by Margaret Vickers.At its best, the comprehensive public school offered all students in its surrounding neighbourhood a 'fair go' at completing a full secondary education. It was a 'fair' chance, but never an 'equal' chance, since nothing can erase the advantages of having well-educated parents when it comes to feeling fully 'at home' with the academic curriculum of the high school.
It is not only in New South Wales that this 'fair go' is being eroded by middle class flight and the residualisation of many high schools. In Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, in the Western Australia and even in the ACT, parents of the anxious middle classes as well as many from the aspirational working class are choosing to transfer their children from the public to the private sector at the end of the primary school years. As a result, cultural and economic advantages accumulate in some schools (notably private and selective schools) while liabilities accumulate in others. Australia's case may be acute and in many ways distinctive, but we are not alone. Comprehensive secondary schools in the USA and in the UK are also under pressure as the politics of choice continues to disturb and re-organize traditional enrolment patterns.
Nevertheless, the effects of choice play out differently in different jurisdictions, so there is something to be gained from looking across our state borders. Looking, that is, for instances where comprehensive public secondary schools remain strong and have clear purposes and stable or growing enrolments; schools that are still able to offer a fair go to all who come to them.
Cross-national and cross-jurisdictional comparisons can be useful, but not because they have come up with 'good ideas' or workable programs that could perhaps be 'borrowed' by another state. Policy borrowing often fails to work, because each political system'each state'has specific social and historical resources that it draws on to inform its goals and its aspirations for the future (Vickers, 1994). These historical resources could be alternately viewed as a lexicon of good ideas, as shared memories about programs that worked, or as an institutional mindset which functions to ensure that some ideas 'make sense' while others are dismissed without much need for explicit discussion. Comparative research can be used to explore the similarities and differences in terms of these historical resources across jurisdictional boundaries. Employed in this way, it can help us understand why some states may be in a better position than others to respond to the global challenges experienced by all. Stated more neutrally, historically-based comparisons allow us to understand why each system might respond in a distinctly different way when all systems are confronting essentially similar problems.
The data I bring to this topic are in part historical and in part very recent. Over the past twelve months I have been involved in a national review of both systemic policies and school-level programs aimed at increasing the proportion of young Australians who remain in school to the end of Year 12. One part of this project involved visiting schools in suburbs or towns where one might expect, given the demographic make-up of the area, that retention rates would be low. Overall, the team I was working with conducted interviews in 24 schools in areas of low socio-economic status, across four states. From this vantage point I have become acutely aware of the effects residualisation is having on schools in less privileged areas. I also saw what can be done and what is being done by some schools and systems to counter the downward spiral of residualisation.
Countering the effects of residualisation on public schools
In particular Brisbane suburbs, the non-Catholic enrolment share has risen over the past ten years, reflecting changes that are similar to what Campbell and Sherrington (2003) have documented for Sydney's Northern Beaches or the Hills District. One school on my itinerary was not only losing its middle class students to the new private schools, but also losing them to a nearby high school located in a plush new housing estate. Although it was losing many middle class students, it was thriving in other ways. Last year, it boosted its Year 11 enrolments by 20 percent as a result of inward transfers. This annual influx helps to sustain the school at a stable size of 750 to 800 students. A strong and growing VET program acts as a magnet for students entering the senior years, a student house makes it possible for homeless young women stay on at school, and work experience, traineeships and apprenticeships are provided for a large proportion of students in Years 11 and 12. Yet this is not a welfare school: it is also a school that offers opportunities, since it sustains a comprehensive range of University preparation subjects. Students who can do tertiary entrance subjects are expected to do them. However, as in most Queensland high schools, there is a two-tier curriculum structure with a second strand of 'basic' academic subjects for students whose educational histories and abilities do not qualify them to deal with the so-called OP strand.
In keeping with Queensland state policy, several 'all-of-government' initiatives have been established that link Education Queensland with the Department of Families. Under one of these programs, 150 youth workers have been allocated to high schools in the state's poorest suburbs and towns. These youth workers target young people who seem to be disengaging from school: they mentor them and insist on working with them to develop individual Senior Education Plans. These plans are related to the new laws Education Queensland is introducing that make it compulsory for young people to stay in school beyond Year 10. All students will either be required to participate in education and training for two years beyond year 10, or to remain in school until they have gained a Year 12 (Senior) certificate, or until they have gained a Certificate III vocational qualification, or until they have turned 17 years of age (Queensland Education Department, 2002, p. 7). To achieve these targets the state must make special provisions for disadvantaged students, including those students who lack family support. The assisted accommodation for students program (SAAP) is funded on such a level that in one regional high school I visited, 100 of the 820 students in the school were living in youth housing. This same school has a large Indigenous population, and runs a homework centre (Murri-Land) that is staffed by trained homework tutors. The interesting twist here is that the school set up a TAFE certificate for Indigenous Teacher Aides, and anyone tutoring in Murri-Land must have completed this certificate.
This is certainly a school with an 'accumulation of liabilities' but it is in no sense a 'failing school'. There is an exuberance, a sense of purpose, and a stability in its staffing and enrolments which means that while life is not easy for teachers in this school, it is clearly sustainable. EQ's policy makers, staff of the Queensland Studies Authority, school principals, teachers and counsellors consistently explained, in different ways, that 'our students are our clients, and schools must deliver what they need'. As current EQ policy states, '' the approach taken by different schools must match the characteristics of their communities, schools must be flexible enough to accommodate the individual learning needs of different students, and the curriculum must be sufficiently forward looking to anticipate their future life pathways and needs. Schools need to differentiate.' (Queensland Department of Education, 2001, p. 9). Yet the emphasis on quality is not lost: page 10 of the same document states, ' ' the strength of the state school system lies in the breadth and diversity of the educational experience it offers to students. ' In the future, the enrolment share of state schools will depend on its ability to market its achievements, the values it stands for, and its quality'.
Any substantial change in a school's enrolments due to middle-class flight presents a serious challenge: however, this challenge can be problematised in more than one way. One possible response is to attempt to increase the schools' attractiveness to middle-class families by promoting it as a place where high academic and behavioural standards are sustained. Consistent with this approach, a school might counter enrolment drift by establishing some form of selectivity, as Sherrington and Campbell have pointed out. Another possibility is for schools to band together and form collegiates. In Victoria, the Leading Schools Fund is being used to create local collectives, so that the schools in a region are encouraged to diversify and then compete as a group against incursions by the non-government sector. In extreme cases, threatened schools might see a need to use the selective entry to exclude students who are considered likely to perform poorly, who might create 'negative incidents', or who might in other ways give the school a bad name.
Middle class flight results in an overall decline in public sector enrolments while at the same time dividing public schools against each other. Inevitably, the danger is that some public schools will become schools that nobody wants to belong to'schools made up of kids that nobody wants to teach. This brings us to the flip side of the problem. The politics of choice is problematic not only because some public schools are losing many of their brightest and best, but also because it is becoming more and more difficult to deliver a 'fair go' to students from families of low socio-economic status, students who attend schools in our poorest neighbourhoods. Countering the effects of residualisation not only involves setting high scholarly expectations for public schools, it also involves working out how we can continue to offer a fair chance to the students in our toughest schools. For it is in these schools that the concentration of hard cases is increasing. A recent census of homeless school students (MacKenzie and Chamberlain, 1994) identified approximately 11,000 homeless students across Australia, and found that 67 percent of them came from only 17 percent of our schools. In this report and in a subsequent investigation into under-age school leaving (see Brooks et al.1997), information was gathered regarding the ability of schools to support students with multiple family problems. Both these reports concluded that if the number of homeless students exceeds 10 to 15, the school will need supplementary funding for special initiatives and support services in order to respond to the needs of these young people.
These two ways of problematising enrolment drift mean that policy makers need to adopt a both-and rather than an either-or approach to the situation. The either-or approach involves simplified representations according to which we either create more selective and semi-selective schools and set higher curriculum standards, thus competing with private schools on their own turf: or we allow our local public schools to develop alternative education programs for students who find the standard curriculum difficult and build up the welfare support systems we offer. The either-or approach encourages dichotomous thinking, according to which schools either sustain their standards and compete with the private schools, or they lapse and become truly residual 'safety-net' institutions. In contrast, any both-and solution is inevitably more complex, more messy, and ultimately, more workable. Both-and solutions involve, for example, creating multi-purpose schools, or setting up collectives of specialised schools that work together, and this is inherently difficult. Both-and solutions need to be fine-tuned to local conditions, and they thrive best in systems where there is some decentralisation of control and where schools have some authority to adapt the curriculum to the needs of individual students.
In the next section of this brief discussion paper I sketch out some aspects of the institutional history of secondary education in Queensland, making selective comparisons with NSW. My goal is to show how an examination of the historical resources of these two states helps us to understand the mindsets of these two systems and the lexicon of solutions each brings to bear on the current situation.
Public and Private in the history of secondary education in Queensland
In contrast with NSW, the Queensland system of secondary education is an invention of relatively recent origin. Until 1964, the only way a Queenslander could progress from the elementary school level to the University was to succeed on a selective entrance exam and gain a scholarship place in a private grammar school, or alternatively, come up with the fees that these schools required. In some ways, therefore, Queensland's past reflects our worst fears about the fate Australia's public schools may face in the future. For the first half of the last century, the function of the Queensland state system was (a) to provide elementary education for all, and (b) to provide general and vocational classes at the grade 9 and 10 levels for those who went on beyond the school leaving age but did not succeed in the scholarship exam. This system catered for a residual population: it was not expected to cater for the brightest and the best.
The Queensland government secondary system we see today came into existence just 40 years ago. Since then this system has been marked by continuous experimentation and change. The goal of this experimentation has been to promote the completion of a full secondary education by ever greater numbers of young Queenslanders; this goal remains a central policy commitment of the state today (Queensland Department of Education, 2001, p.15). Public examinations at the end of the Senior Year were abandoned from 1972 in favour of a system of moderation across schools. Two years later moderation procedures were abandoned for the Year 10 (Junior) certificate, after which that certificate was (and still is) issued entirely on the recommendation of local schools. Full retention has been pursued through giving maximum freedom to schools to cater for each individual young person in their care. Another distinction between the Queensland and NSW is that it is far more common in Queensland than in NSW for students to gain a year 12 certificate that is not associated with a University entrance score.
Until the sixties, Queensland was perhaps the State least interested in public secondary education. At that time, primary schools still went through to Year 8, an arrangement that ensured that students could reach their fourteenth birthday without ever undertaking studies at secondary school level. At the age of fourteen (the legal leaving age) students either left school, continued into general or vocational secondary classes, or took a scholarship examination. In the mid-1950s only half of all fourteen year olds went on to any form of secondary education and many of these were housed in primary school 'tops'rather than attending fully fledged secondary institutions (Goodman, 1968, 323-328). Over two-thirds of those who did continue into secondary classes were enrolled in industrial, commercial, or home science classes. Government funded scholarships to private schools, paid directly to the school, were available to the small minority who did well on the scholarship exam. Ultimate admission to the University of Queensland was an exclusive right of this group.
The scholarship system created a conservative distortion in the development of Queensland's system of secondary schooling. A small entrenched group of 'independent' schools --the original grammar schools, a number of Catholic colleges, and a few private Protestant schools ' controlled admission to the University. This same group put their weight behind arrangements which ensured that secondary education for the vast majority gained only left-over resources and had only second class status. The system was weighted towards the already privileged not only in social class background but even in sex: scholarships awarded to girls were worth less than those awarded to boys (Goodman, 1997, p.276).
One important outcome of the long reign of the scholarship system was the identification of Education Department personnel with the less privileged youngsters of Queensland. Beyond the primary school years, it was the underprivileged and average student for whom the Education Department was responsible, since the private schools were paid by the government to cater for the privileged minority. The battle to expand the public secondary system and defeat the scholarship lobby was waged on behalf of ordinary Queensland students by the teachers and bureaucrats of the state department.
It is worth comparing this with New South Wales where the State system from the beginning had boasted selective high schools that outperformed private schools in the competitive academic system and led to government bursaries for University study. Many New South Wales teachers came into teaching through these selective public schools and identified, as the primary task of the public secondary system, the finding and grooming of the academically talented. Their identification was with the best, and usually more privileged, students. In the Queensland scholarship system that identification and that understanding of the task of the secondary school was preempted by the private grammar schools. The Queensland Education Departments and its teachers therefore developed instead a sense of mission that focused on catering for the needs of ordinary students, regardless of their inherent talents or likely future destinations.
In keeping with their deliberate back-burner approach to education, successive Queensland governments neglected the growing demand for a secondary education system that would provide opportunities for all. Ultimately in Queensland as in New South Wales, change came somewhat by force -- the force of numbers. Hanging over all secondary systems in the fifties was the prospect of catering for the bulge of post-war baby-boom enrolments moving up annually towards the final year of primary school. While the New South Wales government, -- in appointing the Wyndham Committee in September 1953 -- reacted quickly to the new demand for mass secondary education and watched with alarm the swell of baby-boomers already moving up in the primary school, the two successive Gair Labor governments in Queensland in the early fifties delayed and parried attempts to think about the pending secondary schooling crisis. The delay in Queensland in dealing with the basic practicalities of desks, teachers and even bricks and mortar until the enrolment crisis was well and truly overwhelming meant an even longer delay in dealing with the curriculum issue. What was a suitable secondary curriculum for a whole age cohort as distinct from a tiny minority?
New South Wales did its thinking on this issue in the fifties and had the Wyndham scheme completely mapped out by 1959 even though the financial cost of adding a year to schooling held back the inauguration of the scheme until 1964. Queensland did not begin to think about modernising the secondary school structure until 1961 and did its hard conceptualising and debating at the end of that decade, half a generation after the conceptualisation of Wyndham, and in a very different era both economically and culturally. Queensland escaped a 1950s modernist solution to its secondary schooling problems in part simply because until 1957 it had a government which turned a blind eye rather than a goverment prepared to plan for rapidly altering secondary school demographics.
By 1961 structural change to bring Queensland into some sort of line with other States in its secondary schooling and curriculum arrangements seemed inevitable. Under a Liberal coalition government a new model of secondary education was introduced to Queensland in 1964. The final year of primary was to be moved back to Year 7 to make room for extending secondary schooling from four to five years without adding any extra years, and any extra costs, to the overall length of schooling. The new Year 8, now the first year of secondary school, was to be made a general course in the Wyndham style in which students 'became adjusted ... before electing a fixed course to meet their interests, abilities and aptitudes'(Watkin, 1961, p.2). The school leaving age was moved from 14 to 15 years so that all students would complete at least their Junior. In keeping with this aim, schools were urged to 'offer to all students in their area a wide variety of courses to suit their varied abilities and interests.'
This new Queensland model had both parallels to Wyndham and a certain distinctive flavour of its own. It did not follow the Wyndham model of six years (four-plus-two) of secondary schooling. It simply moved one year from the primary sector to the secondary to give three years of Junior secondary and five years overall. Perhaps it was the decision to stick with a shorter secondary course which encouraged Queenslanders to think more holistically about secondary schooling, rather than simply to look at reform in the years leading to the Junior examination and enshrine traditional university preparation beyond that. This holistic view, with its concern for the full education of all Queenslanders, also fitted the perspective and agenda of the Education Department that had for so long viewed the average and underprivileged student as it main clientele. The new system provided secondary education for all, not just a general education for all to the Junior stage followed by a traditional academic Senior. Indeed it recommended a complete review of the Senior 'in view of the undue influence of university matriculation requirements on secondary studies'(Watkin, 1961, p3).
The Queensland mind set -- that all young people are entitled to a complete secondary education -- has a long history, but it was strengthened noticeably during the latter half of the 1960s. In the 70s it began to be referred to as 'the spirit of Radford' in deference to Dr William Radford, the chair of a committee appointed in 1969 to review tertiary entrance procedures. This committee recommended and achieved the abolition of university entrance examinations as the end point of schooling in Queensland because it believed that systems should be built around the assumption that all young people would benefit from completing secondary schooling. The result of all these efforts was a spectacular growth in retention over the next 16 years. From the lowest retention through to Year 12 among the mainland States in 1970, Queensland had repositioned itself as the State with the highest retention rate by 1986. It still retains that ranking today.
What the State needs to do
Recent evidence from the 1995 Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth (LSAY) series suggests that it may be possible for public high schools to offer significant scholarly opportunities to students and at the same time provide alternative programs for those who have difficulties dealing with the standard school curriculum. For example, Queensland has no formal assessments at the end of Year 10; its Year 12 curriculum offers many 'easy options', and it deploys tough internal assessments with external moderation rather than external examinations. Nevertheless, the system does provide substantial opportunities for students to progress to higher education. Just under one third of all Queensland students who were in Year 9 in 1995 ultimately gained a place in an Australian University. (These analyses are based on LSAY-95, a survey that sampled 13500 Year 9 students across Australia in 1995.) In NSW the results were not much better than those of Queensland: the proportion of NSW students who were in Year 9 in 1995, who subsequently entered an Australian University was only one in three. In Victoria, the other high-retention state, the equivalent figure was 45 percent (it needs to be acknowledged that Victoria is more compact geographically than either state and more highly industrialized that Queensland).
More needs to be added to these analyses, since the outcome (ie, the proportions entering Universities by state) is influenced by the rules that govern the supply of places to the tertiary sector. However, these figures do suggest that a public school system that offers an inclusive curriculum can still perform well in terms of University admissions. Perhaps it is a fear of middle class flight that leads NSW to sustain a formula that sets a hurdle at the end of Year 10 and then offer no second tier of basic studies in English and mathematics for the weaker students who decide to stay on. Residualisation inevitably makes it harder each year to deliver this formula in our toughest schools. In the long run, we need to ask whether this formula is actually stemming middle class flight, and if not, whose interests are being served by sustaining it.
Recently a leading Liberal party politician was heard to remark that 'governments should be judged in accordance with how lightly they touch our purse'. Not so long ago it would have been more acceptable to say that governments should be judged in accordance with the extent to which they provide equal opportunity. This was the traditional social-liberal view of what the state needs to do. As Marian Sawyer recently argued, we are in danger of abdicating this approach in favour of the 'self-regulating' device of market liberalism, which means that instead of public policy being monitored for equity effects, we have a market society dominated by international economic interests with no accountability to poor children or their families or anyone else (Sawyer, 2003). One cannot buy equal opportunity in the free market, but one can buy a place in a private school. Thus the cumulative effect of the innumerable private choices made by private individuals leads to what neo-liberals call 'market outcomes'. Since these outcomes have not consciously been chosen by governments, they cannot be regarded as unjust. In this scenario, the residualisation of our public schools is merely the collateral damage of the freedom to choose.
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