Report: Exploring the Public Purposes of Education in Australian Primary Schools

agppadev News

November | 2011

Report of an ARC Linkage Project: July 2010

Chief Investigators

  • Professor Emeritus Alan Reid: University of South Australia
  • Professor Neil Cranston: University of Tasmania
  • Professor Jack Keating: University of Melbourne
  • Professor Emeritus Bill Mulford: University of Tasmania

Industry Partners

Click here to download the complete paper in pdf format (465Kb file).

When reading the paper you will notice a number of annotation references, please find below, the numbered list and the links to the referenced documents:

[1]: ACDE paper – REID, A (2003) ‘Public education as an education commons’, Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) Discussion Paper, pp 1-20 Education as an Education Commons (199Kb).pdf
[2a] and [2b]: Purposes of Education (long 2a and short 2b)
[3a] and [3b]: History (long 3a and short 3b)
[4a] and [4b]: Forces and their implications (long 4a and short 4b)
[5a] and [5b]: Politics (long 5a and short 5b)

[6]: Queensland Policy Makers
[7]: Tasmania Policy Makers
[8]: Queensland Policy Texts
[9]: Tasmania Policy Texts
[10]: Victoria Policy Texts

[11]: Queensland
[12]: Tasmania
[13]: Victoria

[14]: Lansdowne
[15]: Southbank
[16]: Eastfield
[17]: Blue Hills
[18]: St Porters
[19]: Harvester Catholic

[20]: Survey
[21a]: Survey Results and [21b]: Summary Data (opens an MSExcel file)
[22]: Survey Results by Demographic Variables (opens an MSExcel file)
[23]: Survey Open-ended Results

Professional Learning Material
[24]: Professional Learning Material

[25]: Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals for Young Australians (December, 2008). –
[26]: Current Federal Policy – The Educational Revolution
[27]: Building Social Capital in Communities of Professional Learners
[28]: Analytical Tool

Executive Summary

Part 1 of the report outlines the genesis of the research project, the reason for researching the public purposes of education, the research questions and the research methodologies.

Historically, Australian schools were seen as central to the project of nation building. That is, as well as enhancing the life prospects of individuals, schooling also had a number of public purposes which included, for example, building skills to advance the economy, and fostering understandings of citizenship and dispositions for the polity. These public purposes were refined in public discussion as Australian education slowly expanded. However, in the latter part of the 20th century, this settlement around the public purposes of Australian schools was disrupted for a number of reasons. These included the significant economic and cultural changes that altered, and continue to alter our society; the changing political arrangements resulting from the decision to provide state funding to private schools; and the dominance of neo-liberal ideology and its focus on public choice theory.

These trends and the responses to them are reshaping schooling, and yet there has been little analysis of the implications of these changes for the purposes of education. This has meant, in turn, that there has been no benchmark against which to make and evaluate educational policy and practice. In our view, this is partly due to a lack of clarity regarding the concept of educational purposes, and, more specifically, education’s public purposes. 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 realised. That is the purpose of this research project, the key questions of which were:

  • How are the purposes of schooling understood in the literature?
  • What are the public purposes of education today, and why should they be central to education policy and practice?
  • How are the purposes of education, and specifically its public purposes, understood and enacted in Australian primary schools and the wider community?
  • What are the factors that facilitate or inhibit the enactment of these public purposes in schools?
  • What are the implications for educational policy and practice?
  • How can the findings of the project contribute to professional strategies for school principals, and ongoing discourses about the public purposes of schooling and their successful enactment?

The research involved literature reviews, analyses of policy makers’ positions, policy documentation, and the role of the media, case studies of schools, and an Australia–wide survey of Australian government primary principals.

Part 2 of the report explores the concepts surrounding the purposes of education. It argues that educational practice is informed by its purposes, and that such purposes are the outcome of political processes. It argues that this results in broad ‘settlements’ which shape educational discourses at particular historical moments.

The report proposes three broad purposes of education – democratic, individual and economic. These purposes interact and become assertive under different conditions. Given the high status of purpose within education there will always be a dominant purpose.

  • The democratic purpose is located in a society which expects its schools to prepare all young people to be active and competent participants in democratic life. Since this benefits the society as a whole, it is a public purpose.
  • The individual purpose aims to advantage the individual in social and economic life. It treats education as a commodity and supports school choice within an educational consumption approach. It posits education as a private good for individual benefits and is therefore a private purpose.
  • The economic purpose aims to prepare young people as competent economic contributors. Since this combines public economic benefits with private economic benefits, it is a constrained public purpose.

Purposes are shaped and delivered through three modalities of schooling: the structure of schooling, the official curriculum, and the culture and processes of education systems and schools. A healthy education system is seen as one where there is strong compatibility within and between the modalities of schooling and the stated purposes of education.

Part 3 of the report argues for a return to a renewed emphasis on democratic public purposes for Australian education. Over the past decade, the major educational purpose has been an individual one, dominated by the ideology of choice. This has resulted in increased competition between schools and the residualisation of public education. We argue that the dilution of public purposes and the growth of individual purposes have negative impacts upon the common good. In a globalised and more complex world, where the nature and role of the nation state is changing, schooling based upon public purposes becomes more important.

How can the public (democratic) purposes of education be advanced? Since active democracy requires capabilities for its nourishment, the central work of schools in a democratic society is the development of the capacities for social practice. This has implications for the modalities of schooling. From the perspective of public (democratic) purposes of education, the structure of schooling would seek to ensure equality of educational opportunities and resources for the needs of students; the curriculum would ensure that all students are encouraged and enabled to develop the capacities necessary for a democratic society; and the culture and processes of schooling would be based upon and model democratic processes.

It is one thing to argue in the abstract for a renewed focus on the public (democratic) purposes of education, however it is quite another to develop educational policy and practice in ways that are consistent with it. The important next step in the research was to conduct a reconnaissance of the field in order to identify the ways in which educational purposes are understood and enacted in the Australian education system. Such information is required if a professional association like AGPPA is to realistically determine a strategy for promoting and enacting the public purposes of education.

Part 4 of the report outlines the results of our research into how the purposes of education (and, more specifically, its public purposes) are understood and enacted in Australian primary schools and in the wider community. This research was conducted through an analysis of the role of policy texts, policy makers and the media in constructing a discourse about the purposes of education; in-depth case studies of six schools; and an online survey questionnaire of principals in Australian government primary schools.

Policy texts, policy makers and the media: Interviews were conducted with 15 senior policy makers in education, including Ministers from across four states. Many of these policy makers had clear views of education as a public good. Understandings about the public purposes of education were variously connected to the ‘common good’, equity and disadvantage, and community building. The interviewees identified various barriers to the achievement of public purposes, such as a preoccupation by treasury officials with the economic outcomes of education, media attacks on public schools, and lack of parental support. In particular there was a view that national political agendas, including accountability measures, privilege private over public purposes and work against their enactment.

Most of the analysed policy texts were framed within discussions about changing and challenging contexts for schooling. In these contexts, the documents generally placed a strong focus on the economic purposes of education. Based on the rapidity of policy text production during the course of the project, it seems that educational change is equated with policy pronouncements.

Three case studies of media reportage of education showed the influence of the media in shaping assumptions and public attitudes about the purposes of education Media reportage of educational issues was often simplistic and driven by competition for readership, with opinion being reported as fact. Given the influence of the media on policy makers in education, the case studies raised some challenging questions about how the design and management of educational initiatives and reforms that serve public purposes should be conducted through the media.

School based case studies: In-depth case studies were undertaken in four government and two Catholic schools in four states and involved interviews and focus groups with school personnel, observations of meetings and classrooms, and analyses of school documents. The case studies demonstrated combinations of six stated and implicit purposes of education: a love of learning for its own sake; student self-efficacy; student social-efficacy; student skills in literacy and numeracy; equity, social justice and democratic equality; and community development. These are largely public purposes and are enacted through four broad groupings of strategies:

(1) the development of a culture that supports the public purposes of schooling – one that is inclusive and democratic; (2) leadership that models the desired culture and works hard to sustain it, including continuous professional learning, the sharing of insights, evidence-based policy making, the de-privitisation of teaching practice, and the use of the school’s purposes and goals as reference points for decision-making; (3) contribution to community building through in-school community participation and utilising the community as a resource; and (4) curriculum strategies which broaden rather than narrow the learning experience, incorporate negotiation with students, individualise the curriculum and organise the whole school around a major public purpose theme.

The case studies showed that stated educational purposes cannot automatically be designated as public or private. It is the language used to talk about purposes and the strategies used to deliver them that reveal the intention. The purposes of schooling are enacted through each of the three modalities. However, a rhetorical commitment to public purposes is insufficient if the strategies to deliver them at the school level and the policies at the system levels respectively, do not match these purposes.

The case studies also indicated that the cultural modalities are preconditions for the delivery of public purposes. A conceptualisation of communities comprising professional learners will nourish these modalities and will sustain ongoing discussion and debate about schools’ public purposes.

National survey of principals: The survey was sent to all AGPPA affiliate members across all Australian states and territories, who constitute the vast bulk of government school primary principals. The survey questions were derived from the previous work of the project and comprised 71 items against which respondents were asked to rate the levels of importance and levels of enactment of educational purposes. Three open-ended questions were included. A response rate of approximately 25 per cent was achieved.

A major finding from this survey was that primary principals are clear that (democratic) public purposes ought be at the top of the agenda when determining what primary schools should be aiming towards, and that (economic and individual) private purposes should have a lesser focus. However, there was a big gap between support for public purposes and their enactment. That is, the survey findings revealed tensions between what principals believed ought to be purposes of education and how they might be achieved, and the realities of what was actually happening. This would suggest a shift away from public purposes in enactment.

The open-ended responses indicated that barriers external to the school, such as funding, bureaucracy, and the media, dominate. There was a sense of anger and despair at what was seen as a lack of fairness in the management and treatment of public education in Australia, and the perceived differences in the treatment of government and non-government schools. This included funding patterns, and an imbalance of responsibility between the sectors in enrolling ‘all comers’ – especially the more challenging students.

Two powerful messages were revealed in the survey: there is inadequate resource support for students with socio-economic disadvantage and/or learning needs, and there is concern about the focus on, and impact of the national testing regime and its associated accountabilities.

Summary: The research demonstrated that if the public purposes of education are to be taken seriously there needs to be an alignment between the stated goals and intentions of education policy and the strategies that are designed to deliver them. This suggests the need for there to be a critical scrutiny of policies, programs and practices at the level of both systems and schools, by educators and the general community. If the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians is to be taken seriously, then the public purpose goals it sets out should be used as the benchmark for assessment. The sorts of questions that might be asked of policies, programs and practices would relate to the extent to which they contribute to the wider social good or community benefit. These would include consideration about whether they:

  • Help to develop capacities for democratic participation
  • Contribute to the health of the whole system
  • Include rather than exclude
  • Support a quality education for all
  • Promote a culture of collaboration
  • Model democratic decision-making

A short analytical tool is proposed to aid educators in the task of subjecting policies, programs and practices to critical examination. The tool is designed to be used by AGPPA n its response to the national policy agenda, and by schools for the purposes of policy development and analysis, and professional development.

Part 5 of the report demonstrates how such an analytical tool might be used to consider the strategies that the federal government has developed and implemented in the name of the ‘Education Revolution’. It asks whether these strategies will help to achieve or impede the rhetorical commitment to the public purposes of education represented in the Melbourne Declaration. It concludes that at the rhetorical level, the Melbourne Goals of Schooling adopts a public purposes stance. However, the report uses three case study examples to show that much of the policy described under the banner of the Education Revolution is, in fact, contradictory to the stated Goals of Schooling. It argues that the government needs to make the Melbourne Goals the touchstone for its policy making, rather than consigning it to the margins. Not to do so is to force schools to work against the grain as they seek to pursue the public purposes of education in an environment which is antagonistic to those very aims.

Part 6 concludes the report by drawing together the research findings in order to arrive at a set of recommendations for action. There is a brief preamble to each group of recommendations, where reference is made to the reason for the recommendation, and its basis in the research.


Recommendation 1: That education policy and its delivery is based upon a democratically agreed set of purposes.

Recommendation 2: That agreed-upon purposes are used as a central reference point for policy development and educational practice across funding and resources, curriculum, culture and processes.

Recommendation 3: That consistent with available evidence, this set of purposes would have at its heart public purposes which are based upon a commitment to:

  • a cohesive and just community;
  • responsible, competent and active citizens for democracy and the common good;
  • social justice.

Recommendation 4: That the governance and funding of schools must reflect the public purposes of schools by ensuring that school systems can guarantee equitable and just provision, rather than promoting individual schools to compete in an educational market.

Recommendation 5: That a schooling system which is committed to public purposes of education must be underpinned by a transparent resourcing approach, which:

  • requires delivery of a curriculum for the public good (see recommendations 6, 7 and 8 below);
  • supports inclusive school practices in regards to enrolments and curriculum;
  • reflects educational need;
  • considers the level of public resources in relation to resources the school has access to from other sources.

Recommendation 6: That the curriculum and its enactment are based upon a commitment to student development of agreed capabilities to live productive lives in a democratic society.

Recommendation 7: That the official curriculum should not comprise a disconnected collection of understandings and skills, but be based on a coherent view of the whole curriculum and the connections among its component parts.

Recommendation 8: That system-wide assessments reflect all aspects of learning, not just a narrow band that is thought to be easily measured.

Recommendation 9: That decision-making and subsequent change/reform at all levels of education and schooling be democratic, evidence-based and transparent, and involve, where possible and relevant, education professionals, parents, students and the wider community.

Recommendation 10: That education policy and practice should be based on a commitment to the creation of system-wide cultures of trust, respect and collaboration, and promote communities of professional learners.

Recommendation 11: That accountability should not encourage exclusionary practices, narrowing of the curriculum, or competition among schools and teachers. Rather, accountability should be open, professional, transparent, inquiry-based, rigorous and focused upon all aspects of learning.

Recommendation 12: That school leaders take professional responsibility, individually and through their professional associations, for articulating and enacting the public purposes of education in schools and education systems.

Recommendation 13: That pre-service teacher education and ongoing professional learning be provided to build awareness of and the capacity to deliver the recommendations in this report.