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What is the point of school in the 'earn or learn' era?

By Philip Roberts - posted Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Christopher Pyne's vision for higher education has a number of unaddressed consequences for the years of compulsory schooling, first and foremost, what is its purpose and whose interests does it serve?

A lot of ink has, and still will be, expended debating the proposals. I don't want to get into those debates here but in the interests of transparency I need to position myself before I begin. To date I find Ben Etherington's analysis very thorough and largely agree with the position he takes. Most concerning though, and related to what I will argue here, I find the notion of the privatization and capitalization of knowledge the most concerning as I feel it will continue to serve the interests of the socially powerful at the expense of more marginalized groups and knowledge's.

Certainly the approach of supporting 'non-university providers' and diplomas bridging students for university entry, coupled by an expansion of places, will make university more accessible. At the moment pre-university college courses and diplomas exists for students, some charge fees, others don't. In the proposed model these will be expanded and all such courses will be able to attract a student loan. More students who traditionally didn't access university, or any form of further education, may now be able to and that has to be a positive.


But there is a bigger question lurking behind this. The government has pronounced that young people should be 'learning or earning', with earning increasingly needing some extra learning. While this 'massification' of the tertiary sector has been going on for a while it seems that we are at another watershed moment. This point in time seems akin to the development of mass secondary education, post-compulsory secondary schooling and recently the raising of the school leaving age. There is a newly implied 'streaming' into unskilled labour, vocation training, semi-professional preparation and professional preparation after the compulsory years of school. The only difference to what happens in many countries where this streaming occurs in the early teens seems to be that we are doing it in the late teen years based on the subjects students study at school.

Notably we are not really talking about a university education anymore as these reforms will only accelerate the move to pre-professional training in liu of education. After all, who is going to pay thousands to study the liberal arts, social sciences or humanities, but that's another issue.

What is the point of school?

If some form of tertiary training is the new norm what is the purpose of compulsory schooling? At the moment the senior secondary curriculum is organised into a curriculum hierarchy that is geared towards university entry. That a hierarchy of subjects exists is clearly established by the research of Richard Teese and his colleagues at the Centre for research on education systems and can be seen in the relative value of subjects to students ATAR. Put simply, some subjects are more powerful than others in getting the required ATAR and are studied predominantly by more advantaged students.

This hierarchy is dominated by the old and powerful subjects, that connect to university departments such as literature, mathematics, economics, physics. Studying these subjects, and excelling in them, is the pathway to a high ATAR, an elite university and a high demand course. The newer and more practical versions, e.g. contemporary or applied english and mathematics, business studies, biology, might get you a satisfactory ATAR, a good professional degree at a university other than the elite.

Sure there is talk of 'work' and Vocational Education and Training that can occasionally be counted towards matriculation. But the fact remains they are positioned as secondary to the main game in town – university entry. Each December-January we see the predictable stream of results, lists of which schools got the most students in the top 10% in subjects and who got the most ATAR's over 90. We don't see which schools had the most successfully completed apprenticeships, Vocational certificates or students in employment.


What we have is a 'competitive academic curriculum' that serves the interests of the socially powerful and the better off. It's no surprise that, as The Bradley Reviewand many research projects have found, students from the top end of the social spectrum dominate the candidature of the powerful subjects, attend powerful schools, get the high ATARs and then dominate places in the prestigious courses at the elite universities. Students who by the chance of their circumstances come from the other end of the social spectrum dominate the vocational courses, and those in the middle the middle level courses and institutions. The curriculum as it stands serves the interests of the better off and socially powerful, for the curriculum they study is still directly linked to university entry and entry to the most prestigious institutions.

The raised school leaving age of the last few years hasn't seen any major changes to school curriculum. There have been projects investigating options to make it more relevant for students now forced to stay on who would in the past have left school. On the main though the structure of the curriculum linked to university entry remains intact. Not even the National Curriculum addresses this. Predictably, as the NSW audit office found in that jurisdiction, there is much more curriculum work to be done as many students now staying on are very disengaged by the curriculum on offer. The language is clear though – any changes are alternative pathways, the 'traditional' academic curriculum is still the main game and the 'normal' course of study.

In whose interests?

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About the Author

Philip Roberts is Assistant Professor (Curriculum Studies) at the University of Canberra. He has taught in NSW Public High Schools and worked in remote and isolated schools. He has conducted research into staffing these schools culminating in the report in 2004 Staffing an empty schoolhouse: attracting and retaining teachers in rural, remote and isolated communities (PDF 1.16MB).

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