September 6th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: How to help democracy in Hong Kong

Australian Senate backs Hong Kong democrats against China

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Government stumbles over Manildra, Tuckey fiascos

STRAWS IN THE WIND: J'accuse / Shape of things to come

WATER: Murray River farmers face man-made 'permanent drought'

NATIONAL PARTY: Why John Anderson should stay

LETTERS: Sugar price

LETTERS: Rail the key to rural infrastructure

LETTERS: Amrozi death sentence

Ethanol, sugar and free trade

EDUCATION HISTORY: Social justice in education - self-interest disguised as altruism

FAMILY: Quick facts on marriage

BOOKS: GULAG : A HISTORY, by Anne Applebaum

BOOKS: The Maverick and his Machine: Thomas Watson Sr and the Making of IBM

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Social justice in education - self-interest disguised as altruism

by Alan Barcan

News Weekly, September 6, 2003
Few articles in academic journals interest me nowadays. Modern educationists don't seem to address the questions I think important. But the latest issue of the History of Education Review presents a refreshing view about a current obsession of educational theorists, lecturers and administrators.

The article is called "Social Justice in Education in Australia circa 1983-1996: The becoming of a Market." There is some jargon, even in the sub-title, but this is manageable. The writer provides a sober appraisal of schooling policies over the last two decades. It is refreshing to read an objective analysis in an age when so many writers doubt its possibility.

The author, Mark Sinclair, works in the Faculty of Education and Creative Arts at Central Queensland University, a name suggestive of some of the problems facing modern universities. He is located at Rockhampton, and much of his material is focused on Queensland. Nonetheless, his analysis is relevant to Australia as a whole.

Social justice in education, like civic education, has changed its meaning over the years. Sinclair argues that in a period when the concept of social justice was itself changing, it "contributed massively to educational thinking and policy making." It was an ideology which paid scant attention to whether its proposed outcomes and benefits were actually realised.

The end result was a bureaucratic empire dedicated to the provision of tangible and intangible goods, services and opportunities. It created a market for these services.

While sometimes himself entangled in jargon, Sinclair must have endured intellectual and mental agony investigating the prolix range of official theories, policies and programs. Yet he has performed a valuable service for people seeking to understand a current educational fashion.

At the end of his article Sinclair sums it all up in two sentences: "To the best of my knowledge, SJE [social justice policies in education] activity generated no significant, enduring or widespread reductions in social inequalities. If this is the case, then it would seem that advocates and sponsors of SJE activity were most likely its primary beneficiaries."

When and What?

In Australia the concept of social justice was fostered by Catholic Social Justice statements issued in the late 1940s and 1950s. While this concept had some application to state aid for Catholic and other non-state schools, its incorporation into political and educational policies had to wait till the 1970s.

As the Labor Party's commitment to socialisation waned, it put more emphasis on the concept of social justice. In August 1973 Al Grassby, Minister of Immigration in the Whitlam Government, employed social justice as an argument for the new multicultural policy. "In the name of social justice a society dare not, in the long term, devalue the presence of one in four of its members (A Multicultural Society for the Future).

In the 1950s and 1960s progressive and left-wing educationists used the term "equity" in arguing that schools could reduce, if not eliminate, social inequalities. This principle demanded broader access to secondary and higher education.

From the 1970s onwards the concept of equity widened to include giving greater educational opportunities for disadvantaged groups such as women, Aborigines, or migrants. Moreover, greater emphasis was put on the immediate achievement of better performance.

The Commonwealth Government funded two major initiatives to advance social equity in education: the Disadvantaged Schools Program (which started in 1974) and the Participation and Equity Program (1984-7).

A former professor of education at Sydney University and proponent of progressive education, W. F Connell, claimed, in Reshaping Australian Education, that "the Disadvantaged Schools Program probably did more for the improvement of teaching in Australian schools than any of the usual programs of in-service education."

But a discussion paper issued by the Commonwealth Schools Commission in 1978 suggested that the DSP "will not raise the results of the poor in reading, writing and arithmetic to anything near the population norm." The program was primarily concerned with making school a happier and more stimulating experience for children and a more welcoming place for their parents.

The Participation and Equity Program aimed to encourage unemployed adolescents to stay at school and to help various disadvantaged groups. It encouraged a variety of "Mickey Mouse" courses that alarmed both radicals and conservatives.

Social justice appeared in federal Labor Party statements after it achieved government in 1983. It became a widespread political and educational slogan about 1987. The Victorian Premier, John Cain, claimed that his Government's People and Opportunities Statement of 1987 was the first Australian strategy for a fairer and more just society. A "sound comprehensive education" was an essential part of the campaign.

The South Australian Government issued a social justice statement in 1988. Teachers seeking positions in Victorian and South Australian state schools were expected to know, and support, the social justice statements.

In 1988 also, the Hawke Labor Government published Towards a Fairer Australia: Social Justice under Labor. This identified four key elements of a just society: equity in the distribution of economic resources, equality of civic, legal and industrial rights, fair and equal access to essential services such as housing, health and education, and the opportunity for participation by all in personal development, community life and decision making.

This approach to social justice was translated by Commonwealth authorities into support for vocational training in schools. John Dawkins, Federal Minister for Education July 1987-December 1991, was a foremost advocate of this.

In mid-1989 Education Links, "the radical education dossier", devoted a special issue to social justice. It noted the difficulties in the concept. "Coming to grips with the disturbing and perplexing connections between schooling and social inequality has proved an elusive task."

Writers in the magazine presented incompatible ideas on social justice in education. One criticised vocationally-oriented courses and argued that the previously-scorned "competitive academic curriculum" should provide a core segment. Another warned that standardised testing harmed disadvantaged groups and objected to "oppressing" students for bad grammar or vague writing.

But, as yet another writer remarked, the Left "has been increasingly incorporated into the very orthodoxy of the State." Thus the educational bureaucracy would ensure that social justice would remain on the agenda. Sinclair notes that while the Left levelled many criticisms at the effectiveness of the Labor Party's social justice in education policies, this in no way indicated any lessening of commitment to the principle.

The Victorian social justice framework for schools issued in February 1991 identified seven groups whose needs should be monitored: females, Aborigines, poor students, those from low status families, migrants and students with disabilities. It stated that "success in the curriculum should not be defined exclusively in academic terms."

However, the West Australian social justice policy, issued four months later, sought "optimum educational outcomes for all students", not only those in special groups. Guidelines for bias-free language were included in the policy.

The Queensland case

In Queensland the campaign for "social justice in education" started after the Labor Party won office under Wayne Goss in December 1989 after 32 years in opposition. The Department of Education bureaucracy was expanded by the establishment an Equity Directorate and a Language and Culture Unit.

In June 1990, a conference in Brisbane, attended by 480 delegates and sponsored by the Ministerial Consultative Council on Curriculum and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, examined "the interface between a social-justice perspective on education and the economic rationalist viewpoint".

The Department's Social Justice Strategy of 1992 targeted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, cultural and language diversity, disability, educational risk, geographic isolation, gifts and talents, learning impairment and learning difficulties, and low socio-economic background. The Acting Director-General of Education warned: "In matters of social justice, we each elect to be part of the solution, or we become - by intent or indifference - part of the problem."

Queensland academics discovered radical educational theory ("critical theory", the latest mutation of degenerated neo-Marxism) later than their colleagues elsewhere in Australia. In 1993 three Queenslanders prominent in the Australian Curriculum Studies Association edited Schooling Reform in Hard Times, a book which allocated one-third of its 300 pages to six chapters on "Equality and Social Justice".

The themes addressed in these chapters were education and social justice in the postmodern age; the Disadvantaged Schools Project; multi-culturalism; Torres Strait Islanders and Aborigines; "gender equity and economic rationalism" and disability. The authors saw social justice as a means of helping "disadvantaged minorities" and advancing multiculturalism; criticised Labor governments as well-intentioned but constricted by acceptance of economic rationalism; and opposed economic rationalism.

The Social Justice Review Outcomes published by the Queensland Department of Education in 1995 suggested that the Department's 1992 Social Justice Strategy had produced few results beneficial to the students it targeted.


In his History of Education Review article Sinclair reached some five conclusions:

(1) At the core of the various versions of social justice, self-interest always came first. Whatever the rhetoric of altruistic concern, the advocates were competing for advantage. They sought such rewards as prestige, income and power.

(2) Despite the inefficient nature of initiatives for social justice in education, its proponents found evidence for ever-increasing efforts and expenditures.

(3) A fragmentation of ideals and initiatives had produced increasingly differentiated interests.

(4) "To the best of my knowledge, SJE [social justice in education] activity generated no significant, enduring or widespread reductions in social inequalities."

(5) The social justice education field became, however unintentionally, "a highly segmented target market aimed at producing and distributing its own brands of goods, services and opportunities."

In all of this discussion what is lacking is any concern with education in its own right, in the value of knowledge as such, independent of its social or political connotations. One finds a frank politicisation of educational theory and practice.

Garth Boomer, a member of the Australian Curriculum Studies Association so highly respected that it published a posthumous collection of his speeches and essays, expressed support for knowledge.

Boomer, who had been a teacher, lecturer in education, superintendent (i.e., inspector), and administrator, balanced uneasily his intellectual and administrative beliefs. A former progressive, he criticised both progressives and radicals in a talk in Darwin in July 1989, recommending that teachers work within the cultural views of "minority or oppressed groups" while retaining and asserting their own culture and values.

Speaking on "Pragmatic-Radical Teaching and the Disadvantaged Schools Program" in August 1991, by which time he was Associate Director-General of Education (Curriculum) of South Australia, Boomer told NSW educational administrators that the terms "empowerment" and "social justice" were "debased coinage, abused by too many loose minds." Forums on social justice paraded the usual list of disadvantaged groups and recommending "inclusive" and "fair" teaching methods. But the primary focus should be getting the disadvantaged up to the educational mark, where they could hold their own in life stakes.

Alan Barcan,
Honorary Associate,
School of Education, University of Newcastle

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