The development of education policies for refugee background students: structure and agency

Year: 2019

Author: Baak, Melanie, Johnson, Bruce, Sullivan, Anna, Slee, Roger, Miller, Emily

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

There is a need to better understand how policy development is shaped by both structural factors and the individual agents responsible for their development. Agents and structures are mutually constituted. Agents are located within the social structures and relationships that define them. Conversely structures are constructed through individuals, their actions, thoughts and interactions. In this paper we explore how policy development, as it relates specifically to education policies for refugee background students, is shaped by structures alongside the agency of individual policy makers. The findings are informed by a critical policy analysis of a range of federal, state and local policies in the Departments of Education and Catholic sectors in Queensland and South Australia. In addition, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 11 staff within these organisations who had responsibility for policy development.

In this paper we recognise that policy developers do not develop policies in a social vacuum but are informed by broader political contexts and structural requirements. We argue that three types of structures shape the development of policy for refugee background students.

1. Organisational structures, such as the organisational units within departments which are currently aligned with areas such as wellbeing and literacy operate to limit the types of policies that are developed.
2. Performative structures such as assessment of refugee students’ language and literacy progress and its links to funding which results in a limited focus on language proficiency (Woods 2009).
3. Knowledge structures, or ways of knowing refugee students which frame students within deficit understanding in relation to language and wellbeing, with a focus on trauma and English language deficiencies (Matthews 2008).

However, those who develop education policies are frequently individuals whose work is shaped by personal aspirations and experiences. The agency of individual policy makers is frequently limited by the structures in which they work or works against these structures to enable the development of policies which seek to foster an assets-based understanding of the complexities of the refugee experience.


Matthews. 2008. ""Schooling and settlement: Refugee education in Australia.""International Studies in Sociology of Education 18 (1):31-45.

Woods, 2009. ""Learning to Be Literate: Issues of Pedagogy for Recently Arrived Refugee Youth in Australia.""Critical Inquiry in Language Studies 6 (1):21.