The troubled relation of working--class families to education systems is one of the deep structural problems of modern education, which is taking a new shape under neo-liberalism. The issue is explored in the context of an Australian reform intended to make upper-secondary education more inclusive, especially through expanded vocational education. A spectrum of family projects is found. Generally working--class families are more concerned to get their children to the new labor market minimum qualification than to pursue meritocratic projects. Families' practical involvement in schools shows a wide range, from supportive to conflictual, the modal pattern involving an accepted division of labor between home and school. This positions the students as key decision makers and communicators. The working--class families interviewed are not strongly market-oriented. Vocational education reforms are welcomed, and reinforce working--class goodwill towards schooling, but are still marginal to the main social class dynamics shaping secondary education.
Introduction: Public education and its working--class constituency
The relation between state-funded schools and working--class communities has always been a key issue for public education systems. The extent to which working--class youth are served or disadvantaged has remained, throughout the 150-year history of mass schooling in advanced capitalist economies, a central problem of social justice in education (Connell, 1993). Contemporary research on inequalities in educational provision, experience and outcomes, whether close-focus examinations of school life (Bettie, 2002; Dent & Hatton, 1996; Thompson, 2002) or broader examinations of access and institutions (Lynch & Lodge, 2002; Teese & Polesel, 2003), show that the class issue is far from being resolved.
Class issues were important among the reasons why public education systems were created--issues including ruling-class fears of social disorder, capitalists' desire for a more skilled and tractable workforce, and workers' own demand for educational services for their children. These motives launched a complex institutional history whose key moments were the creation of a universal elementary school system, the growth of technical education in a variety of forms, and an expansion of general secondary education to include working--class youth. By the second half of the 20th century, secondary education was, in most industrialized countries, developing on a comprehensive--school model with a sharply rising participation rate, and a strong social consensus for the expansion of public education.
Throughout this history, there have been powerful ambivalences between working--class communities and state-provided education institutions. The initial provision of mass elementary schooling certainly responded to working--class need and desire. It also represented an intrusive mechanism of surveillance and control, and often disrupted the working--class household economy. During the 20th century, working--class interests and culture were most strongly reflected in vocational and technical education. However the technical school system declined when upper secondary and higher education for middle--class youth boomed, and demand grew in working--class communities for access to advanced levels of education.
The expansion of the school system meant the inclusion of growing numbers of working--class children and youth in institutions whose curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and organizational practices were already formed. As Apple (1993) has argued, the result is cultural subordination, but not simple domination by middle-class ideas. Rather there is tension and contestation, as power structures change and strategies evolve. …