Challenging the system? (2007)

Western Australia, 1980-2005

Subtitled “a dramatic tale of neoliberal reform in an Australian high school”, Martin Forsey’s analysis of Como Senior High School in Western Australia provides a case study of radical public education reform in the 1990s. It stands as a parallel study to that of Mount Druitt High School in New South Wales. Both schools suffered very different outcomes as a result of reform policies that can be broadly described as “neoliberal”.

In this, his classic study, Martin Forsey contributed an ethnographically-based study of reform in an Australian secondary school. The book describes events that occurred nearly a decade before the date of publication (2007). Importantly, it analysed a significant historical phenomenon that began in the late 1970s and continued through to the 2010s and in some places, beyond.

There was a period from the 1950s to the early 1970s when governments attempted not only to universalise the experience of secondary schooling, but invent new institutions in order to provide a fair standard of education to all Australian youth. Sometimes the enterprise was discussed in terms of investing in the nation’s human capital, at other times the language was of access, equality and equity; and sometimes both. This book looks at the following, less inclusive era.

ForseyForsey studied one school in Western Australia in the late 1990s caught up in the struggles between schools and education departments as they interpreted the calls to devolution and decentralisation. Devolution and decentralisation refers to the process by which authority over public education was transferred from the central education departments to the lower, or “grass roots” levels, the regions and schools themselves. These policy developments belonged to the cluster of initiatives and discourses associated with neoliberalism. Greater autonomy for schools in the developing quasi-markets of neoliberalism was not unconditional however. Through its education departments, state governments encouraged entrepreneurialism, but they also reserved substantial rights to supervise and control. The events occurring at ‘Ravina High School’ in Western Australia can best be explained by the failure of one school’s leadership to understand the limits and instabilities produced by devolution, and the possible interventions of the ‘centre’, the Education Department.

In Forsey’s study, the school was referred to as ‘Ravina High’, a disguise that was required by the original research protocols. Later, more than one source identified the school as Como Senior High School. It then became Como Secondary College. The high school was a new suburban build, responding as so many schools in the 1960s did, to the demographic, suburban housing and educational demands of the baby boom of the 1950s into the 1970s. It opened in 1969 with fifteen staff and 259 Year 8 students.

Transforming a school

By 1998, ‘Grace’, the Principal of ‘Ravina High’, was ready to transform her school. She interpreted the freedom to innovate as an opportunity to develop the school as an entrepreneurial business. She believed that ‘Ravina’; a rather staid school, could be changed dramatically. She interpreted devolution as essentially her personal freedom to realise her vision for this public school. She set about doing so in a manner that brooked no opposition. In this sense, the story of this school does not stand for the stories of all public schools with principals wedded to neoliberal visions. Many schools have been transformed, but their leaders were more politically astute. They engaged some of their superiors, many parents and key teachers, as supporters. (An example of this was the transformative work of the principal of Unley High School in South Australia in the same period. See Campbell, 2010, pp. 233-259.) ‘Grace’ had little time for the effort that this would have entailed.

These are the things that ‘Grace’ did. She unilaterally changed the name of the school to that of a ‘college’. She recruited fee-paying international students without departmental authorisation. She began the first stages of reorganising the management positions in the school. She recruited corporate sponsors for new initiatives not traditionally part of the work of public schools. She fostered initiatives that would increase the middle-class intake of the school by, for example, advertising a golfing program as part of the school’s curriculum. She did what she could to dissuade student enrolments from a nearby ‘rough’ suburb.

She also demanded all staff attend an expensive ‘corporate’ dinner, the payment for which from school funds became the tipping point for the Education Department. In doing these things, none of which by themselves were completely unusual by the late 1990s, she impinged on structures of authority and cultures of expectation among Education Department superiors, many parents and more rarely, some teachers at the school. The opposition that would count was that of the Department. Suspended and demoted in 1999, ‘Grace’ lost her school. There was considerable publicity surrounding the events in Perth’s daily press, television and radio.

In telling the story as an ethnographer, Forsey is most sensitive to the actions and responses of the teachers at ‘Ravina High’. Ethnographers, he tells us, concentrate on the lesser actors in a social drama. What he discovers about teachers as neoliberal subjects is not encouraging. Most teachers in this ‘comfortable’ school had little interest in intervening or contributing to school policy making. The teachers’ union branch and the teachers’ association were practically moribund. ‘Grace’ excluded teachers from consultation and decision-making, but neither did the teachers demand a role. The school’s broader leadership of mainly male, aging department heads was also for the quiet life. Virtually no-one stood up to challenge what in retrospect appeared as a heisting of a public school from its broad social responsibilities in the direction of a business with few public responsibilities. In the process, middle class children, not all children, were to reap the benefits. Indeed many of the teachers, having ‘done their time’ in uncomfortable working class or rural schools, had no argument with this reform direction.

Significance of the book

The book adds substantially to historical understandings of neoliberal policy impacts on school management, teachers and their work and school principals in the age of neoliberalism. It also contributes a case study concerning the decline of the comprehensive government secondary school and the social and power relations existing within contemporary systems of education and government schools.

Raewyn Connell (2007), the sociologist who contributed an introduction to the book, suggested its significance:

  1. it was a rare, unsentimental description “of how a contemporary high school actually operates”;
  2. it demonstrated the social class inequalities that often attend neoliberal reform in public schooling;
  3. it provided a case study of contemporary management strategies, including their faults, that potentially lead to failure;
  4. it showed contradictions, the invitation to devolution of power and decentralisation turned out to be more limited than initially understood;
  5. it showed that decentralisation and devolution of authority to schools did not necessarily lead to improved educational experiences and outcomes for all students;
  6. it demonstrated the potential for the devolution of funding and power to individual schools to simply increase competition for students across public and private schools, the operation of a market of schools being unlikely to lead to improved education for socially underprivileged families;
  7. it showed a process by which devolution and decentralisation could lead to public education systems withdrawing from their public responsibilities in education; and
  8. it demonstrated the lack of challenge to the whole process in this school, and potentially other schools facing similar challenges, not only by government, but teachers and the teachers’ union. (In this case the most significant opposition to the developments came from the president of the school’s Parents’ and Citizens’ Association.)

Despite this history, the school continued to celebrate its specialist programs. As of 2023 these programs included “hockey, golf, contemporary jazz and enriched mathematics and information technology.” According to its website, the school “leads the field” in Western Australia. At the same time, the school in 2023 faced a new set of problems associated with declining enrolments, aging plant and competition from other schools.

Bibliography and References

Forsey, M. 2007. Challenging the system: A dramatic tale of neoliberal reform in an Australian high school.  Charlotte (NC): Information Age Publishing.

Campbell, C. 2010. Unley High School: One hundred years of public education, 1910-2010. Adelaide: Wakefield Press.

Campbell, C. & Sherington, G. 2013 (2006). The comprehensive public high school: Historical perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Connell, R. 2007. Foreword. In M. Forsey, M. 2007. Challenging the system: A dramatic tale of neoliberal reform in an Australian high school (pp. ix-xi).  Charlotte (NC): Information Age Publishing.

Marginson, S. 1997. Educating Australia: Government, economy and citizen since 1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Welch, A. 2013. Making education policy. In R. Connell and others, Education, change and society (3rd ed.) 186-212. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Citation of this entry

Campbell, C. 2023. Challenging the system? (2007). Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and New Zealand (DEHANZ), 12 December. Available http:

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