Today, Jane Wilkinson (Griffiths), Richard Niesche (UNSW) and I acted as respondents to papers from Pat Thomson (Nottingham), Bob Lingard (UQ) and Martin Thrupp (Waikato) during an Educational Leadership SIG symposium on the ‘Dismantling of public education‘ at the #AARENZARE2014 conference. As a means of sharing, I thought I would write up my response. In my short response, I sought to outline three things:

  1. Some general comments on the arguments of the papers;
  2. Key theoretical challenges I see coming from these arguments; and
  3. Bring this back to the ‘educational leadership’ as a productive contribution to the SIG.

Here goes:

What I see across the three papers is the notion that public education is under revision. This is a significant argument as schooling is a canonical institution of modernity. This is what makes education, and specifically schooling, a key lever for policy makers (a.k.a. administrators). Mindful that public education is one of the greatest achievements of governance. Why? Because of its ‘universality’.

This reminds me of Michael Oakeshott’s argument that ‘education is the introduction to the conversation of the world’ [Oakeshott actually uses ‘mankind’]. Most striking about this is that Oakeshott’s argument breaks down the rather unhelpful binary of ‘individualism v collectivism’, or to use the language of our time, ‘competition v collaboration’.

The revision of public education, over an extended period of time, is shifting the articulated uses of education from ‘public’ to ‘private’ purposes. Social mobility is the dominant argument in recent times. [Neil Cranston and colleagues have written about this here and here]

A challenge for educational leadership studies is how can we theorise anew? This means going beyond mapping the existing terrain with new or different ways of thinking (e.g. great thinkers) and actually thinking differently, arguably an ontological shift.

Two key challenges I see:

Temporality: While we often discuss many of these matters following a touchstone event (e.g. the Education Reform Act, 1988), references to Taylorism highlight a much longer history. Raymond Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency empirically supports such claims. The final chapter of that text, ‘An American tragedy‘ is timely as much today as ever.

Spatial relations: The choice / market agenda asks questions of ‘the local’. What does it mean to have affiliation, or a nostalgia for, for a geographic marker (e.g. a local public school) during a time of ‘consumer sovereignty’ and a ‘fluid society’. This also speaks to work on policy borrowing and traveling practices.

In bringing this into conversation (and debate) with educational leadership studies, I see a few matters:

As highlighted, there is a sense of urgency if educational leadership is to contribute to this dialogue and debate. There are of course, some reservoirs of hope.

A serious matter is the dipping in and out of scholars in the space. While I am more than happy to identify as an educational leadership scholar, many in the room are less so. There is a need to break down the boundaries of educational leadership and draw from a broader set of foundations in engaging with issues that go beyond any single classroom, school or community.

This breaking down of boundaries will enable scholarship to go beyond the partitioning of systems thinking, that which has led to a proliferation of de-contextualised models, frameworks.

The papers in this symposium have raised a number of issues, I thank Pat, Bob and Martin for sharing their papers, Jane and Richard for their responses, and most importantly, the dialogue today fills me with ample belief that educational leadership studies are engaging with big issues and there is much work to be done, but momentum is building.

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