The Endgame for National Girls' Schooling Policies in Australia?

Article excerpt

Gender equity: A framework for Australian schools is the most recent policy dealing with gender in schools at the national level in Australia. This paper provides a critical discourse analysis of the policy document, tracking two themes: `the construction of gender', and `equity: a discourse of education for all boys and girls'. Through this analysis the authors argue that the policy signals a substantial shift in focus--from girls and boys in relation to girls, to both girls and boys--within a framework of presumptive equality. It is also argued that the policy shuts down federal involvement in policy for girls' schooling. In the process, responsibility is devolved to the states and territories where, in many cases, gender equity programs will be struggled over at a local, school-based level. At the same time, however, spaces have been created which potentially enable new strategies for gender equity policies in Australian schools.

Clov: Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. (Beckett, Endgame, cited in Gontarski, 1992, p.3)

Introduction

Since the mid-seventies there have been many effective engagements between feminism as a social movement and the Australian state. In education this has been manifest in a raft of national and state policies and reports, from Girls, school and society (Commonwealth Schools Commission, 1975), to The national policy for the education of girls in Australian schools (Commonwealth Schools Commission, 1987) and The national action plan for the education of girls (Australian Education Council, 1993) and finally Gender equity: A framework for Australian schools (Ministerial Council, 1997). It is this latest policy that is the focus of this paper. We argue here that this policy is a marker of the endgame for national gifts' educational policies in Australia. A critical discourse analysis is provided and it is suggested that, although a national girls' policy agenda may have been closed down, some other policy spaces have, potentially at least, been opened up.

All of the above policy documents were produced at the federal level of the Australian political arrangement and, as such, worked creatively on, through and around the complexities of federalism in Australian education (Lingard & Porter, 1997). They were also pursued inside the state by femocrats (Eisenstein, 1996)--an Australian neologism referring to feminist bureaucrats responsible for gender equity policies. The National policy for the education of girls in Australian schools (National policy), released in 1987, was perhaps the high point of effective and pragmatic feminist politics in education in Australia (Connors & McMorrow, 1988). This feminist agenda was kept on the boil during the 1993 review of the National policy, resulting in the teacher and school-friendly National action plan for the education of girls (Action plan). However this process has in some ways been stalled since the early 1990s, as changing political contexts across Australia, both at the state and federal levels, have put feminist agendas on the defensive (Daws, 1997).

Most significantly, recuperative masculinist politics have attempted to `regain, defend or maintain' male dominance in the face of the minimal gains made for some girls through feminist politics and policies (Lingard & Douglas, 1999). Feminist and profeminist groups are now focusing their efforts upon attempting to repel the most simplistic and repugnant claims of the recuperative masculinists, while also seeking to recognise the (educational) gains that have been made for some groups of girls (Arnot, David, & Weiner, 1999; Kenway, Willis, Blackmore, & Rennie, 1997). Thus, the engagement between feminists and the state is now at a critical stage, with feminists attempting to protect their gains in a climate of backlashes and recuperative men's politics that seek to constitute men as a disadvantaged group in need of supportive state action. …

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