Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

The Question of Public Trust and the Schooling System

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

The Question of Public Trust and the Schooling System

Article excerpt

At a meeting of NSW state school principals this week, sexual abuse was a small agenda item. It quickly became a big item as principals quizzed a senior education department official about the department's response to shocking allegations before the Wood Royal Commission. (The Australian, 22-23 February 1997)

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Australian courts and official committees of inquiry, as in many other western nations, have in recent years investigated allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children and young people. (1) Alongside the legal and official inquiries, a growing body of scholarly research has revealed a complex and disturbing history of violence, routine neglect and abuse of young people throughout the twentieth century. These patterns of behaviour were systemic in many welfare and education agencies designed to deal with children and young people. (2) Whereas the initial focus was on religious teaching orders and welfare agencies, more recently teachers in a number of state education systems and workers in state welfare agencies have faced allegations, many of which have been validated. It is now part of the public record that, across the twentieth century, significant numbers of sponsored state workers were responsible for systematic harassment, physical violence and sexual and psychological abuse of young people placed in their care and control. In the case of indigenous children, their removal from families constituted part of a larger pattern of official policies using welfare legitimations to pursue racial objectives.

Numerous questions can be and have been raised about these issues. There are painful questions about historical memory, the applicability of contemporary values to past policies and practices, and issues which governments and communities can face or make restitution for legally, materially, morally and symbolically. The case of the `stolen generations' raises large questions about the process of national reconciliation. What has received less attention is the issue of trust.

The issue of trust is prima facie of enormous significance: first, because of the normal expectations of fiduciary duty (i.e. the duty of due care and diligence) applied to these professional activities, around which, for example, are found numerous formal codes articulating the expectations of ethical behaviour. Secondly, trust is important because of the even more emotionally charged expectations attached to people operating in loco parentis. That is, schools and welfare institutions alike involve either partial or total surrender by parents and guardians of their children and young people into the hands of people who are expected to exercise a normal range of caring, nurturant and protective responsibilities associated with being a parent or guardian.

As I will show following the work of Luhmann (1979), trust is a fundamental ontological precondition for any form of sociality or any kind of social organisation. As Luhmann (p. 25) argues, all forms of social co-operation depends on trust. As other theorists of `modernity' like Giddens (1991) have argued, among the many preconditions for the modern expert systems (like public transport, the credit and currency systems or human services) is trust enacted abstractedly. For example, when we go to hospital for treatment or catch a plane, we do not rely on people we actually know personally on a face-to-face basis to do the job properly, but on systems of rationality or expertise. Contemporary education systems and welfare are such expert systems. We trust these expert systems in large part because they have an authority that is derived from a specific knowledge and skill base sanctioned by formal educational and training credentials. Public trust is also conferred on these and like systems by virtue of the fact that experts and professionals working, for example, with young people, are employed in organisations that are formally accountable to the state and thus `the public' for guaranteeing that all of their functions are technically competent and practically (or ethically) effective. …

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