Academic journal article History of Education Review

The Middle Class and the Government High School: Private Interests and Public Institutions in Australian Education in the Late Twentieth Century, with Reference to the Case of Sydney (1)

Academic journal article History of Education Review

The Middle Class and the Government High School: Private Interests and Public Institutions in Australian Education in the Late Twentieth Century, with Reference to the Case of Sydney (1)

Article excerpt

After the Depression and World War II there was considerable pressure in Australia, as in other democracies, not only to improve the lot of citizens through economic and social reform, but to improve the relationship between the state and its citizens. The frustrations of the Depression in which Australian governments, state and federal, had generally adhered or been forced to adhere to orthodox economic policies, were contrasted with the experience of the war. The power of the state to organise multiple aspects of economic and social life in order to win the war created a favorable climate for new state interventions. (2)

Improved access to secondary education for all was one way of satisfying some of the new expectations. For the Australian middle class the emergence of reliable and accessible government high schools with clear pathways to well paid white collar work and through the universities, teachers colleges and later, colleges of advanced education, into the professions, was very welcome. The Australian middle class across the twentieth century was increasingly dependent on the credentials that schools could deliver for young people.

That section of the 'old middle class' which had not been particularly dependent on the secondary school diminished in proportion to the 'new middle class' over the century. Where the children of farmers and the owners of small businesses had needed little prolonged schooling in the securing of their futures, the new middle class required a very different relationship with schooling for their children. (3) Their employment was dependent on the new post-agricultural Australian economy, based as it was on industrialisation, increased public services, the growth of the banking, retail and insurance industries and larger corporations in general. For families which sought professional careers for their children, prolonged secondary education had been crucial in the nineteenth century, but expanding populations and the growth of new professions also increased the middle class demand for accessible and high quality secondary education. (4)

In Australia, a mix of church-owned grammar schools and academically selective government high schools contained much of the pressure through to the 1950s. However the conjunction of post-war expectations, increasing post-war prosperity, and the dramatic expansion of the Australian population due to a combination of baby boom and post-war immigration programme, and with all the new suburbs spreading from the old city centres, such movements meant that the old opportunities for the education of the middle class were no longer adequate. From the 1950s through to the 1970s each Australian state reformed or expanded their secondary school systems. The new schools, increasingly comprehensive in character, were mainly welcomed by the middle class. Most schools were streamed and certainly by the end of the 1970s, all were to create pathways through to higher education. Public examination credentials were reformed over time. In general the thrust was towards more accessible curricula, and credentials which greater proportions of young people could attain, and also understand as having some relevance towards their future ambitions.

Nevertheless there was a range of barriers to the successful achievement of accessible and well-regarded government high schools. By the end of the twentieth century there was a substantial withdrawal of trust from the ordinary or comprehensive government high school. In New South Wales the difficulties appeared early, in fact from the time of the creation of these schools. (5) Over time the difficulties and barriers multiplied. Middle class parents were not the only group involved in this 'withdrawal of trust'; they were, however, the most likely to endorse non-government schools.

This article suggests an explanation for the complex history of the relationship between the government high school and the Australian middle class. …

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