Trevor McCandless

Why do students from privileged schools dominate the Year 12 art work exhibition?

Is artistic ability only found in students from wealthy backgrounds?

We like to believe that artistic ability is a kind of natural gift. In fact, the cliché is great artists are dirt poor, live in garrets and only become ‘recognised’ when they are dead. If artistic ability were a gift and nurtured by poverty it would seem unlikely that it would be clustered amongst those of us with the most wealthy parents.

However, the exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, StArt Up of the best artworks submitted for the subjects Art and Studio Arts from the 2014 Victorian Certificate of Education VCE shows exactly this.

StArt Up is an annual exhibition and is very successful. Students and teachers love it, as does the public generally. However the exhibition displays more than just the artistic ability of students. What is also on display is our highly hierarchical education system which helps to concentrate cultural capital  in schools that are at the very top of the socio-economic ladder.

Well-known Australian academic, Richard Teese, has conducted research into the inequalities and social power that exists in our schools. Part of his research allows us to see the socio-economic background of the average student studying various Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) subjects in their final year of school. According to Teese, the average student studying either Art or Studio Arts is very close to the average Victorian student overall.

However, that is not true of the average student in the StArt Up exhibition. The average student in this exhibition attends a school that is over one standard deviation above the national average school, that is, the average student in the exhibition, rather than being in the middle of all Victorian students is very nearly at the very top, in fact, in the top 15 per cent of all students in the state.

Similarly, while 70 per cent schools in Victorian are government schools, only 36 per cent of the schools represented in the exhibition are government schools, providing a near perfect inversion in favour of non-government schools.

Renowned French philosopher and public intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu, helps us to explain this skewing of ‘artistic ability’ toward the most elite schools. For Bourdieu, artistic merit is related to social position. What makes someone particularly good at ‘art’ is not what tends to be taught in schools, but rather the tastes and dispositions students already have due to their social class and how well they can display these tastes and dispositions in ways which surprise the judges. Access to the tastes and dispositions that ensure success is restricted to those with the right cultural, social and ultimately financial capital.

There are two unequal paths open to gain access to this exhibition. One is the ability to ‘break the rules from within the rules’, to present an artwork that is a display of aesthetic taste and one that matches the taste of the judges in its display of the right kind of cultural capital.

The other path is harder. It involves the display of technical virtuosity, rather than formal flair. Here one’s technique, rather than one’s taste, is fully on display.

Both of these paths are more open to students from high Index of Community Socio Educational Advantage (ICSEA) schools. (ICSEA is a measure used by the My School website to score schools on their socio-economic and educational advantage.)

When the artworks in StArt Up are arranged according to their ICSEA fascinating patterns emerge.

Firstly, the higher the ICSEA of the school the more likely the artwork will have been completed in a traditional medium – all but one of the oil paintings in the exhibition were submitted from the highest ICSEA schools. Abstract art works likewise all come from students in higher ICSEA schools, that is, where the student’s taste can be asserted over technique. Photography and pencil drawings came mostly from the lower ranked ICSEA schools.

Photo-realistic drawings also mostly came from students from the lowest ICSEA schools. These students are fully exposed in terms of their drawing technique – with a student from one of the lowest ICSEA schools presenting a fast-motion film showing her drawing a portrait, literally in a display of technical virtuosity. Whereas a student from one of the highest ICSEA government schools spoke of her even incorporating accidents into her highly abstract art works and thereby being able to assert her taste over technique.

These young artists also offer advice to future students and this too is differentiated according to the ICSEA of their school. The lower the school’s ICSEA the more likely the students advise ‘time management’ as their main (if not only) piece of advice. The higher the ICSEA of students the more likely their advice to future students is to follow their passion. This difference – with lower ICSEA schools reinforcing the need for discipline, and higher ICSEA students focused on self-realisation – is a constant theme in the Australian education system generally.

Art ought to be more than a mere social ornament: rather it should provide us with our culture’s deepest means of expression, giving us ways to understand who we are, to make sense of our world and to find our place in it.

In Sleepers, Wake! written over three decades ago, Barry Jones said that we can predict a child’s future by asking three questions: Where do you live, which school do you go to, what do your parents do?

We should be ashamed that today a young person’s artistic ability can equally well be guessed by asking these same three questions.


TrevorTrevor McCandless works as a researcher for the Chair of Education at Deakin University where he is completing his PhD.  His thesis considers how class, gender and race are represented in school marketing materials and what this says about the construction of the ‘ideal student’.​


Significant difference in how Australian public and private schools market themselves:Why?

Schools increasingly market themselves. Because elite private schools have always done so, most previous school marketing research in Australia has focused upon this small group of schools. However changes in parental choice in Australia have meant that more schools are looking at how they can market their services and enhance their image, and in doing so increase their share of the ‘right’ students. International research has shown that since all schools want to attract easy and cheap to educate students, school-marketing tends to all look much the same.

I decided to have a closer look at how schools market themselves in Australia to see if there were any differences between schools. I analysed the school prospectuses and videos from 31 state, non-government, Catholic, rural and elite private school websites.

All presented an idealised vision of how schools want to be seen. And literally a vision, since photographs make up the vast majority of the available space in these texts. The question is what do these images say about the education on offer at various schools and also the presumed educational preferences of parents?

I discovered systematic differences in how schools market themselves and these differences depended on the social class of the students likely to attend the school. These differences reflect the kinds of discipline that parents are likely to expect to be enacted. This presumed ‘need for discipline’ has impacts on every aspect of the images selected.

The lower a school’s ICSEA, the more likely it is to show students engaged in concentrated school ‘work’, so much so that students were less likely to be shown ‘playing’ sport, but rather photographed doing exercises. On the other hand, the higher a school’s ICSEA the less likely its students are shown engaged in academic work, instead being shown playing sport, on camps or travelling overseas.

State schools are much more likely to select images whose content matches the genre of documentary photography. Non-government schools, in contrast, select images that stress relationships and that display students outside the classroom or school grounds. Almost the only schools showing children laughing were non-government ones.

These differences in preference for discipline even extended to the photographic techniques used. In higher ICSEA schools students were mostly shown in candid, slice-of-life images. The impression given that the photographer had just happened upon these students as they were working, with the joy of their being at school shown in the smiles on their faces. The point is that these students appear to naturally belong at school.

In lower ICSEA schools students are more likely to be posed in photographs, that is, told where to sit, how to smile, what to hold and where to look. Even the style of photography used implies the extent of external and imposed control these students are assumed to need. These students do not appear to be a natural part of the school environment, they seem more like tourists.

Also schools show very different images of how teachers interact with students. In total three-quarters of non-government and only slightly over half of state schools showed images of teachers teaching. Teachers can either teach to an entire classroom, to a small group of students or one-to-one. State schools have a broad mix of images from each of these three categories. One quarter of state schools have images of teachers teaching entire classrooms; a quarter have images of teachers teaching one-to-one; and a third show teachers teaching to small groups. That is to say, if state schools display images of teachers teaching at all, they are almost equally likely to show teachers teaching in one of these three alternate ways. This is not the case for non-government schools. Here 17% of schools showed images of a teacher before an entire classroom; a third had the teacher engaging small groups of students; and a remarkable two-thirds displayed images of a teacher engaging a single student.

Does it matter how schools market themselves? It is unlikely that schools check the ICSEA of their school before deciding which images to use in their prospectus. Rather, the levels of discipline displayed speak to our unconscious assumptions about how different classes of students are best educated. That is, these images reflect our ‘common sense’ beliefs about certain classes and their need for a strict school environment if they are to succeed.

As eminent Australian sociologist, Raewyn Connell has pointed out, for working class parents, discipline is to be applied to their children if they are to succeed academically. For ruling class parents, a disciplined school is one without working class students, so it can focus on ‘disciplines’, rather than discipline.

The lower the school’s ICSEA, the more likely the school’s prospectus is to discuss discipline in the text and the less likely it is to discuss student resilience. The exact opposite is true the school’s with a higher ICSEA. Resilience is a form of self-discipline, that is, it is a manifestation of a middle class habitus. Discipline is different; it is something that must be imposed on a student who cannot otherwise be expected to display such a habitus. The images selected by schools also reflect this difference.

I think the way schools market themselves does matter. All schools seek to attract the same students, those who are keen to learn and easy to teach (that is, those with a middle class academic background) but how schools go about marketing themselves depends on more than just the ‘customer’ they seek to attract. Marketing images can do much to reinforce preconceived notions of the school.

I was surprised by what appeared to me to be the self-fulfilling prophecy these marketing materials made when selecting images to promote their schools. I had not expected the class-based assumptions of the levels of discipline needed to educate students to be nearly so obvious. But if these assumptions are so obvious in the ‘ideal’ worlds construct in school marketing, how likely is it that schools avoid these assumptions in their practice?



Trevor McCandless works as a researcher for the Chair of Education at Deakin University where he is completing his PhD.  His thesis considers how class, gender and race are represented in school marketing materials and what this says about the construction of the ‘ideal student’.​