Towards a history of the 'good' public school parent

Year: 2012

Author: Proctor, Helen

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This paper is a step in a larger research program which looks to understand late twentieth century changes in Australian public schooling by focussing on the history of the public school parent.

The importance of parents, one way or another, in the late twentieth century transformation of the public school has been recognised in Australia and overseas, notably in examinations of parental action in the education marketplace (eg Ball 2003, Campbell, Proctor & Sherington 2009). In historical terms it is clear that there have been changes in the relationships between parents and schools which include but are not limited to school choice. Broadly speaking a "good" public school parent fifty or a hundred years ago was one who deferred to the expertise of the state education system and its teachers. A good twenty-first century parent is an expert strategist who takes matters into her or his own hands. The entrepreneurial twenty-first century parent can usefully be seen as a product of neoliberalism (eg Connell 2008). This paper looks further back into the early to middle twentieth century. Among other things it builds on the Australian social histories of education which flourished during the late 1980s and early 1990s and which explored the ways in which families and public schools shaped one another at different periods in the nation's history (notably Theobald and Selleck 1990).

The paper looks at changes in the relations among family, state and school by examining representations of parents in historical texts about public schooling at select moments between the1920s and the 1970s in NSW. It spans a period of relative ascendancy for the public school, beginning after the establishment of a new system of public high schools in the 1910s and finishing at around the peak of relative public school participation in the 1970s. The paper focuses on questions of expertise, authority and collectivity: What kind or degree of knowledge or expertise was conventionally attributed to parents in the education of children in public schools? What influence did parents have? To what extent were parents ever considered to be legitimate actors in public schooling either for their own children or more collectively? The paper also looks at the extent to which parents were represented as a single category or differentiated by, for example, social class or gender. The paper concludes by setting out an agenda for further research into the history of the "good" educational parent.