Let’s stop talking about school choice and reconfigure what we are doing in Australia

By Stewart Riddle and David Cleaver

In a perfect world, public schooling would be able to honour its mission to provide access to high quality education for all young people, regardless of their backgrounds, interests, and capacities.

However, the world we live in is far from perfect.

Idea of collective good is being lost

Market-based policy decisions by governments of various persuasions over the past thirty years in Australia have, with breathtaking success, undermined the emphasis on the collective good of the community. Education, and schooling in particular, are at the centre of the move to privatise the public, whether through the growth of private schooling or the encroachment of corporate interests in public schools.

These days we worry more about individual responsibility and private gain than we do about working together towards what is best for our community as a whole.

Furthermore, the question of social justice and equity in education becomes reframed as an individual matter, where choice, competition and decentralisation are the mechanisms for delivering equal opportunity and high quality educational outcomes for students.

In his book, Hatred of Democracy French philosopher, Jacques Rancière, describes how contemporary society promotes mass individualism in the self-interested pursuit of limitless growth. In other words, Capitalism sets up citizens to be consumers, whether that’s of media, electronic goods, or education.

Schooling has morphed into a product to be consumed

We argue that mass individualism should not be the measure of collective social good, whether we are talking education or otherwise. The social, and in fact the very nature of most global challenges and condition mean that we need a commitment to the public good more than ever before. Schooling needs to be reclaimed as a space for reimagining democracy and civic virtue.

Of course, there is also an uncomfortable tension with the notion of democracy in the classroom, given that schools by their very design are undemocratic social institutions. By this, we mean that schools are places where young people learn to regulate and control their behaviours, to follow rules and engage in a multitude of compliances to authority. These effects, we argue, are enhanced in a climate where performance on standardised tests becomes the measure of the quality of learning and teaching that takes place in schools.

Much of the media cycle is given to a narrative of educational achievement and standards in decline. The policy response, especially from conservative think tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies, is to call for greater levels of privatisation, competition and choice in the education market.

Capacity to pay is not ‘choice’

The well-worn argument is that parents should be free to make choices about the best school to send their children to. Schools would then improve their educational outcomes to meet the demands of the market and their ‘consumers’. This fits with Rancière’s notion of massified individualism – by each student improving their own individual educational outcomes, overall ‘quality’ is increased.

Yet for families living in poverty or in communities of high levels of disadvantage, with unemployment, health and other welfare concerns, there is simply no capacity to choose.

Often when parents are making choices about schooling, they are actually choosing to buy into advantage, rather than specifically seeking a school that best suits the needs of their child. This is well-exemplified in the prestige of highly selective public schools in inner-city locations throughout the country, who are increasingly relying on NAPLAN scores and entrance exams to select the best and brightest students.

One clear effect of buying into advantage is the increasing segregation of Australian schooling. The work of Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd demonstrates the growing divide, not between public and private schools, but between schools in areas of high socioeconomic advantage, and those in low SES communities.

Let’s look at reconstructing schooling instead

Perhaps we should focus less on the notion of choice of schools and more about reconstructing schooling itself, so that the local public school is the best option for young people to have a meaningful, connected and authentic educational experience. In much the same way that a commitment to a high quality public health system and universal medical coverage promotes excellent health outcomes across the entire community, so does a commitment to a high quality public education system.

We are concerned with the delegitimising effects of schooling-as-usual, without regard for the particular lives and knowledge of young people themselves. Simply enacting mandated curriculum, even ones claimed to contain powerful knowledge, finding ways to better test learning, or ensuring that there is greater school choice available, does not address the systemic and social disadvantage that many young people face.

We argue that there is a clear need to reconfigure schooling. We suggest that this might take the form of schooling that better connects with the lives of young people in substantial and sustained ways. This will mean moving beyond standardised, ‘one size fits all’ approaches and where classrooms model democratic principles of social justice and more meaningful knowledge transfer, acquisition, and production.

Given the enormous complexities and challenges of our time, we owe it to young people of all persuasions, to have the very best chance of a meaningful education that can be provided.

Business as usual simply won’t work.

Stewart Riddle is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Teacher Education and Early Childhood at the University of Southern Queensland. His research interests include social justice and equity in education, music-based research practices and research methodologies. He also plays bass in a band called Drawn from Bees.



David Cleaver is a lecturer in the School of Linguistics, Adult and Specialist Education at the University of Southern Queensland




This post has been adapted from the forthcoming book, Alternative schooling, social justice and marginalised students: teaching and learning in an alternative music school.

This is the first piece in a series on schooling and democracy in the lead up to the Re-imagining Education for Democracy Summit, being held at USQ Springfield 13-15 November. For more details about the summit

8 thoughts on “Let’s stop talking about school choice and reconfigure what we are doing in Australia

  1. Let’s do it! Maybe a Friere approach! Pedagogy of hope! CST Common Good. Great commentary. Thank you.

  2. Hi Jennie,

    Thanks for the comment. I think there’s certainly something in a pedagogy of hope that we could aspire towards, although I also think that several decades of progressive approaches to critical educational theory, sociology and practice have not necessarily been able to deliver widespread material gains for many people. That’s not to say I think we should abandon hope (or Freire), but that we might need to consider what these pedagogies and curricular might offer to young people in our schools. It’s absolutely one of the driving forces behind the summit in November!

  3. Amandah Taylor says:

    I would be very interested to hear, or see your vision for your ideal school. I work in a kindergarten that is part of a primary school in a low socioeconomic area and I see the daily struggle that some of the primary school teachers have with the current system and their understanding that it doesn’t meet the needs of the children they care for, or the community of the future. They look at the kindergarten model and agree that it better meets the children’s needs, but can’t envisage that model within their classroom situation, when they have ‘standardised testing’ and ‘viccurric’ standards to follow.
    I would also love to hear about how you are transforming teacher training ideals in Queensland at your university, so that teachers feels empowered to make change in their schools and classrooms.

  4. Deborah Schiel Zaini says:

    Yes, ditto! You’ve highlighted the problem, but written very little about what the solution could be. That’s not helpful.

    As a mum, if I see my preschool children doing something they shouldn’t be doing, I redirect them to what they should be doing. Just telling them, “no, don’t”, is not very helpful.

    So please elaborate on your solution; you’ve told us what not to do, could you please redirect us and say what we should be doing?

  5. Thanks for your comment, Deborah. Similarly to my response to Amandah’s comment, I’m not sure that there is “the solution” for what is a complex problem. In terms of how do I see the possibilities for hope, certainly the aspects of the school we’ve been working with give many starting places that we might further explore. There is a wealth of research coming out of Australia (and elsewhere) that looks at the notion of a meaningful education and how schooling might be re-imagined in the interests of those who are currently least advantaged. For example, much of Raewyn Connell’s earlier work (1980s and 1990s) looks at this very issue. More contemporary research includes work from folks such as Martin Mills, Glenda McGregor, Kitty te Riele, Deb Hayes, Rob Hattam, Wayne Sawyer, Bob Lingard, Pat Thomson, and a mountain of other Australian and international researchers. While I wouldn’t suggest that any of these folk, let alone myself, would be comfortable with your request to “please redirect us and say what we should be doing”, I do think that we’re at a point in terms of our broader social, political and economic inequalities where just doing business-as-usual isn’t okay. As to the role of schooling and education more generally within that mix, I wouldn’t want to overstate its capacity for providing big social change either…

  6. Hi Amandah,

    Thanks for contributing. I’m not sure that there is such a thing as an “ideal school”, although David and I do try to unpack some of the ideas that work at the school we feature in our book. For example, we found that a strong commitment to community and a sense of belonging was critical, as well as making the curriculum work for the young people, rather than the other way around. We observed how the teachers and students were simultaneously able to “do what had to be done” (the mandated curriculum, assessment, reporting and other compliance issues) and also to “do what needed to be done” (the meaningful engagement of young people in education that serves their interests). I’m not sure that answers your question, and in terms of addressing “transforming teacher training ideals” that’s a whole other matter, given that we are currently going through an intensification of initial teacher education in Australia…

  7. Tomaz Lasic says:

    Cheers Stewart & David

    It seems the only thing that connects high and low SES schools (and all in between…) is the standardised curriculum and assessment. It is measurable, technical and easy to pay lip service to social justice and equity issues with. Hell, some even argue that without it, we wouldn’t know how tough (or how poorly) some schools are doing it. Remove that and they may as well be on other planets.

    (Yes) we need to rethink what holds ‘the system’ together before we slip further into segreggation with its shiny top of opportunities and long tail of underachievement and we need to listen to many voices. Somehow I don’t think the ones with most influence will not want to have their voice equalled or watered down for some nicely worded ‘common goal’. Here’s that individual maximising thing again you mention and which we swim in.

    Anyway, great post, thank you. Gotta go, the bell just rang and 27 kids are waiting for me.


  8. Hi Tomaz,

    Thanks very much for your response. I think that you are right that there is an issue that needs to confronted, which is that of addressing advantage. It’s very easy for sociologists to tackle disadvantage, which we’ve been doing with great vigour for many years to varying degrees of success. Perhaps the more pressing issue is taking on advantage. It’s certainly not going to be an easy task to convince people a) that they have enormous privilege and b) to share some of it around…Nancy Fraser has some words on this matter that might guide us in a project of justice that is about balancing redistribution, recognition and representation.

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