Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

What Can Data on Educational Outcomes Reveal regarding Australian Children's Right to Develop 'To Their Fullest Potential'?

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

What Can Data on Educational Outcomes Reveal regarding Australian Children's Right to Develop 'To Their Fullest Potential'?

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

Australia, as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has undertaken to recognise children's right to development of their personality, talents and mental and physical abilities 'to their fullest potential' (United Nations 1989, Article 29(a)). In recognising this right, Australia is undertaking to ensure that children realise their developmental goals through policies and resource commitments that are commensurate to the task. The purpose of this paper is to examine one part of children's right to development--that part relating to formal education. The question I seek to address is therefore: are all Australian children being educated to reach their fullest potential? This is a question of social and economic significance, as well as one of human rights. The advantage of bringing in the rights perspective is that it draws attention to those who are most disadvantaged, and to disparities between those at the top of the educational achievement ladder, and those at the bottom.

The challenge of measuring the extent to which children are educated, or more generally develop to their fullest potential, has until now been put in the 'too hard' basket. My aim is to show that the concept of 'fullest potential' can be given a concrete meaning that embodies a feasible vision for the progressive improvement of all children's developmental outcomes; and that governments can be held accountable to this vision. This vision is not incompatible with recent declarations of the Australian federal, state and territory governments regarding their aspirations for education (see MCEETYA 2008a). I argue however that concrete decisions taken by these governments appear to be sometimes at odds with their loftier aspirations.

I use Rawls' (1971) difference principle, Walzer's (1983) theory of complex equality and Sen's (1992, 1999) capability approach to propose three alternative methods operationalising 'fullest potential'. Each method has an explicit rights orientation, holds governments accountable to different standards, and each relies on different information bases for the assessment of progress towards children achieving their 'fullest potential'.

To anticipate the conclusion, I find that the difference principle and the theory of complex equality, both of which suggest a focus on children's outcomes, offer useful frameworks for understanding Australian children's achievements in realising their fullest potential. The capability approach on the other hand offers a more comprehensive rights-oriented framework in that it attempts to match the child's capability achievement to the obligations of duty bearers who control the resources invested in her. Therefore instead of concerning itself only with outcomes ('how well did the child do?'), the capability approach also addresses the issue of inputs invested ('what resources were invested in her?'). Or to put it another way, if she had had more resources allocated to her, could she reasonably have been expected to edge nearer towards her 'fullest potential'? This question has proved difficult to answer in the Australian context. It is impossible accurately to estimate the amount of public resource inputs that Australian school students currently receive, and therefore the relationship between those inputs and the outcomes that they achieve. While Australian governments are to be commended for seeking diligently to measure students' educational outcomes, their apparent unwillingness to disaggregate resource inputs into education represents an accountability failure that is inconsistent with children's right to development to their fullest potential.

The remainder of this paper is divided into the following sections. Conceptualisations of children's rights and their operationalisation in research are considered in Section 2. Section 3 discusses data sources for educational achievement used in this analysis. Findings are presented in Section 4. …

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