From provider to regulator: the changing role of the state

Earlier this week Professor Richard Teese (University of Melbourne) wrote a piece for The Conversation entitled ‘The real agenda behind Gillard’s Gonski response‘. Central to his argument is that the Federal Government’s response to the Gonski Report highlights a shift in governance structures.

In this post I want to engage in this intellectual space by articulating how recent education policy moves in Australia, particularly Empowering Local Schools, are shifting the role of the state (in the sociological sense, not literal) from the provider to regulator of education. This, when combined with Teese’s argument, reflects the largest socio-political move in Australian school education policy since the establishment of public schooling.

As with most Anglophone nations, Australia is currently pursuing an array of highly centralised education reforms such as high-stakes testing regimes (NAPLAN), a national curriculum, professional teaching standards and increasingly prescriptive accreditation requirements for teacher education institutions. At the same time, after different degrees of success at state/territory level, on a national level Australia is undertaking a large-scale implementation of an empowering local schools initiative.

Policy such as the Federal Labor government’s Empowering Local Schools is presented by government as simple formalisations, in legal language, of the social and economic principles to which the government claims to conform. Much like how The Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians is couched in both economic (excellence) and social (equity) language. In doing so, we see a coming together of different rhetorics of management (more of this in future posts). The Federal Labor government is mobilising the Empowering Local Schools reform as a vehicle for improving student performance (measured by standardised testing regimes, attendance data) by giving principals, parents and each school community greater oversight in establishing and committing to local priorities. Such a move is consistent with contemporary discourses of administration regarding the breaking down of bureaucracy and the ‘distribution of authority’. The reconfiguration of state/territory education systems, particularly public schools, to align with the empowering schools reform, that which comes with substantial Federal start-up funds, explicitly replaces large-scale systems with smaller individual, and often isolated, firms regulated by the state (further embedded in the current Better Schools reforms) and, importantly, the market. The underlying generative principle at play in this policy context is one calling for a new organisational form for the school. This hybrid organisation alters the relationship between the state and school administration, but also school administration and others within schools such as staff, students, parents and community.

Building on a series of policy moves enabling greater school choice, and the growth of non-government schools under the John Howard led Liberal-National coalition administration (1996-2007), the role of the state, individual schools, and parents have been significantly recast in Australian education through the language of markets. With the addition of Empowering Local Schools, the state has shifted its role from provider to regulator. That is, with greater responsibility at the school level, administrators can no longer blame the system when things go wrong. Similarly, parents who theoretically have a choice of which school to send their child/ren, are then responsible for the results of their choices and have the opportunity, again at least theoretically, to exercise choice in finding the best fit for their needs/demands. I argue that this does specific things in relation to community building and raises questions as to whether the relationship between parents as consumers and schools as providers thwarts, if not prevents, the establishment of community, or at the very least, communal ties. If parents (and arguably students) see education as a product, but one with considerable social (and economic) leverage attached to it, an schools as the providers of a serice, then this transactional relationship is not necessarily built on loyalty and trust but rather satisfaction and relative worth (that is not criterion based judgement, but a comparative or relative judgement against what other providers can offer).

The shift in fiscal, and structural, arrangements between the state and schools is a dual edged sword. While increased authority over the running of the school is welcomed (although unions may beg to differ), the corresponding responsibility, that which now falls to the individual school, and potentially the principal, is highly problematic. At this stage of the political debate, and especially with the Gillard government’s aspiration for Australia to be ranked as a Top 5 school system internationally, the Federal government with regulate the performance of schools and make public perforance data through MySchool and signifcantly, ongoing funding will be tied to the achievement of mandated performance targets (see my article on strategic planning as the Trojan Horse of the state).

These are exciting times to be studying and working in Australian schools. But while the unique configuration of policies in this space and time are fascinating for the scholar, there is a need for public intellectualism from educators in all sectors from pre-school through to higher education. Educating is a political act and as such can not be left to unquestioned acceptance of the status quo or an apparent inevitable progression of managerialist agenda. As both an educator and the father of two young children, any change in policy and practice of education is significant and needs to be engaged with, and if necessary, rigorously debated. Feel free to join the conversation!

In the next post I will explore Roberto Esposito’s notion of community/immunity to make an argument for the recasting of administrative labour in education and the consequences for schools and schooling.