largely controlling school funding and priorities, they must make conscious and proactive choices about refugee students. Without this, many refugee students will remain invisible. This paper highlights the role of teacher agency in supporting refugee students and the importance of professional development for school leaders despite restrictive policy and funding reforms.