From the 1970s in Australia there were rapid changes in the nature and patterns of employment. They especially affected sectors of the population that had been reliant on work in the manufacturing industry. As a result of these and other changes in each of the larger cities of Australia, suburban regions emerged that were marked by high levels of unemployment and increasing poverty. Such regions included outer suburbs where housing was less expensive but were often located some distance from remaining employment opportunities. Public transport and other services were often patchy in their coverage making employment difficult to access.
Families that lived in such areas were usually reliant on public schools. The schools often experienced difficulties. Their student populations tended to be on average poorer than those in other parts of the city, parents less well-educated with higher rates of unemployment. In many cases there was a reproduction effect. (See Glossary below). Unemployment and limited education within families began to be repeated across the generations. Under such circumstances, and without much more than average resourcing, schools found it difficult to intervene effectively, to positively affect the consequences of social disadvantage.
Following the new regimes of state aid to nongovernment schooling in Australia from the 1970s, the percentage of youth in government secondary schools declined over the next half century, but the public schools tended to retain children and youth from less well-off families. There were low-fee nongovernment schools that sometimes did well in such areas, but the main burden of educating children and youth from less well-off families became increasingly concentrated in public schools. This process is referred to as residualisation. It occurs as certain suburbs, often with considerable public housing, become poorer. Often families within them, those with more financial or other resources, enrol their children in nongovernment schools or in public schools which are seen as having a better educational reputation and/or a more desirable student social mix than the neighbourhood public school.
Mount Druitt and its high school
Mount Druitt, the suburb, is just over 40km from the centre of Sydney. The 2001 census showed that many of the social and other statistics for the area were not that different from those of New South Wales as a whole, but with some exceptions. The median age of the population was younger by 7 years (31/38). The highest levels of educational attainment by its adult population was a little lower. Unemployment was higher by over 4 percent (10.6%/6.3%). Outright home ownership was much lower (18.5%/32.2%) and the number of persons dependent on rental accommodation was also higher (48.2% to 31.8%). These disparities between Mount Druitt and the rest of Sydney were higher than for New South Wales as a whole.
The local high school was founded in 1969. It was part of the effort to provide schools to the new suburbs of the post-World War II suburban expansion of Sydney. The school was founded several years after the implementation of the New South Wales Wyndham Report that required high schools to be comprehensive in character, that is providing secondary education for all youth in a district. The Wyndham scheme did not quite end all academically selective high schools in New South Wales, but it did make comprehensive high schools the dominant kind of public secondary school in the state. Such schools in providing for all youth were meant to provide a broad curriculum in the years 7-10 and pathways to higher education, especially the universities, in years 11-12. By the 1990s many of the post-World War II suburbs in Australian cities were declining in population causing problems for enrolments in schools. Mount Druitt’s school enrolment was declining, necessarily affecting its teacher allocation and curriculum offering, but demographic shift was less important than other factors affecting the size of the school.
The newspaper and the year 12 class of 1996
The Daily Telegraph was Sydney’s tabloid newspaper. It was more likely than the broadsheet, Sydney Morning Herald, to foster moral and other panics. In 1997, on January 8, its front-page head-line story was: “Class We Failed”. Apparently not one of the students in year 12 from Mount Druitt High had achieved an assessment score that would have allowed university entrance.
It was revealed later that no student had actually applied for the ranking that would have enabled entrance. Nevertheless, that in itself was an indicator that as a comprehensive school, Mount Druitt High was not enabling practical access to a curriculum encouraging higher education enrolment. The school was less than comprehensive. It had not provided the cultural or educational probabilities that would have enabled ‘equality of opportunity’ through education that had become expected of schools by the late twentieth century.
Following the publication of the front-page story there were some weeks of controversy that raged in both Sydney newspapers and other media. The students from the school, as well as their teachers, were especially unhappy that a class photograph had been published, and that the students had been condemned as failures. In fact, many of the students had quite viable plans for their post-school futures. (The students pursued a defamation case against News Corporation, the publisher of the Daily Telegraph, which the students won.) Nevertheless, a consensus emerged from the newspaper columns and letters to the editors that action was required.
There was an international context for this controversy. In England in the 1990s many government-funded comprehensive secondary schools had also become residualised and were similarly under pressure. Infamously, soon after the Mount Druitt crisis in New South Wales, officials in the new Blair Labour government were referring to some comprehensive schools as “bog standard”. A Minister for Education, Estelle Morris, said she would not touch some comprehensive schools “with a barge pole“. In both the United States and England, comprehensive schools in trouble were more likely to be those of the inner city, though there were examples of such schools in Sydney and other Australian cities as well.
Comprehensive public schools in New South Wales and other Australian states came under pressure from different sources. The publication of examination results by school invariably saw comprehensive schools lower in the lists than academically selective public schools and many nongovernment schools. State and federal government policies and funding regimes enabled new possibilities for school choice by parents. In the emerging market of schools, those that could offer superior facilities, more middle-class student populations, the probability of superior examination success, and other possibilities, were in the ascendant.
Particular government policies in New South Wales had fostered the retreat from the standard comprehensive school also. New academically selective schools, and streams within secondary schools were overturning the intentions of the 1960s Wyndham scheme for comprehensive public schooling. The Greiner Liberal governments in New South Wales (1988-1992) initiated this process. By 1999 the Director General of Education in New South Wales, Ken Boston, was arguing that comprehensive schools as a provider of secondary education on a universal basis could no longer meet the complex and diverse demands required from schooling in the very late twentieth century.
The Laughlin Report and its aftermath
The Department of Education and Training, responsible for public secondary education throughout New South Wales, launched an enquiry soon after the outbreak of the Mount Druitt controversy in 1997. It was conducted by one of its senior officers, Alan Laughlin. With expedition he was able to publish a report on the Mount Druitt crisis in the same year that the newspaper controversy had occurred. It was a comprehensive report that did not resile from an astute and honest appraisal of the problems of the school in its district. The report linked the problems of the school to the demographic and other social characteristics of the population in this region of Sydney. It linked the problems to changing education and school policies of government:
The slow decline in school enrolments at Mount Druitt High School is echoed in other government comprehensive high schools in this area. This overall decline can be attributed to growth in secondary provisions in the Catholic sector and to the impact of the development of St Marys Senior High School [public school]. … The Commonwealth Government’s new policy on the funding of non-government schools is likely to contribute to this trend in future years (p. 5).
Laughlin argued that the result of the inter-connected policy, social and economic factors relevant to secondary schooling in the region had left it in a state of fragility. In fact, the numbers of students in the senior secondary years of comprehensive high schools would continue to decline, even though over the state as a whole, student retention to year 12 was achieving new heights.
In part as a result of the Laughlin report, a new multi-campus college was created in the Mount Druitt region in 2000. The Chifley College was constituted by five former comprehensive high schools. They, Bidwell, Dunheved, Shalvey, Whalan and Mount Druitt high schools, had all been stand-alone comprehensive schools until the end of 1999. They became junior campuses teaching students in years 7-10. The senior classes (years 11-12) were located at Mount Druitt in a new senior college. A multi-campus comprehensive college had replaced the fragile comprehensive schools.
Significance and conclusion
The Mount Druitt episode constitutes a case history of the consequences of social residualisation, demographic change, the changing impacts of school funding policies and the reorganisation of public schools in New South Wales and Australia. As government policy, federal policy in particular, began to favour school choice over equal opportunity, and in the process diminished the role that government comprehensive schools might play in the education of Australian children, some schools in poorer areas of cities and elsewhere suffered.
This process was in part a product of the neoliberal arguments that elevated markets and choice in the public policy discourse, the developing distrust of, and withdrawal of support from a range of public services and institutions that included public schools. The 1980s through the first decade of the twenty-first century was the period of major impact, but the policy discourse remained significant for the foreseeable future.
There were other factors involved. De-industrialisation in Australian cities with formerly strong manufacturing bases had an impact on employment and formerly working-class areas within cities. The families often grew poorer as the responsibilities of public schooling grew. Such areas with their lower housing costs also tended to attract substantial numbers of migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds. Children from such backgrounds were usually enrolled in local public schools, in many cases adding to the pressures.
In terms of public school reorganisation by the New South Wales government, it is likely that the new senior and academically selective schools and streams had a negative impact on the chances of success for students in the comprehensive schools. De-zoning of school districts (see Glossary below) had also reduced the power of the Education Department to direct student enrolments in support of public schools where problems were emerging.
The reorganisation of formerly fragile comprehensive schools into multi-campuses is not without problems. Teachers in junior campuses are not always happy with the restricted opportunities to teach senior students. It is an industrial issue that the teachers’ union is alert to. Increased time spent travelling, especially to a senior campus is not always appreciated by students and their families. The Vinson enquiry into public education in New South Wales found that many families in the Mount Druitt area continued to seek traditional public high schools (enrolling years 7-12) though they were some distance away from the Chifley campuses. Though the social and economic problems of the Mount Druitt area remained substantial into the 2010s, the reorganisation of public schools did mean that senior high school students gained increased access to a comprehensive curriculum—and the credentials and opportunities that become available as a result. The social residualisation of many government schools however, remains a problem for students and their families.
Social reproduction. The argument that social structures organise the transference of wealth and power, poverty and powerlessness, from one generation to the next. The sociology of Pierre Bourdieu is often seen as central in this school of thinking. Reproduction theory was often criticised as underestimating the agency of individuals and groups in the making of their own lives.
Zoning refers to the practice of compelling families to enrol their children in particular public schools. This enabled the Department of Education to control the size of schools, and address deficits that might occur in relation to enrolment social mix and consequent deficits in the available curriculum. De-zoning was an early consequence of the rise of neo-liberal policies, including the provision of school choice, to parents using public schools. It was also a response to declining school populations as the baby boom generation completed its journey through secondary schools in the 1970s.