This article draws on a recently completed ethnographic study to present an argument for a renewed commitment to social justice in, and through, public schooling. Such a commitment needs to incorporate whole-school responses to the classed nature of society and inequalities arising from the political economy, but must also be attentive to the claims to recognition of groups excluded or marginalised through various forms of cultural oppression. Although acknowledging the importance of locally conceived responses to educational disadvantage, the article warns against the dangers of 'romantic localism' (Troyna & Vincent, 1995) and highlights the need for collective action across the public education system and the broader community.
A belief that pubic schooling can contribute to the development of a more egalitarian and just society has long underpinned school reform in Australia -- indeed the very foundations of the Disadvantaged Schools Program rested on the view that schooling could make a difference for students (Connell, 1993). But there are unmistakable signs that public schooling is being undermined, undervalued and degraded as a consequence of the 'dictatorship of the market place' (Meier, 1995), following the ascendancy of neo-liberal governments in Australia and other western societies. In times marked by the emergence of new social movements, it is pertinent to ask: What are the major discourses informing school--based responses to social justice today? What does it mean to educate in socially just ways? Are there socially just alternatives to marketised versions of self-managing schools?
These questions are explored in detail in a recently completed critical ethnographic study of Wattle Plains School (McInerney, 2001), the pseudonym for a culturally diverse, working--class school on the fringes of an Australian city--a school that in many respects is railing against the prevailing discourse of marketisation that elevates vocationalism and utilitarianism over the ways in which public schooling might nurture the formation of a more democratic and socially just society (Connell, 1998; Smyth, Hattam, & Lawson, 1998). After a consideration of the contextual and methodological issues, this paper will focus on the broader aspects of whole-school reform for social justice at Wattle Plains and briefly examine the adequacy of locally conceived responses to educational disadvantage.
Cultural and political context
There are thirty children in nay class and poverty is a real
issue. There are six or seven families especially affected by
unemployment and they're literally struggling to find out where
the next dollar is coming from. (teacher)
What are the social justice issues today?
There are several reasons why research into social justice and schooling must remain an ongoing priority. First, it is abundantly clear from retention rates in secondary schooling and higher education participation figures that an expanded education system has not led to a substantial improvement in educational outcomes for working-class students, many ethnic minorities and indigenous Australians (Connell, 1993). Such a situation appears to strike a chord with McLaren's (1994) observation about educational inequalities in the United States: that 'schools constitute a loaded social lottery in which the dice fall in favour of those who already have power and money' (p. 9).
Secondly, a growing body of evidence suggests that Australia is becoming a more unequal society with an increasing number of families and young people suffering high levels of poverty and social distress as a consequence of economic restructuring, escalating unemployment and the growing casualisation of the labour force over the past decade (Fincher & Nieuwenhuysen, 1998; Raskall, 1996). …