Stewart Riddle

Australian curriculum review: strengthened but still a long way from an amazing curriculum for all Australian students

There is much to admire in the proposed revisions to the Australian Curriculum, which were released for public consultation this week. I’d give it a B+.

The curriculum content organisers and core ideas have been revised to ensure that they are more closely aligned, with some trimming of content to enable greater depth of study. There is also less prescription to enable a broader range of curriculum opportunities within the framework of the Australian Curriculum.

However, perhaps the most remarkable shift is the clear break from Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire’s 2014 curriculum review, which called for greater emphasis on Australia’s Western cultural canon and Judeo–Christian heritage. The proposed changes have a clear commitment to cultural diversity, plurality and inclusion of multiple perspectives, which is embedded throughout multiple aspects of the revised curriculum.

This can be most clearly observed in the revisions to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures cross-curriculum priority, which emphasise ‘truth telling’ and deeper, more honest engagement with the complex and confronting histories and experiences of First Nations Australians.

Terms such as ‘occupation’, ‘colonisation’ and ‘invasion’ are embedded into the conceptual bedrock of the curriculum, which sits in stark contrast to the recommendations posed by the Donnelly–Wiltshire review.

Cue outrage from the conservative commentariat.

Almost immediately, the Institute for Public Affairs decried the changes as demoting the values of Western civilisation and Christianity, while also forcing the curriculum to become ‘monocultural’, with the Director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program, Dr Bella d’Abrera, claiming that ‘children will be taught the historical lie that Australia was invaded by the British’.

Donnelly also quickly sprang into action, criticising the proposed changes as being ‘politically correct’ and enforcing a ‘cultural-left interpretation of the nation’.

Even the federal education minister, Alan Tudge, was quick to express concern that the proposed curriculum changes came at the risk of ‘dishonouring our Western heritage’.

The culture wars are far from dead and we can expect to hear more public proclamations of the calamity that will surely befall society if Australian students learn the truth about the histories and cultures of First Nations Australians in the classroom.

Another concern about the ‘decluttered’ curriculum revisions is the emphasis, yet again, on increasing the focus on literacy and numeracy in the early primary years. Schools already emphasise the ‘basics’ in the first years of schooling, with many public schools timetabling only one or two lessons each week for the arts.

Any curriculum that focuses on literacy and numeracy at the expense of the arts, humanities and social sciences is an impoverished curriculum.

The perennial argument that we need to go ‘back to the basics’ to fix declining performance on standardised tests misunderstands the problem. Take the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for example, which is a triennial test of 15-year-old students’ performance in reading, mathematics and science. While the national aggregated data demonstrate a small decline in performance over the past couple of decades, when the data are disaggregated, a much more nuanced picture appears.

Australia has one of the worlds most segregated and inequitable schooling systems. Performance on PISA is intimately tied to socioeconomic status and geolocation. The basic correlation is that the closer to the city and the more money and education that your parents have, the better your chances of performing well on PISA.

NAPLAN is much the same.

The MySchool website includes a series of technical reports that explain the correlation between school performance on NAPLAN and its Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA), which is based on parental education and occupation, geolocation and percentage of Indigenous student enrolments. The annual ICSEA technical reports consistently demonstrate approximately four-fifths of the variance in schools performance on NAPLAN is accounted for by ICSEA.

In plain language: what happens in the lives of young people has a much bigger effect on their success on NAPLAN and PISA tests than the curriculum or pedagogy they experience in school.

Australian schooling is starkly divided into those who can afford independent school fees and/or to supplement school learning with extra-curricular activities such as music lessons, dance and art clubs, sporting teams and the like.

However, for young Australians living in poverty and complex situations, including those in out-of-home care, or who do not have access to rich extra-curricular opportunities, the school curriculum is the only place where they have an opportunity to be exposed to the rich diversity of culture and creativity that is available through the arts, humanities and social sciences.

A greater emphasis on the basics in the curriculum might produce a small bump in test results, but the effects of an impoverished curriculum will be much longer lasting, especially for those students who are most marginalised and disadvantaged.

As such, we need to shift the debate away from one that engages in endless cultural and ideological dispute, or one which focuses on the lowest denominators of basic literacy and numeracy, to one that asks how we can meaningfully ensure that all young people, but especially those least advantaged, have access to an engaging, high-quality and rich curriculum.

The proposed changes are a good start, but we still have a long way to go.

Dr Stewart Riddle is an associate professor in the School of Education 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.

The photograph used in the header image is of Kevin Donnelly. The author of the image is credited as “wife of Kevin Donnelly”. Image hosted here. It is available under a Creative Commons license.

Re-imagining education for democracy in these politically troubled times

Everywhere one cares to look, democracy is in trouble—from the catastrophic social and economic collapse in Venezuela, through the paralysing politics of Brexit, to the racist misogyny of Trump’s USA and the violence of Erdoğan’s Turkey. It seems nowhere is immune to the effects of the collapsing systems that held together the twentieth century—liberalism, capitalism and democracy.

Many of my colleagues and I have made a connection between what is happening with democracy and trends in education—more testing and measuring, more collection of data on students and teachers, more restrictions on how and what teachers teach, more control over teacher education, growing inequity and more acceptance of politicised models of education that ignore the public good of schooling. We believe that, just like democracy, education is in trouble.

Regular readers might recall my rant on this blog at the end of 2016 regarding the problem of living in a post-truth world and what that might mean for education, in which I touched on some of these issues. Following that post, I had a frank conversation with a colleague, who said to me, ‘I get it, things are getting pretty bad. But what are you going to do about it?’

It is a question that resonated. What could I do about it?

Let’s talk

I believe the more educators talk about what we see going wrong in education, the more our communities will understand and respond to our concerns. However, it is not simply a matter of talking about what is going wrong; we need to talk about what could happen instead. We need to deeply connect with our communities over our disquiet, hear what they have to say, and build credible alternate visions of education together.

In November 2017, I invited a number of educators, scholars and activists to come together for the Re-imagining Education for Democracy Summit. One of the keynote speakers, Michael Apple, spoke about the imperative of educators to be activists and directly involved in the struggle for education. He called upon educators to actively engage with their communities in changing society through more democratic forms of education. The three days of the summit responded to the question of how we might re-imagine education as being for democracy.

There have been several outcomes since that time. For example, I edited two journal special issues, including one with Amanda Heffernan, and also have a new book with Michael Apple. These three publications bring together the work of more than eighty scholars from Australia, USA, UK, Sweden, Thailand, Brazil, Indonesia, Taiwan and New Zealand. While presenting on a range of different research problems, they share something in common that I would like to discuss in this blog post.

Cautious hope

If I were to attempt to distil some essence from the collective scholarship of my colleagues in response to the question of how we might re-imagine education for democracy, I would say that a common theme is one of cautious hope. There are efforts in communities all over the world to address inequality, racism, misogyny, discrimination and marginalisation through education and its possibilities as a vehicle for social change and reformation.

Some examples of young people, teachers and parents actively re-imagining education for democracy shared in the book include the accounts of communities in Brazil engaging in collective practices of micro-resistance to oppressive policies, empowering students as co-researchers in transformative projects, engaging young people in cultural citizenship through the arts and the rapid growth of grassroots parent and student opt-out movements in response to standardised testing.

As scholars, we have an important task to document and ‘bear witness’ to these acts of educational activism and to offer support wherever we can. I believe that the sharing of this work through research publications and other places such as this blog is ‘doing something about it’.

Activism of school students

I was heartened recently by the school climate strikes, in which thousands of young Australians exercised their basic right to engage civil disobedience by taking off from school to protest our government’s climate policy paralysis. In particular, I find the passion and dedication of the outspoken leaders of this movement gives me hope for our collective future.

Take, for example, these words from 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, in a speech to the United Nations:

We can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed. So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.

Of course, conservative politicians and media commentators blamed teachers for putting ideas into these young people’s heads. In education-speak, we call such things science and critical thinking. The global activism of young people also shows that even pre-teens today understand how to be political within their communities and how to support each other in the digitally connected world. And yes, teachers can probably be thanked for all of that.

I shouldn’t make light of the issue as climate change is a clear and present threat, and young people should be very concerned as it is their future for which they are fighting. But it does make for a particularly vivid example of why I believe that educators, researchers, policy-makers and school systems should be committed to education that is for democracy. We owe it to our children and the children that are yet to come.

Education should be ‘for’ democracy

Much education debate is given over to arguments about this method or that, traditionalist v. progressive ideologies, or what knowledge should be included or left out of the official curriculum. While these things are no doubt important and are part of the ‘what works’ debate, perhaps we need to spend more time thinking and debating what education should be for. In my view, it should absolutely be for democracy.

I believe that we need to demand more democratic modes of civic engagement and participation, and our schools and other sites of education are important places in which the promise of democracy must be allowed to flourish. However, I also know that this will not be easy as we have seen in the stories of collective resistance and struggle for a more progressive and inclusive society.

At the heart of re-imagining an education that is for democracy is the absolute refusal of authoritarian forms of educational reforms that reduce the freedoms of teachers and learners, while also committing to hopeful action that builds strong bonds of community and collective responsibility.

We are at a crisis point in history. Creating new forms of social, economic and political technologies and practices are going to be essential to ensure we prevent a total collapse in society and the life-support systems of our planet. There is no doubt that education is one of our most powerful tools to tackle these enormous challenges. As such, we absolutely need to get this right.

We owe it to our children and their children-to-come.

Dr Stewart Riddle is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education 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.

What does the post-truth world hold for teachers and educational researchers?

As 2016 draws to an end, I am left with a deep sense that things are going very, very wrong. I waver between fury and frustration, unease and dread. But these feelings are useless without some action.

I presented in a symposium at the AARE conference recently on social justice, and our theme was reframing and resisting educational inequality.

It struck me that there have been some really powerful examples of reframing and resisting this year.

For example, we have seen Nigel Farage and the Brexiteers do a stunning job of reframing the UK; we’ve seen Donald Trump resist every moment of rationality and opposition, instead successfully employing what has been described as a choreography of shame to take the presidency of the US. And here in Australia, we’ve seen the zombie-like rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation from the political dead.

We have seen the TIMSS and PISA results released. Almost unanimously, the Australian media took the line that Australian students are slipping down the rankings and, heaven forbid, we’re even being beaten by Kazakhstan.

Leaving aside the incredible display of casual racism, xenophobia and complete lack of cultural awareness being displayed in the commentary, the fact is that TIMSS and PISA say very little about Australian schooling at all.

Yet, our federal education minister argues this is an urgent wake-up call proving that equity-based funding is unimportant and that instead we need to fix teachers and increase slipping standards in our schools.

Actually, minister, all we really need to do to improve our rankings is make the Northern Territory and Tasmania go away (to New Zealand, perhaps?) and hide all of the students who dare to come from circumstances of social and material deprivation or those who have special learning needs. Watch us rocket up the rankings!

Perhaps the most striking thing for me has been the way that discourses of equity and social justice have been mobilised in a very public and powerful way to argue for more testing, for more restrictions and control over teachers and teacher education, and to push for market models of education that undermine the public for private profit.

In the US, Trump has chosen a billionaire for his education secretary and has already announced a huge investment in turning public schools into charter schools. Similarly, Theresa May has a plan for more Grammar schools in the UK. Both are presented as addressing educational inequality.

Here in Australia, we have a phonics test suggested for our youngest students, modelled on the one the UK introduced a couple of years ago. Again, the argument is that this is needed most for children who are disadvantaged.

Education research is trash-talked on social media and given little oxygen in mainstream media and public discourse and is almost invisible in the policy arena.

The message is really powerful and simple and consistently prosecuted: education is broken because of bad teachers and teachers are bad because of teacher educators who are a bunch of out-of-touch educationalists who don’t know anything about the way the world works.

Of course all of this is complete rubbish.

I wonder about the correlation between increasing systems of surveillance and control over curriculum and pedagogy and the growing number of high stakes testing regimes, audit and accountability technologies, and the narrative of slipping standards, declining outcomes and an education system in crisis.

I wonder about how another set of tests is going to address sliding test results.

I wonder about what it means that we have had conservative coalition governments in control of the national policy agenda in this country for fifteen of the past twenty years.

I wonder about what it means when we have climate denying, market ideologues in control who reframe equity as a problem of teacher quality, who advocate for school vouchers instead of a vibrant public education system, who engage highly politicised and influential free-market think tanks in doing their policy work for them, while education researchers are ignored and teachers, parents, students and entire communities are reduced to those who simply have policy done to them.

I wonder what it means when I see multiple reports of children in the US being told by their classmates and in some cases, their teachers, that they will be locked up or their parents deported and themselves put into orphanages because they are Mexican or Muslim.

I wonder what it means when I read about a 10-year-old girl who says a boy who “grabbed her vagina” said it was okay because “if a president could do it, I can too”.

I wonder what it means when a 13-year-old Queensland boy takes his life because of bullying and the Courier Mail runs a piece calling the Safe Schools program “repulsive” and decrying “the ludicrous notion that most of our subjects nowadays include Indigenous, Asian and environmental components.”

I wonder what it means when Pauline Hanson calls for a ban on Muslim immigration and her fellow One Nation senator, Malcolm Roberts, declares that climate change is a “scam” cooked up by the CSIRO and NASA.

I wonder what it means that we lock up children indefinitely on Nauru, subjecting them to cruel and inhumane degradations, yet when Australian teachers protest, our Prime Minister gets annoyed at their “absolutely inappropriate” behaviour.

I think it’s telling that the Oxford dictionary declared “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. Similarly, chose “xenophobia” as their word of the year.

So what does a post-truth world mean for educational research, social justice, equity and addressing educational inequality?

What are the ways we can mobilise and fight back against the xenophobe, the misogynist, the racist, the anti-intellectual, the billionaire posing as a saviour for the common person, the rampant destruction of our natural systems on a global scale, and the complete disregard for the future of our planet and all who live on it?

We need to organise, to collectivise and not just to resist and reframe, but to entirely reconfigure how we approach social inequality through our individual and collective endeavours.

We need to grow community-based, regional, national and transnational networks that can stand together and reject the framing of education as simply a problem of bad teaching that completely ignores structural and systemic inequalities and decades-long policy failures.

We need to produce local, situated and deeply contextualised knowledges that are generated with the communities we work with.

We need a radical reimagining of the politics and practices of educational research.

We need to fight.

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Dr Stewart Riddle lectures in literacies education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research includes looking at the links between music and literacy in the lives of young people, as well as alternative schooling and research methodologies. Stewart also plays bass guitar in a rock band called Drawn from Bees.

Stewart is a member of the English Teachers’ Association of Queensland management committee and edits their journal, Words’Worth.

Educational researchers unite to challenge inequality in Australian schooling

Educational inequality in Australia is persistent. One in four young Australians are now being left behind according to a recent report from the Mitchell Institute, evidence that school isn’t working for many of our children.

 We have one of the most segregated schooling systems in the world.

A large proportion of students attend private schools while public schools are becoming increasingly residualised. Families who can draw on significant cultural, social and economic capital are able to send their children to private schools with state-of-the-art performing arts and sporting facilities, and a promise of future economic prosperity and social success.

But four out of five children with a disability and 85% of Indigenous students attend public schools. Nearly 600,000 Australian children live in poverty and our public schools are struggling to cater for the majority of them, with limited resources. Former Prime Minister, John Howard, referred to public schools operating as a safety net, and in a sense that is what they are becoming.

The worse thing about all of this is not many Australians seem to notice much or care. As Professor John Smyth, one of Australia’s leading experts in education, said recently, “it is probably no exaggeration to say that we are in the throes of a social epidemic that is going on largely unnoticed and un-debated, and is silently endured by those most affected.”

Yet it needn’t be that way.

Educational researchers form a network to challenge inequalities

Last month, I participated in a three-day research symposium hosted by the Centre for Educational Research and the School of Education at Western Sydney University. The symposium theme was Resisting educational inequality: reframing policy and practice in schools serving vulnerable communities.

Researchers working with disadvantaged communities, including high-poverty, marginalised and disenfranchised learners, came together to share empirical research and engage in critical conversations about understanding and improving educational engagement and success in disadvantaged communities.

The symposium program included papers addressing re-engaging disenfranchised learners, broadening diagnostic frames and understanding how inequalities are reproduced. There were sessions on enhancing engagement in the early years of schooling as well as initial teacher education programs geared towards high poverty schools. Whole school culture and student engagement, accountability systems, and alternative schooling models were also featured in the program.

The wisdom and experience of participants was inspirational. I felt privileged to be part of it all.

One of the outcomes of the symposium was the creation of a network of researchers working with low socioeconomic status and other disadvantaged schools and communities. The idea is to challenge the injustices faced by those who are least advantaged by the system. A clear commitment to social justice and reframing how educational policy and practice might better address the needs of vulnerable young people in education was evident.

Public schooling is the key

A healthy and vibrant public school system is the key to a prosperous and diverse multicultural society that is democratic, inclusive and can provide social, cultural and economic success for all of its citizens.

As the symposium highlighted, we should be talking more about access to a meaningful education and what this might look like for different students. The current focus on quality and choice in Australian schooling is not going to have much impact on the educational opportunities and outcomes for the least advantaged Australians.

As with most educational researchers, I believe the key for improving access and outcomes for all students is to provide greater resourcing for those most disadvantaged. A needs-based school funding model (as recommended by David Gonski) would be a very good start.

It’s time to resist inequality

There is no doubt social justice lies at the heart of any attempt to address inequalities in educational access, opportunities and outcomes. We need to be having long, difficult conversations about what kind of society we wish to be and what kind of educational system will best fit.

While the symposium may only have lasted for three days, I was most heartened by some of the country’s leading educational researchers committing to a more coordinated and dedicated response to resisting educational inequality in Australia.


Riddle copyDr Stewart Riddle lectures in literacies education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research includes looking at the links between music and literacy in the lives of young people, as well as alternative schooling and research methodologies. Stewart also plays bass guitar in a rock band called Drawn from Bees.

Stewart is a member of the English Teachers’ Association of Queensland management committee and edits their journal, Words’Worth.

Stewart Ridde is presenting at the 2015 AARE conference in Fremantle, Western Australia, this week.

How the budget fails public education and what could be done to fix it

Once more we have a government short-changing public education.

Make no mistake about it, despite promising a ‘unity ticket’ with Labor on school funding prior to the 2013 election, this government has dumped the Gonski reforms to school funding.

Worse, school funding is facing a frightening $30 billion black hole from 2018 if something isn’t done soon. Simply tying school funding to indexation is not just bad policy, it’s negligent. As a result, public education in this country is being put to a silent, slow-tortured death.

There are serious equity issues in our system, which I wrote about on this blog last year.

The reframing of equity to a notion of quality is a political movement that has consequences for those who are least advantaged in our current system. According to the Productivity Commission, disadvantage is most likely to be experienced by students who are from rural, remote and low-socioeconomic areas, are Indigenous or have disabilities, learning difficulties or other special needs. The problem is compounded by students who have multiple factors of disadvantage.

The insistent focus on quality rather than access and resourcing is a mistake. Funding the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership $16.9 million to improve ‘teacher quality’ is a political stunt, particularly when considering that the same institution faced a $15 million cut last year.

As a result of this misguided focus on quality rather than equity, the neediest students continue to miss out. For example, there is no real increase in disability loading, promised by the coalition before the 2013 election. This means that about 100,000 students will miss out on essential support, while those that currently receive support only have confirmed funding for two more years.

The budget tinkers around the edges while making little meaningful difference to educational outcomes. Think, for example, of the highly controversial school chaplaincy programme, or the ongoing investment in Independent Public Schools.

A further example of misplaced priorities is in the lack of investment in public schooling in NT, while simultaneously continuing to subsidise private schools who take Indigenous boarders to the tune of $5 million over the next two years.

Consider that 85% of Indigenous students attend public schools, with many of these being in rural and remote regions, which have some of the highest levels of disadvantage. While taking a handful of students out of their communities and providing them with private boarding school experiences will no doubt help those individuals, it does little to alleviate the very real disadvantage of the remaining majority.

If we are serious about closing the gap in Indigenous education, then tinkering about the edges is largely meaningless. Closing the gap requires the addressing of multiple aspects of socioeconomic disadvantage, including education, health, employment, incarceration and housing. A $21 million Direct Instruction literacy and numeracy package is not going to make any significant impact, as Allan Luke pointed out previously on this blog.

Furthermore, nearly 600,000 children (17.7% of all children in Australia) currently live below the poverty line. That figure is simply horrifying and its effects on access to housing, quality food and education cannot be understated.

Yet we continue to perpetuate a system where the haves continue to succeed, while the have-nots are left behind. The gap between those most advantaged and those most disadvantaged is widening. This is a problem for us all.

So, if Christopher Pyne wants to fix it, what can be done?

  • First and foremost, the government should provide funding certainty for schools and commit to the full funding reforms of the Gonski review, reversing the push back on states to fund the shortfall from 2017.
  • Provide the full disability loading that was promised prior to the 2013 election.
  • Cancel the school chaplaincy programme and redirect the money towards student counselling and support services. Just imagine if we were to have 3000 school psychologists instead of religious ministers being paid to work in schools!
  • Redirect the funds for the Independent Public Schools initiative towards support for disadvantaged students.

We need the political will to move outside of the blame and rhetoric, which encourages small-minded thinking and reactive policy-making tied to electoral cycles.

We need to shift the discussion from a short-term-gain-now view of education that puts politics ahead of children, and instead move to a discussion of what it would take to provide a meaningful education for every single student in our schools.

We need a seismic shift in education policy.

But if this year’s budget is any indication, such a change is not coming any time soon.


Riddle copyDr Stewart Riddle lectures in literacies education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research includes looking at the links between music and literacy in the lives of young people, as well as alternative schooling and research methodologies. Stewart also plays bass guitar in a rock band called Drawn from Bees.

Stewart is a member of the English Teachers’ Association of Queensland management committee and edits their journal, Words’Worth.

Learning from alternative schooling:mainstream schools can benefit greatly

Around the world today school systems in developed countries tend to produce a ‘one size fits all’ type of education. This mass schooling usually involves standardised testing, a national curriculum and increased measurement and accountability of teaching and teachers.

However there is much that mainstream, or mass-produced schooling can learn from alternative approaches used in marginalised schools. These schools seek to be more socially just and inclusive.

Research into alternative schooling is currently seeing a surge of activity, including work being done in the UK by scholars such as Pat Thomson, Deborah Youdell and Terry Wrigley, as well as here in Australia by Kitty te Riele, Martin Mills, Deb Hayes and Glenda McGregor, just to name a few. Some of these projects are presented in a recent Routledge Research in Education Series book called, Researching Mainstreams, Margins and the Spaces In-Between: New Possibilities for Education Research.

My colleague, David Cleaver, and I have been carrying out research at an alternative music school in Australia. We have found that there are three key lessons for mainstream schooling:

1) re-engaging students who have disconnected from schooling;

2) fostering a commitment to belonging to a community of learners that is based on an ethic of care, trust and respect;

3) and re-imagining education in more socially-just, equitable and alternative ways.

When the people involved in a school share their values and commitment to everyone being worthy of an equal chance it has the effect of binding the school community together. There is a kind of power to belonging to an alternative school that affects students and teachers, who live, learn and work in it.

Too-often alternative schools are pushed to the margins of our education systems. However research shows that they can do much to re-engage those young people who have dropped out or disengaged from their education.

The political construction of ‘youth at risk’ is both misrepresentative and problematic. The assumption that students who are disaffected and disengaged with mainstream schooling are somehow broken and need fixing comes from discourses of accountability and individual responsibility in education. The problem is that students who do not ‘fit’ the standard mass-produced model of education are often left behind and ignored.

Australia has seen a shift over the past few decades an educational landscape built on surveillance, competition, ranking and classification as the drivers of education reform and improvement. Market-measures, ‘choice’ and individual merit are paraded in policy and media treatments of schools and schooling. League-tables, high-stakes testing of literacy and numeracy both on the national and international level, work to legitimise this point of view.

Students can be labelled as failures when the individual is assumed to be in control of their own social, economic and educational futures. This agenda removes any responsibility by society because it assumes that society simply provides the opportunity, not a guarantee of success for all.

It is important to reject deficit constructions of young people as requiring ‘fixing’. Instead we need to look more carefully at those alternative schools that work on the principles of social justice and an ethic of care. One approach is to look at how alternative schools work as possible sites for re-engaging marginalised, disaffected and disengaged young people.

We propose that schools should change to fit students. It not something that should be limited to alternative schools, but is necessary for even the largest of mainstream schools. Otherwise the unequal distributions of human, social and economic capital that plague our society will continue to be exacerbated.

Young people thrive when presented with the opportunity to engage in meaningful and productive work; schooling is no different. As long as we try to treat mass schooling with a cookie-cutter approach, we are going to continue to see young people disengaging and becoming disaffected with schooling.

However, the re-engagement of young people in learning is only the first, albeit vitally important, step. It is just as necessary to foster a commitment by all members of the school – parents, staff, students – in a learning community. This requires a deep and abiding commitment to democratic principles of civic responsibility, alongside the development of an ethic of care, trust and respect that permeate every aspect of the relationships within the community. This is the bedrock of a commitment to social justice in schooling.

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Dr Stewart Riddle lectures in literacies education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research includes looking at the links between music and literacy in the lives of young people, as well as alternative schooling and research methodologies. Stewart also plays bass guitar in a rock band called Drawn from Bees.

Stewart is a member of the English Teachers’ Association of Queensland management committee and edits their journal, Words’Worth.

URGENT: we need to act on equity in Australian schools now

There is an equity problem in Australia and we urgently need to talk about it.

Christopher Pyne couldn’t be more wrong when he told us recently “schools have all the money they need to get the outcomes for our students.” Worse, he claimed schools are “awash” with extra funds from the Commonwealth and any attempt to discuss funding was not only “an old argument”, but “asinine”.

I believe to not talk about it would be asinine.

If nothing else, Pyne has been consistent. On ABC’s Lateline on 16 July, 2012, he declared, “There isn’t actually an issue in Australian schools that revolves around equity”, and then more than a year later on the same show on 26 November 2013, said, “I don’t believe there is an equity problem in Australia.”

In his opening remarks to the 2014 ACER Conference on 4 August, Mr Pyne said that, “research on equity in education highlights the need for policies addressing underachievement to focus on quality rather than socio-economic status or disadvantage itself.”

No doubt, Pyne has worked very hard to ensure that the focus is taken off equity, and its most visible lever: school funding. This has been achieved through the policy movement of reframing equity as an issue of quality. The branding of the coalition government’s schools policy as “Students First” and the following four priority areas is no accident: teacher quality; school autonomy; engaging parents in education; and strengthening the curriculum.

To these ends, in 2014 we have seen a visible review of the national curriculum, the establishment of the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG), support for Independent Public Schools, and a much-quieter invite-only review of low SES-loadings.

Yet one of the biggest factors is equity of access to resources and opportunities. The Productivity Commission in 2012 found the following:

“Educational disadvantage is more likely to be experienced by students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students in rural and remote locations, Indigenous students, and students with disabilities, learning difficulties or other special needs. Many, especially Indigenous students, face multiple sources of disadvantage.”

There is a well-documented link between disadvantage and educational performance, such as the work produced by the OECD around PISA testing. In Australia, this is demonstrated in a difference of approximately two-and-a-half years between students who are living in the lowest socio-economic quartile and those in the top. Similar gaps exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, as well as those living in remote parts of the country.

The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) released the Poverty in Australia Report 2014 on 12 October. With over 600,000 children (17.7% of all children in Australia) living below the poverty line, the effect on education simply cannot be brushed aside.

Children living in poverty, with unemployed parents, have the lowest mean scores on NAPLAN. Those whose parents have the highest income levels, score highest on the national literacy and numeracy tests.

This is supported by a recent report by the ABS that drew on Census and NAPLAN results. The report showed that Tasmanian students from high-SES households performed much better than students whose parents were poorer.

Such disparities are certainly not unique to Australia. In the UK, research shows social class to be the strongest indicator of educational advantage, while research from the USA suggests a gap of nearly four years’ schooling exists between rich and poor students.

A recent USA study found that poverty is the strongest factor in whether high school students go onto tertiary study. Given the government’s plans to head down a USA-style path of deregulation, this should be of some concern.

The disparity between advantaged and disadvantaged students is deepening.

Gonski co-panellist, Ken Boston, is unequivocal when he claimed at a conference in May 2014, that “we have the most socially segregated education system in the western world”.

In her recent book, Class Act, Maxine McKew taps into the equity issue as part of a narrative of school improvement, through various case studies and interviews with education experts. She makes an unequivocal argument that we need to have a funding model that addresses the clear divide between advantaged and disadvantaged schools. Speaking recently to The Age, McKew made the claim that ignoring the Gonski review will be “an act of monumental stupidity.”

Susanne Gannon and Wayne Sawyer, editors of recent book, Contemporary Issues of Equity in Education, make the claim that schooling is one of the “great social justice projects”. In their chapter, Bob Lingard and Sam Sellar describe the reframing of the issue social justice and equity as one of quality. They expertly deconstruct the policy moves and levers that facilitate this reframing.

We need to reframe the discussion from one that conflates teacher quality with quality teaching back to one that focuses on social justice.

The notion of curricular justice in schooling is not new, and as Raewyn Connell explained in her 1993 book, Schools and Social Justice, is inherently invested in reconstructing mainstream education “to embody the interests of the least advantaged”.

At its most basic, curricular justice is concerned with equity of access and engagement in formal schooling, where the least advantaged are provided with opportunities to succeed. This is part of a bigger redistributive justice movement in education that examines who benefits from schooling and who is excluded from these opportunities.

Henry Giroux claims that curricular justice involves “forms of teaching that are inclusive, caring, respectful, economically equitable, and whose aim, in part, is to undermine those repressive modes of education that produce social hierarchies and legitimate inequality.”

We need different forms of curricular justice that are contextually-appropriate and relevant to the lives of young people. What we do not need are more blame-games and obfuscation.

We need a sensible, redistributive model of equity in school funding. This was the promise of the Gonski model. What we do not need are further distractions.


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Dr Stewart Riddle lectures in literacies education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research includes looking at the links between music and literacy in the lives of young people, as well as alternative schooling and research methodologies. Stewart also plays bass guitar in a rock band called Drawn from Bees.

Stewart is a member of the English Teachers’ Association of Queensland management committee and edits their journal, Words’Worth.