To close the gap, fix the system December 16, 2012Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Secondary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
Tags: education and youth policy, secondary school retention
Decades-old policies undermine new ones which keep students in school for longer, writes Carol Reid.
It’s a no-brainer: more years of compulsory schooling must be good for everyone. Until two years ago a student could leave school at 15 and no one cared whether they had a job or training or if they dropped off the edge of the planet.
Increasing the years spent at school has wide support in Australia and overseas. It is thought that with more schooling we can reduce intergenerational poverty, improve health, increase income and have a more equitable distribution of income. These are all good reasons for more schooling and supported a new schoolleaving age in NSW in 20 10: if you want to leave school before the age of 17 you need to have arranged more than 25 hours of work or training each week.
But what’s the impact? I have been carrying out an Australian Research Council-funded project examining the consequences for schools, teachers, parents and students in south-western Sydney. This region, with high ethnic diversity and some of the poorest communities in the state, is a touchstone for understanding the outcomes of this new policy. What I’ve learnt has led to a number of judgements that may be heretical.
Staying on longer is not necessarily better for students. There is a policy disjuncture. You cannot increase the years of schooling and promise diverse curriculums, increased pathways and greater opportunity when schools have been affected for years by other policies such as school choice, funding disparities and league tables.
Low student numbers affect the range of subjects a school can offer, while low levels of social and cultural capital can restrict work-experience options. This then constrains the work futures of those forced to stay on at school.
Parent choice is not necessarily a plus. My research found that the average parent would rather leave decisions about pathways, work experience and subject selection to the professionals. The labour market is becoming harder to read, and recently arrived migrants and refugees find this market tough to work out. They lack the networks (social capital) to get their kids a foothold in the job market.
Schools cannot always be ladders of opportunity. The problem here is that opportunities are scarce on the ground. For some the infrastructure required to take advantage of opportunities is absent – poor transport options make it hard for students to attend alternative education, training or work experience. Schools also lose funding when students take a subject at TAFE. There is not enough work experience to go around. The ideal of schools and communities and local organisations working together to provide this ladder of opportunity isn’t always there.
Education is not above politics. Political decisions about funding or where trade centres will be constructed, which schools will have selective streams, where specialist schools will be set up, and which schools will be rebranded to encourage migration across suburb, do matter and are made outside the radar of most students and their families. Yet they shape schooling outcomes and the school-to-work transition for many students.
Class is not dead. Placing the onus on parents to understand the education market and its reforms when they may be disadvantaged themselves through limited, or different, educational, cultural and linguistic capital, risks producing and reproducing social inequality.
Of course, I found examples of exemplary practice. In every school, teachers, students and parents work hard. But their efforts to get the best from the new compulsory schooling age are hampered by policies that have shaped schools for more than a decade. Unless the cause of the disadvantage is recognised and addressed, blame is likely to shift to the culture of the victims, rather than the policies that shaped their opportunities. This is particularly the case for young men from minority ethnic backgrounds.
We need structures that provide conduits between schools, case workers, businesses and TAFE. We need to stop taking funding from schools when a student goes to TAFE for a subject. We need minibuses-such as those that arrive in my suburb every day to transport kids to Newington, SCEGGS and Cranbrook-to take students to TAFE when transport is lacking. We need to support recently arrived migrants and refugee families in small schools and ensure we are not producing the next generation of have-nots.
Staying on longer is not necessarily better for students.
Carol Reid is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Educational Research in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. This blog post originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 28th, 2012.