Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Education for Sale: A Semiotic Analysis of School Prospectuses and Other Forms of Educational Marketing

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Education for Sale: A Semiotic Analysis of School Prospectuses and Other Forms of Educational Marketing

Article excerpt

IMPRESSION management strategies have become an important dimension of the educational endeavour. Their recent upsurge can be traced to the context of marketing and consumer choice that is now part of the prevailing orthodoxy of the modern school. In this paper, various types of `impression management' (Schlenker, 1980) strategies are described, including those associated with school prospectuses and advertisements. These are the subjects of textual analysis, more specifically that of social semiotics which highlight the degree to which symbolic processes are influenced by context, and by the changing political economy. It is argued that the employment of a social semiotic framework to analyse educational promotional materials highlights the degree to which schooling, particularly private schooling, continues to be shaped by market forces.

Introduction

The organisational culture underpinning education has undergone a shift of considerable magnitude in the last decade or so. One aspect of this shift is the degree to which the market has become an integral part of the educational endeavour. As its `invisible hand' has gained a stranglehold over schools and universities, so they have become more conscious of the need to engage in strategems such as advertising and promotion, that are designed to shape the movements of this invisible hand. The perniciousness or otherwise of this development in the education systems of Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand has been subject of much recent commentary in the educational literature (Ball, 1993; Ball, Bowe, & Gerwitz, 1995; Kenway with Bigum & Fitzclarence, 1993; Kenway with Bigum, Fitzclarence, & Collier, 1995; Kenway & Epstein, 1996; Marginson, 1993a, 1995; Peters & Marshall, 1996), much of it directed at evaluating the impact of the market on the economy of education in terms of its capacity to maintain a commitment to egalitarianism, to education as a public good. This paper pursues a different line of inquiry. It explores the cultural impact of the market on educational institutions, and examines the ways in which the entry of competition into the education system has led to a blossoming of an entrepreneurial culture, which is most marked in school advertising and prospectuses--the subjects of analysis in this paper.

The effect of the rule of the market has been particularly dramatic in the United Kingdom, where the impact of the Education Reform Act of 1988 has been procrustean in the extreme, forcing schools to tailor their programs to meet government standards, and attaching levels of funding to strict enrolment parameters (Burchell, 1993; Taylor, 1993). Underlying these market discourses are assumptions, many of them derived from neoliberalist economics and public choice theory, about the virtues of a consumer democracy, that a market spontaneously orders institutions for the better, and that the ability to make informed decisions about schooling is a right that all parents should enjoy as a matter of course (Bowe et al., 1995; Kenway et al., 1993; Fitzclarence, 1993; Peters & Marshall, 1996). In essence, this has meant subjecting state schools, irrespective of their context or needs, to more or less the same pressures and forces experienced by private schools for generations (Ball et al., 1995).

In broad terms, the attachment of market criteria to its functions challenges the traditional idea of education as a cultural asset that makes an indispensable contribution to nationhood, and whose values and worth transcend economic accountability and instrumentalism (Peters, 1992). Other critical perspectives, which also caution against the further privatisation of educational assets, suggest that a marketised ethos inevitably leads to the inequitable provision of educational services, particularly in poorer schools (Ball, 1993; Ball & Gerwitz, 1995; Yeatman, 1991) which lack the resources to compete with their richer neighbours or must follow, in the interests of their continued survival, forms of pedagogy incompatible with the learning needs of their students. …

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