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De-schooling Australia

By Chris James - posted Friday, 14 November 2008

Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised an “education revolution” we are now starting to learn what this means.

The latest proposal is parents will be punished if their children truant from school. Worse, those parents who will be punished are those who can least afford it. People on welfare will have their welfare cheques removed for up to three months if their children avoid school.

This is another move towards making it more difficult for families to stay on welfare. It is not just about education it is an extension of the previous government’s proposal to push a Welfare to Work regime that sees seven-year-old children left at home alone.


Why wouldn’t we expect so many children and young people to truant from school? Who is there to watch over them? Moreover, schools are not happy, safe environments. Few people seem to have any idea of the social and psychological circumstances that sit beneath the disenchanted, absconding student. It is always the student or the family that is blamed. It is the victims who are labelled “dysfunctional” not the policy or the system.

In a society that can now claim one in five people suffering from depression families do not need punitive measures they need incentives and they need help. Schools are violent, abusive, stressful places. Schools are a microcosm of the culture in which they are situated. All aims to make schools safe and welcoming have basically failed.

Truanting students are not the fault of parents. Rather, it is the result of a system that has been unable to keep these students engaged and motivated towards a successful future.

Conservatism and the struggle for a progressive education

There are currently two forces at work in the education debate: the conservatives who want to bring back an authoritarian system that includes corporal punishment and learning to the text and the progressives who seek a more democratic climate. The progressives prefer to use a system based upon narrative and the exchange of ideas.

One of the key achievements of post war socio-political theory and discourse has been the use of narrative and/or personal testimony. Marx laid the groundwork with his focus on the impacts of early capitalism. In the 1960s talk was a politics of “love” not “war”. The 1970s second wave feminism showed us how the personal is also the political and how “talk” can be democratically empowering.

This notion was also given credence by the internationally renowned social and political theorist Jurgen Habermas [1987] in his Theory of Communicative Action.


Today, progressive Australian educators attempt to continue this tradition in schools but it doesn’t go uncontested. From the conservative perspective the public are constantly told that education is failing our youth due to a shortage of teachers. The media tacitly depict teachers leaving the profession in droves. They tell us teachers are complaining they have lost control of the classroom. The students have all the rights and they are misbehaving. Added to this fewer students can expect to go on to university.

Competition is tough, education is not free and there are more financial constraints for families. The progressives claim to offer freedom from the oppression of authoritarian regimes; freedom from the shackles of the “Grand Narratives”.

The conservatives argue that without the modernist structures there will be a breakdown in the fabric of our society.

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About the Author

Dr Chris James is an artist, writer, researcher and psychotherapist. She lives on a property in regional Victoria and lectures on psychotherapeutic communities and eco-development. Her web site is

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