Promoting quality schooling in Australia : Commonwealth Government policy-making for schools (1987-1996)

  • Mary Welsh

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Promoting the quality of school education has been an issue of international, national and local significance in Australia over the past three decades. Since 1973 the pursuit of quality in school education has been embedded in the rhetoric of educational discourse and framed by the wider policy context. This study focuses on the Commonwealth (federal) government's policy agenda to promote the quality of schooling between 1987 and 1996. During this ten year period, successive Labor governments sought to promote quality through a range of policy initiatives and funding programs. Through extensive documentary research, fifty semi-structured interviews and one focus group with elite policy makers and stakeholders, the study examines how the Commonwealth government's 'quality agenda' was constructed and perceived. An analysis of relevant government reports and ministerial statements provides documentary evidence of this agenda, both in terms of stated policy intentions and the actual policy initiatives and funding programs set in place in the period 1987-1996. Set against this analysis are elite informants' perspectives on Commonwealth policy-making in this period - how quality was conceptualised as a policy construct and as a policy solution, the influences on Commonwealth policies for schools, whether there was a 'quality agenda' and how that agenda was constructed and implemented. Informants generally perceived quality as a diffuse, but all-encompassing concept which had symbolic and substantive value as a policy construct. In the context of Commonwealth schools' policies, quality was closely associated with promoting equity, outcomes, accountability, national consistency in schooling and teacher quality. Promoting the quality of 'teaching and learning' in Australian schools took on particular significance in the 1990s through a number of national policy initiatives brokered by the Commonwealth government. An exploration of policy processes through interview data reveals the multi-layered nature of policy-making in this period, involving key individuals, intergovernmental and national forums. In particular, it highlights the importance of a strong, reformist Commonwealth Minister (John Dawkins),a number of 'policy brokers' within and outside government and national collaboration in constructing and maintaining the Commonwealth's 'quality agenda' for schools. While several Australian education ii policy analysts have described policy-making in this period in terms of 'corporate federalism' (Lingard,1991,1998; Bartlett, Knight and Lingard,1991; Lingard, O'Brien and Knight,1993),a different perspective emerges from this study on policymaking at the national level. Despite unprecedented levels of national collaboration on matters related to schooling in this period, this research reveals an apparent ambivalence on the part of some elite policy makers towards the Commonwealth's policy agenda and its approach to schools' policy-making within the federal arena. Policy coherence emerged as a relevant issue in this study through analysis of interview data and a review of related Australian and international policy literature. Overall, informants perceived the Commonwealth's quality agenda to be relatively coherent in terms of policy intentions, but much less coherent in terms of policy implementation. Perceptions of Commonwealth domination, state parochialism, rivalry, delaying tactics and a general lack of trust and cooperation between policy players and stakeholders were cited as major obstacles to 'coherent' policy-making. An analysis of informants' views on policy-making in this period highlights features of coherent policy-making which have theoretical and practical significance in the Australian context. This research also demonstrates the benefits of going beyond the study of written policy texts to a richer analysis of recent policy history based on elite interviewing. The wide range of views offered by elite policy makers and stakeholders in this study both confirms and challenges established views about policy-making in the period 1987-1996. Elite interviewing lent itself to a grounded theory approach to data collection and analysis (Glaser and Strauss,1967; Strauss and Corbin,1998). This approach was significant in that it allowed relevant issues to emerge in the process of research, rather than relying on 'up front' theoretical frameworks for the analysis of data.
    Date of Award2000
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorKerry J Kennedy (Supervisor) & Mike Gaffney (Supervisor)

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