Year: 1993

Author: White, M.A.

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The present paper reviews patterns of policy in Australian secondary education at three crisis points, in two periods of depression - the 1890s and 1930s - and in the severe recession of the 1980s and 1990s. The purpose is to draw out similarities between government action in the three periods while also identifying important differences. The paper identifies special characteristics of the Australian economy and political framework during the three depression-recession periods before particular elements of educational policy are analysed. The present paper focusses on depression responses to the role of post-compulsory education, exploring four related propositions: that traditional values in education have reemerged strongly in such crisis periods; that extensions to compulsory education which have accompanied such periods are driven mainly by economic considerations; that depression circumstances, by heightening the economic and national purposes of education, profoundly affect the general curriculum while also renewing state commitments to vocational education; and that this vocationalism, even when conceived in broadly humanitarian terms, presents a major challenge to liberal and general education. It is argued here that in the three periods of crisis, remarkable similarities exist between the general thrust of policy as well as in specific initiatives, although significant differences cannot be minimised. Policy and structural changes occurring in the 1980s and 1990s, while bearing such similarities, are more far-reaching and have wider political support than ever before experienced in Australian education. This paper builds upon and complements earlier work by the author and also that by Allyson Holbrook and others. Independently of each other Judith Bessant and myself have indeed devoted special attention to the three depression periods. Where the 1890s are concerned there have been several challenging studies from Victoria and South Australia in recent years. But more generally the debate on policy relating education to the economy has been carried on with an almost total absence of historical perspective. This is unfortunate, since - as is explained in the present paper - much of what is touted currently as fundamental reform is neither new nor especially creative. It has also ignored lessons from experience in earlier decades, which might have tempered enthusiasm for the more extreme measures contemplated.