Blame the student, blame the school or blame the system': Educational policy and the dilemmas of student engagement and school retention

Year: 2006

Author: McInerney, Peter

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper explores the complex issues of student engagement and school retention from a critical/sociological perspective. Dominant discourses on youth alienation, estrangement and underachievement are generally couched in a language of blame and deficits with responsibility for the problems being sheeted home to (a) individual students, families, neighbourhoods and/or cultural groups (b) teachers and schools, and (c) public education systems. What is largely missing from these discourses is a lack of recognition of the structural inequalities which pervade society and sustain educational disadvantage. Drawing on Paulo Freire’s philosophy and pedagogy, I argue that an analysis of student engagement and disaffection must involve both a critique of the dehumanising forces that operate within and outside schools, and the development of a renewed project for a critical pedagogy that challenges the logic of instrumental reason and neoliberal approaches to education policy. With reference to recent ethnographic research, I discuss the tensions involved in implementing school-based responses in the current policy environment and highlight some of the innovative responses to concerns of educational disadvantage and student engagement in the secondary years of schooling.