Alan Reid et al – Researching the Public Purposes of Education

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Researching the Public Purposes of Education

Professor Alan Reid (University of South Australia), Associate Professor Neil Cranston (University of Queensland), Professor Jack Keating (University of Melbourne), and Professor Bill Mulford (University of Tasmania) for the SAPPA Journal, April 2007.

Download the complete paper in pdf format (35Kb file).

Introduction: The genesis of a research project
In 2005, the Australian Government Primary Principals Association (AGPPA) executive approached Professor Alan Reid to discuss the concept of the education commons, an idea that he had proposed in a keynote at the 2004 SAPPA conference. During the course of the ensuing discussion it was agreed that in recent times the public purposes of education had been pushed to the background of public policy making and that people in publicly funded institutions like Universities, schools and professional associations had a responsibility to question this trend.  After all, since there is a considerable investment of public funds in Australian educational institutions, all should be serving a number of public purposes.

Notwithstanding the above, it was also agreed that the meaning of concepts like public purpose  and public good are very vague and in any case change over time. Out of this discussion was born the idea of a research project to investigate the ways in which the concept of the public purposes of education is understood and enacted in contemporary times.Whilst it might seem obvious that schools should serve public purposes, such purposes are usually assumed, rather than clearly articulated; and they seldom receive research attention or form the focus of public debate. 

It was decided to target the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Grant scheme, which funds research projects involving University academics and their ‘industry partners’. Over the next few months, the AGPPA Executive met with the four of us to begin the process of developing a research proposal. During the course of that time, it was decided to also involve the Education Foundation as an industry partner. The proposal was submitted in April 2006, not without some trepidation as the success rate for ARC grants is only 15-20%!

In November 2006 we learned that we had been successful, winning $250,000 over a three year period. This sum is made up of a cash contribution from the ARC and cash and in kind support from the industry partners. The research is now getting underway with the support of a Steering Committee comprising representatives from AGPPA and the Education Foundation. The researchers are keen to keep primary principals informed about the research as it proceeds. We intend to do this through occasional contributions to the professional journals of state-based Primary Principal Associations and AGPPA, visiting local executives, and presenting at conferences.

This first paper sets out the rationale for the project. In subsequent articles we will describe the research methodology and some of the early findings or insights.

Until the 1870s in the various Australian colonies, education was provided by religious societies and private institutions with only minimal regulation by the state. Those children who attended school – and many working-class children did not – did so only long enough to obtain a basic literacy and numeracy. It was largely the children of the wealthy who completed a secondary education at elite private colleges, with many proceeding on to university. 

By the 1870s colonial governments were concerned about the fact that many children, particularly working class children, were not attending school. It was felt that this was having adverse effects, not least on the economy given that many jobs increasingly demanded basic skills of literacy and numeracy. Clearly, if children were not going to attend school on a voluntary basis they would have to be compelled to do so. It was decided that this task should be assumed by the state. Thus the Australian colonies began to establish public schools that were funded from the public purse for specific public purposes. There was to be a strict separation between church and state, with public monies being used to establish and run public (state) schools only. 

At first the public purposes of schooling were quite constrained. For example, compulsory public education was confined to basic or elementary schooling, with secondary education in the main being available only to those who paid fees at private colleges (ie., the children of the colonial upper and middle classes). However, over time, a changing economy and society began to place increasing expectations on the state to expand its educational provision. Slowly the nature, scope and purposes of Australian schooling began to change. Thus, during the 20th century, the compulsory school leaving age rose slowly (in most States today it is at least 16 years of age); the curriculum broadened; and increasing numbers of students began to attend publicly provided secondary schools, as well as private independent and Catholic secondary schools. 

The changing public purposes of education
Throughout this time Australian schools were seen as being central to the project of nation building. That is, as well as enhancing the life chances of individuals, schooling also had a number of public purposes which included, for example, building skills for the economy, and fostering citizenship understandings and dispositions for the polity. These public purposes were refined in public discussion as Australian education expanded slowly. However, in the latter part of the 20th century this settlement around the public purposes of Australian schools has been disrupted for a number of reasons. 

  • First, the impact of technological change, the increasing diversity of the Australian population, the growth of a knowledge-based society, and the globalisation of the economy and cultures are challenging the very nature of schooling. These challenges are causing education organizations and systems around the world to broaden and personalize curriculum and to rethink school structures. In Australia there has been a flurry of curriculum activity designed to broaden the curriculum by foregrounding generic skills and capabilities. And yet this work is proceeding in the absence of an ongoing public conversation about the public purposes of schooling in a changing environment.
  • Second, the political settlement in which the public purposes of schools were delivered by an amalgam of publicly funded state schools and private independent and Catholic schools was irrevocably altered in the 1960s and 1970s when successive federal governments, Liberal and Labor, began to fund both public and private schools. This broke the century long educational settlement based on the separation of church and state. Importantly, the provision of public funds to private schools has blurred the distinction between public and private schools. Schooling provision in Australia is now shared between state owned and state regulated schools, and publicly subsidized and publicly regulated ‘private’ schools.

A change of this magnitude has significant implications for the way in which the public purposes of schooling have been traditionally understood and enacted. And yet to date there has been no detailed and systematic examination of what the public purposes of schooling might be for Australia’s hybrid public/publicly subsidised system of schooling, beyond rhetoric about the public good. 

  • Third, policy tendencies such as the dominance of public choice theory, the education market, competition, user pays principles, public-private partnerships, self-governing schools and increased centralized accountability are altering the nature of educational discourse in Australia, and in other parts of the world. Education is seen increasingly as a commodity accessed by individuals as a positional (private) good, rather than as a public good. In such an environment, what passes for educational debate about this issue tends to focus on some crude binaries, where choice is counterposed against the public good, and public education against private education. In the absence of any ongoing analysis and review of the public purposes of schooling, the concept of the public good has been emptied of meaning.

Given the amount of state and federal money that is put into the schooling sector each year, it is crucial that the Australian community and its educators are clear about the purposes of public expenditure on education and the extent to which these are being realized. Of course, the lack of clarity about the public purposes of schooling does not mean that nothing is happening. The 1999 Adelaide Declaration of the National Goals of Schooling is one attempt to express national purposes for schooling, and undoubtedly these goals are manifested in many ways through the work of Australian schools. However, there has been no systematic study of the goals, the strategies that schools employ to enact these goals, or the effect of the strategies.

The research questions
This research project seeks to address this important gap. It involves four academics from Universities in four different states, working with key professional organizations to explore and redescribe the public purposes of schooling and their enactment in the light of the major changes described above. The study will focus on primary schools in order to both contain the project and focus it, given the fact that the issues for primary and secondary education in the current environment may differ in some respects. However, the findings of this research project will have the potential to inform policy in relation to secondary schools, and lay the basis for further research in the secondary area. 

In summary, the research will explore the following research questions:
1. How are the public purposes of schooling understood?
2. How are the public purposes of education enacted in Australian schools?
3. What are the factors that facilitate and/or inhibit the enactment of these public purposes in schools
4. What are the implications for educational policy and practice?
5. How can the findings of the project contribute to (a) professional strategies for school principals, and (b) on-going discourses about the public purposes of schooling and their successful enactment? 

The outcomes of the project will extend beyond the formal research findings.  Apart from informing government policy, they will include the engagement of principals in the research and the feedback given to them.  As well, all schools will be provided with professional development and evaluation resources that will assist them to engage further with the question of public purposes and to develop strategies for achieving these public purposes in their school communities.

The project is timely in a period when governments and community organisations have expressed concerns about the fundamental values that unify communities and the nation, especially in the context of expressions of community discord which have manifested themselves in recent times.  In an age where national public value is open to redefinition from a globalised economy and media, and where community bonds can weaken with rapid changes in values, schooling remains the critical public institution for the purposes of community building, national unity and a healthy democracy.

What constitutes public purposes of schooling is a complex question relating to the intangible and inherently autonomous entities of public values, knowledge and beliefs.  Within a liberal democracy these entities are the product of the interplay of family and community heritage, independent cultural agencies (such as religion and the media) and public agencies.  The main public agency is primary schooling, towards which government contributes approximately $15 billion annually. 

Unlike previous studies, this project will not attempt to identify public value either through independent agencies, or through a survey of public attitudes.  Rather it will attempt to identify public values through documenting the interplay between communities and the public agency that has the historical and explicit purpose of building and strengthening public purposes – primary schools and their leaders.