Curricular choices and social justice: the need to access ‘powerful knowledge'

Year: 2013

Author: McGregor, Glenda, Mills, Martin, Hayes, Debra, te Riele, Kitty

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In Australia and other nations of the Global North there have been growing concerns about youth attainment and schooling completion. Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicate that nationally only 78% of young people remain in education until the end of Year 12; for students from low socioeconomic and Indigenous backgrounds this figure drops below 60%. The Council of Australian Governments' ‘National Partnership on Youth Attainment and Transitions' have the goal of lifting Year 12 retention rates to 90% by 2015 through supporting initiatives to retain marginalized young people in education and training. A review of these initiatives, with some exceptions, suggests there has been a focus on improving literacy and numeracy and broadening vocational options. Clearly numeracy and literacy skills are necessary for economic participation in society: however, if such competencies and training are considered sufficient education for these, usually marginalized and disadvantaged, young people, it could be argued that this may condemn them to a lifetime of being politically and socially disenfranchised, despite their ability to find employment. From a socially just perspective, the type of curriculum available to young people thus matters. Schools tend to reproduce a society's power structures and young people who have access to rich sources of cultural and economic capital are more likely to be exposed to what Michael Young calls ‘powerful knowledge'; knowledge that facilitates critical interrogation of societies, their histories and power structures. Such knowledge expedites the development of a political consciousness such as that advocated by Paulo Freire who stridently opposed a ‘banking' model of education within which students are passive recipients of predetermined content. In respect to the young people frequently categorised as educational ‘failures', the risk of receiving a predetermined diminished curriculum is considerable. Drawing on research data from alternative education sites catering to highly marginalized young people in Australia and the UK, this paper explores the tensions inherent in official initiatives to retain young people in education and the types of curricula provided for them. Educational philosopher, Gert Biesta makes a distinction between education and training, associating ‘education' with processes that are unpredictable, almost impossible to quantify and fundamental to personal freedom. We are concerned that the current official preoccupation with schooling retention ignores the social justice implications of a diminished curriculum that fails to provide young people with the meaningful learning and powerful knowledge necessary for full democratic participation in the global and national contexts of the 21st century.