A Study of Educational Change in Western Australia - Kairos Consultancy and Training

Educational change, in Western Australia as elsewhere, has taken the form of major school restructuring and school reculturing, often with an underlying rationale for improving the educational success of all students.  Historically many of the changes introduced in schools have been a result of top-down policy initiatives and have sought to address specific issues of academic failure, school dropouts, student alienation, and the need to equip students to be contributors in an increasingly complex society.  To this end in late 1997, the Western Australian Government released its Plan for Government School Education to set the direction for the government education system over following three years and into the twenty-first century

The Plan represented a policy ensemble (Ball, 1994), which included the Local Area Education Planning Framework, the Curriculum Framework, and the Making the Difference Policy, aimed at restructuring and reculturing education framed in the rhetoric of improving outcomes for all students. The Curriculum Framework represents a major educational change to outcomes‑based education, the purpose of which is to improve the learning and achievement of all students (Curriculum Council, 1998). The complete Making the Difference Policy was released in 1998 and schools were encouraged to develop strategies that would address further issues pertaining to students at educational risk (Education Department of Western Australia, 1998, hereafter EDWA).  The aim of the Local Area Education Planning Framework (hereafter the LAEP Framework) was to modify or reorganize planning of the delivery of education by changing the focus of planning from individual schools to groups of schools in order to better manage the delivery of curriculum and resources (EDWA, 1997a).  

Policies are never released in a vacuum.  There are a number of contexts, which will impact upon how the policy is written, how it is received and how it is acted upon (Taylor, Rizvi, Lingard, & Henry, 1997).  When investigating the LAEP Framework it becomes apparent that the intentions of the policy are exposed by understanding these various contexts and that two, possibly conflicting, discourses can be identified.   These will be discussed in more detail later.  First, it is imperative to outline both the present context of the nature of State secondary schooling in Western Australia and the historical location of the policy, as argued by Ranson (1996) as being essential to any policy analysis.

Schools in Western Australia

Education has always been the legal responsibility of State governments in Australia. Secondary schooling in Western Australia is offered by both the State government (approximately 70% of students) and in the private[1] sector (approximately 30% of students).  State government schools are under the authority of the Department of Education and Training (DET), which in 2003 changed its name from the Department of Education (DOE).  Prior to this it was known as the Education Department of Western Australia (EDWA) in the 1990s, and the Ministry of Education in the 1980s.  The DET, through enabling legislation, governs the State school system.  The legislation, and its attendant regulations, covers for example areas such curriculum, work organizations, the power of officials and disciplinary action (Angus, 1998).  The State schools are fully financed by the State, and account for about a quarter of the State’s budget (Department of Education, 2002).

The State school system is a highly centralized system, responsible to the Minister for Education.  The DET is divided into 16 districts, with district offices that service and assist schools.  There are four metropolitan districts, two outer metropolitan districts and because of the vastness of the State, ten rural and remote districts.  The DET is the primary employer of staff, and currently employs approximately 6 500 secondary teachers (Department of Education, 2002).  Most teachers are placed by the DET; however, about 20 percent of schools are able to select all or most of their staff based on a system of merit.

About seventy percent of students throughout the State are currently enrolled in DET schools.  There are about 200 State schools offering comprehensive secondary school education to approximately 85, 000 students (Department of Education, 2002). The most common configuration for secondary education is Years 8-12, split into compulsory education (Years 8-10) and post compulsory education (Year 11 and 12) delivered on a single site.  However, there are a number of other options for the delivery of secondary education, which include Senior Campuses (Year 11 and 12), Agricultural Colleges (Year 8-12, specializing in agricultural education), District High Schools (Year 8-10 attached to primary schools) and High Schools (Year 8-10).  In more recent years, there has been the encouragement, through the National Middle Years of Schooling Project (ACSA, 1997), for schools to explore the introduction of Middle Schooling, which has seen a number of schools adopting a Middle School/Senior School split (Year 8-9/Year 10-12), most commonly on a single site. 

Schools in the metropolitan and outer metropolitan area of Perth are zoned, and students attend the school in their area of residence.  Notionally State schools are non selective.  However, it has been impossible to resource all schools to offer all subjects and a system of specialist programs attached to some schools has evolved over time (Angus & Olney, 1998).  This has included specialization in arts, music, sports and academic extension.  Nevertheless, strong administrative control from a central bureaucracy continues to be a feature in both curriculum and organisational contexts, as it has from the DETs inception back in the 1890s.

The Historical Location

There are a number of core ongoing tensions in Western Australian education, which remain in the LAEP Framework policy under investigation.  These have their origins in the history of the Department.  The Western Australia Education Department was established in 1893 to provide State primary and secondary education that was free, compulsory and secular (Angus & Olney, 1998).  In common with the establishment of secondary education in other states (Hooper, 1999), its beginnings were problematic.  There was a belief amongst some, most notably the existing private religious schools, that the State should limit its involvement in secondary education (Mossenson, 1972).  Many people believed that it was not within the role of the State to be involved in secondary education at all, that the State’s role finished with elementary education and that secondary education provision was best left to the private schools (Ewers, 1947; Ibbotson, 1965).  Others considered that the State should be involved in the provision of secondary education.  The chief concern of those who supported its introduction did so based on the notion that there should be access for all students, an underlying principle of the Board of Education back in the mid 1800’s.  It was a belief supported by the community of the time:

We have no right to discriminate as to the parties to whom education should be imparted.  We ought to have no class education, but all should receive the benefit of a liberal course of instruction  (Commercial News and Shipping Gazette, 1855, quoted in (Haynes, 1997).

Jackson, the Inspector General of Education from 1897-1903, also opposed the view that the educational responsibilities of the State ceased with the provision of elementary schooling (Mossenson, 1972).  His successor, Andrews, the Inspector General from 1903, agreed and made it clear to the then Minister for Education in a special note that “the organization and control of Secondary Education is one of the most important functions of the State” (cited in Ewers, 1947, p. 119). 

When Andrews took over his role of Inspector General he inherited a system where some students were being educated at the secondary level in private schools, some on government bursaries, and some were being education in ex-seventh schools, such as Perth Boys’ School (EDWA, 1963).  Andrews believed not only that it was the role of the government to provide secondary education, but also that it should be available to all.  His push for the introduction of comprehensive coeducation resulted in the opening of Perth Modern School in 1911 (Ibbotson, 1965).  His primary concern was a quality classical education for all students, including those from poorer backgrounds.  However, he also agreed with Walton, an inspector of schools, who, in 1905, urged for the introduction of secondary schools, not only for classical education, but also to service rural settings specializing in mining and agriculture (Walton, 1905, appendix, in Ibbotson, 1965).

The result was a split system, as the Department tried to balance the needs for vocational education with social justice and equity interests.  On the one hand was Perth Modern, a highly selective and elitist school with entry based on performance in the Government controlled scholarship or school entry examination and by recommendation from the primary headmaster.  However, it was free and secular and anyone meeting the above criteria could attend.  Yet, an elitist school had not been Andrews’ intention when he had pressed for the establishment of secondary education.  He had envisioned a system open to all students who wished to enter it; however, due to the limited number of places available and the failure to secure a second high school in the Perth area, Perth Modern became highly selective (Mossenson, 1972).  Those who failed to gain entry could continue their education at the Central schools, which catered for the vocational needs of early school leavers, who would leave at the age of 14 (EDWA, 1963).  They could also attend one of the many fee-paying secondary schools.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Education Department continued to grapple with the dichotomy, between the needs for differentiated academic and vocational education on the one hand, and the need to provide a quality education for all students on the other.  The problem was heightened shortly after 1946, with the renaming of Central schools to three-year high schools.  This had an impact on the education offered, as the aim of these schools was now to prepare students for the Junior Leaving Certificate instead of catering to the vocational needs of the early school leavers (EDWA, 1963).  It can be argued that the rapid expansion of a mass secondary education for a growing population across Australia, caused a temporary divergence from education as necessary for economic development to the pressure to establish a rigorous academic system (Caldwell & Hayward, 1998).

By 1957, it was recognized that secondary schools in Western Australia were not meeting the needs of the students, a result of the change of emphasis from the vocational to the academic in high schools.  A review was called to “see if the products of our schools were meeting the needs of citizenship and employment” (Education Department, 1958, Foreword).  The 1957 Committee, established by the Department, became primarily engaged with the question of “What Shall We Teach?” (Education Department, 1958, p. 1).  Their Interim Report lists a number of basic principles the first of which reads:

The basic aim of this programme is to provide the opportunity for girls and boys to develop as individuals and citizens whose attitudes and attainments enable them to live full lives, contribute to society and to obtain employment satisfactory to themselves and their employers (Education Department, 1958, p. 2).

The question of ‘what to teach’ continued to be problematic.  The Department’s reports, Dettman (EDWA, 1969), Priest (EDWA, 1981), and Beazley (Beazley, 1984), to name just three, were littered with recommendations regarding students, learning, social justice and students whose educational and vocational needs were not being met by the Department’s educational provisions in its mainstream system.  

However, it was not until the early eighties that education and economics once more converged.  A number of factors have been responsible for this trend, including the growing global economy, a societal push for parental and community involvement in education, and the increasing cost of public education leading to concerns about efficiency in the delivery of educational services (Caldwell, 1993).  The other important factor has been the increasing involvement of the Commonwealth Government in school education. 

Commonwealth government and school education

Political and social changes in education led to the intervention of the Commonwealth government in school education.  Before the seventies the Commonwealth Government had little influence over State schools; its involvement with education was primarily limited to the Universities. Financial assistance from the Commonwealth Government had been in the form of tied grants for building Commonwealth funded science blocks and libraries.  The major thrust for the Commonwealth Government to become a more prominent player in the field of school education came from the Karmel Report (Karmel, 1973), which favoured decentralisation, devolution as much as possible to the school, and consultation about schooling with parents and students.  The outcome of the report was the Commonwealth Schools Commission (CSC), which disbursed special purpose grants to schools based on submissions prepared by the school and their communities.  Whilst the CSC was discontinued in the late 1980s, there have been a number of other Commonwealth initiatives.  These have included the National Project for the Quality of Teaching and Learning (NPQTL) in the early nineties, the Priority Schools Project, and the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, all of which have served to increase the amount of funds flowing from Commonwealth coffers, directly to schools.  They have also increased Commonwealth Government involvement in State education as all funds have been tied to schools implementing some of the Commonwealth initiatives.  Initial efforts flowing from the Karmel Report were concerned with social justice issues and equity; however, youth unemployment at high levels has meant that the focus of Commonwealth initiatives moved to making “young Australians more employable” (Townsend, 2000, p. 238).

The growing Commonwealth concern with the economy and employment placed greater pressure on State education systems to respond, to provide the skills needed by young Australians for the world of work.  The lack of highly skilled employees was seen as a failure of schools and was considered by some a concern in the light of the growing globalisation of the world economy.  A more highly educated and more skilful work force was believed to lead to greater economic development and contribute to a more advanced and competitive society (Edwards, 1997).  The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) played a particularly influential role in Australia in establishing the credibility of education’s subordination to the economy and its function as the vocational training agency in order to increase a nation’s economic advancement (Chapman, Aspin, & Taylor, 1997; Dudley & Vidovich, 1995).  In 1987, the Commonwealth Department of Education was incorporated into the Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET).  The then Commonwealth Minister for Education, John Dawkins, made the following comment regarding the naming of the Department, signalling that economics would drive education policy:

Employment has been placed first in the title because it represents our ultimate objective – to help people, particularly the young, get the best job possible.  This is not only in their best interests as individuals; it is also an important national objective if we are to have a vibrant economy.  This means the Department will play a central role in gearing Australia to meet the new economic challenges of the late twentieth century (quoted in Haynes, 1997, p. 45).

A further change in policy saw the Minister and DEET placing greater emphasis on school retention rates.  Target participation rates of 95 per cent in post-compulsory education by the year 2001 were proposed to guide school retention strategies and reduce youth unemployment (Dwyer, 1996).  The changing demands of the labour market meant that many students were already staying at school.  In Western Australia, the number of students continuing on to Year 12 grew from 17.8 per cent in 1960 to 43.2 by 1985 (SEA, 1989).  The current [2]Commonwealth Coalition government, by making an accompanying change to youth unemployment benefits, has been able to encourage many 15 and 16 year olds to stay on at school and at the same time keep them off the “politically embarrassing unemployment lists” (Haynes, 1997).

The issue of youth unemployment has become of major social and political concern over the past years. Thirty or more years ago it was sufficient that those who were not academically inclined or able would go out and get employment, usually without the benefit of a high school diploma or certificate.  The labour market was able to absorb a great many unskilled workers.  However, the labour market has changed significantly since the sixties and there are now not enough unskilled jobs available to take up the number of adolescents who leave school early (Taylor et al., 1997).  Today, to leave without having completed high school, or gained a certificate or diploma is to leave for certain unemployment (Dwyer, 1996). 

Haynes (1997) argued that in a society where economic considerations were determined to be the most important, education was presented as a priority, to meet the vocational demands faced by adolescents.  Education, particularly secondary education, is often seen as the crossroads of adolescents’ lives, a ‘gateway’ to economic advantage (Delors, 1996).  However, in Australia 25 per cent of the age cohort continue to fail to complete school (Dwyer, 1996).  Many adolescents leave school without an adequate knowledge or skills base (OECD, 1996).  Although, historically secondary education has been the responsibility of the States, the Commonwealth government believed that it had an important role to play, in identifying national policy priorities in education, especially the “strengthening of Australian’s efforts in schooling [as a] central element of the restructuring of the Australian economy” (Lingard & Porter, 1997, p. 3).  It became therefore important for secondary education to teach the knowledge and skills required for the preparation of a work life.  Initially there was quite a resistance by teachers to the mounting emphasis on vocational education (Caldwell & Hayward, 1998).  Yet, the last decade has seen the growing acceptance by educational institutions of the relevance of work and employment skills to the curriculum: “over the past decade there has been an acceptance of structured links between education and work” (Caldwell & Keating, 2003, p.10). 

In Western Australia, the release of Better Schools (Ministry of Education, 1987) introduced the move to self-management of schools through the devolution of some financial responsibilities and decision-making about operational matters to the school level, and allowed for a more prominent role for parents in the governance of their local high school (Angus & Olney, 1998; Townsend, 2000).  Schools have responded also to the pressure to introduce new vocational education and training initiatives.  The prominence of vocational education has increased dramatically.  During 2001, 41.5 per cent of Years 11-12 students at 135 government schools participated in vocational education and training, compared with less than 3 per cent at 36 schools in 1997 (Department of Education, 2002).  Yet, up to three per cent of students, under the school leaving age of 15, miss at least one day a week.  A number of these students go on to leave without completing year ten (Zubrick et al., 1997).  The LAEP Framework, continuing to represent the conflicting discourses of social justice and the concern with students at ‘educational risk’, was released as a key State government policy to address these concerns in the late 1990s

The LAEP Framework for educational change

The LAEP Framework reveals global influences, such as the need to deal with students at educational risk and thereby educate citizens for a global world (Delors, 1996), as well as concerns with economic demands for governments to demonstrate greater value for money in expenditure of funds.  The LAEP Framework uses the rhetoric of social justice and a quality education for all students whilst encouraging districts to be more accountable and use ‘flexible’ resourcing structures.  The aim for each district has been to streamline the delivery of educational services, for the improvement of student access to curriculum and quality facilities.  Yet at the same time resources were to be used effectively, options considered were to “maximise the use of facilities and any spare facilities should be sold and funds used to provide area and State improvements” (EDWA, 1997a, notes overhead 5).

Staff, parents, secondary students and the wider community were to be consulted on plans for their area – the LAEP Framework was to be a “customer driven process” (EDWA, 1997a, notes overhead 5).  Change options given for consideration, through consultation and by each district, included school amalgamations, school closures, and the creation of senior colleges and middle schools.  The most controversial of these strategies, and one most vociferously challenged by parents and local communities, adopted by the Education Department of Western Australia, as part of the LAEP Framework, was to amalgamate a number of schools, which serviced the same area.  This brought about the closure of several schools, especially in suburban Perth. 

The other change strategy which the Education Department encouraged schools to explore in response to its Plan for Government School Education was the creation of a ‘middle school’, or a school within a school.  The National Middle Years of Schooling Project (ACSA, 1997) explored the nature of student alienation in the middle years and recommended the empowerment of teachers to transform the middle years to meet the learning needs of students during these years.  Although the Education Department would not seek the implementation of uniform systemic change to introduce middle schools per se, it would support schools that wished to introduce this organizational change (1997b). 

Conclusion

The LAEP Framework, released in 1997, continues to rehearse the Education Department social justice discourses, concerning students at risk, as well as economising discourses, foregrounding the efficient and effective use of resources.  The introduction of the policy has seen great systemic changes in the educational system in Western Australia.  Yet, these concerns, influenced by the intervention of the Commonwealth Government in State education issues, are but echoes of global trends.  These international trends in educational change, as well as a critical analysis of the work of major researchers and writers in the field will be discussed in greater detail in the following chapter.  An in depth exploration of three case study schools in Western Australia, created as a result of the LAEP Framework policy enactment can be read in the remainder of the thesis (Oerlemans, 2005).

References:

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Ibbotson, P. J. (1965). A History of state secondary education in Western Australia 1890-1960. (Diploma of Educational Administration Thesis), New England University, New South Wales.

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Oerlemans, I. K. (2005). Secondary school students engagement in educational change:  Critical Perspectives on Policy Enactment. (PhD), University of Western Australia, Perth.

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Zubrick, S. R., Silburn, S. R., Gurrin, L., Teoh, H., Shepherd, C., Carlton, J., & Lawrence, D. (1997). Western Australia child health survey: Education, health and competence. Perth, Western Australia: Australian Bureau of statistics and the TVW Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.

 

©2004, Karin Oerlemans


[1] The term private denotes non-system schools, partly funded by State and Federal governments but mostly by parents, hence the word ‘private’.  State system schools, or ‘public’ schools are fully government funded.

[2] 2004