Neo-liberalism refers to the adoption of private and social enterprise approaches to publicly funded education systems, often referred to as the new managerialism.
(Jim Gleeson, Australian Catholic University, Brisbane)
In this post, I reflect on three issues emerging from the neo-liberal agenda and how they present important challenges to Catholic leadership. This reflection is based on the work of Jim Gleeson “Critical Challenges and Dilemmas for Catholic Education Leadership Internationally” which is currently still In Press.
ISSUE 1: Erosion of the Importance of Values in Catholic Education
The first issue is that of the erosion of values based existence and direction in schools and their effect on the purpose of Catholic schools. In our Catholic schools, our vision, our mission, our purpose, our identity and our culture are enveloped in Gospel values that personify the words presented to us by Jesus. Neo-liberalism has shifted the focus onto the legal ownership and development of a commercial / economic background and existence. Gleeson refers to the “market-driven neo-liberal values”. It is very difficult when governance from “above” ie Governments, State and National, are driving the implementation of expectations in learning to a degree that the values are less intended and applicable to “market success education”. Parents are expecting more of our schools, and with the less faith based committed clientele and secularisation of Catholic Education, the stress on values is lessening to be taken over by the need to succeed in a political, legal and economic world.
Gleeson states that “the emphasis is on performance indicators” and this is evident in present NAPLAN and through globalisation such as PISA tests and high stakes testing. Values are not “performance indicators” even though they contribute immensely to the common good and when these collective attributes are disintegrating the “corrosion of character” (Sennett, 1998) is fast tracked. A school is undeniably an economic engine in the community and are more recently seen as a production line of capable citizens. The problem is defining “capable” and its relationship in a Catholic school. If we go back to the ministry of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop and that is to ensure every child had an education particularly those whose families worked in the coal mines and couldn’t afford the money or time to educate children. Is this still not reflective of our modern day where a great majority of the Catholic school population is not lower income families because the education in Catholic schools is considered to be “high standard”. Catholic schools are often mistaken for private schools as opposed to independent and the expectations from many parents is that, because it is not State school then it must be private. This is a definitive understanding that is carried through to the expectations of the results of their students.
This is also clearly obvious from the time parents write up a Kindergarten application form for why they want their children at Catholic Primary schools right through to Year 6. An enrolment form for Kindergarten often reflects a parent’s desire for Catholic “values”, a Catholic “education” and Catholic “environment” but the discussions change by the time they are preparing for Year 7 and it is more about how well they achieve individually on test scores, whether they will be accepted into the appropriate High School or whether they are gaining any scholarships. This is reality. I don’t believe that parents’ completely “throw out” values bases in their child’s education but I do believe that they become less evident in their reasoning for their child’s education.
For me, the concept of values in the school is based on our moral purpose and responsibility of education and that is to provide the most valuable form of education for each individual student; to respect their rights to a “good” education; to present our best practice for the well being of the students and to act as an agent for Catholicity in the school. To support the development of human capital with a Catholic intention and philosophy.
ISSUE 2- Neo Liberal Policies and Education
The second issue is on the measurement of education practice. Gleeson states that “Curriculum is seen as product rather than process, something that a teacher must deliver, rather like the mail or milk”. I don’t believe that Catholic education should be less competitive as an institution to any other school. The question is how much of an impact is the standardised testing having on the local school curriculum and addressing the needs of the local community? So long as education is linked to Government funding and comparison, the pressure is on schools, including Catholic, to publicise their abilities and standards of teaching and learning. The concern is the pressures on staff and students to “come up to scratch” compared to other areas which clearly don’t always share the same socio, economic or political sphere. This concerns me when a student’s education is now a political, governing and funding frisbee.
ISSUE 3 – Faith Based Education and the Neo Liberal Agenda
In many Catholic schools, the ideology is that religion is not simply an extension of the current curriculum as if to say it was an “extra”. Catholic schools embed the philosophy, the values and the intrinsic of our faith within the culture, the curriculum and the community. The reality though is that neo-liberalism is putting weight on religious education within the curriculum. Is it a stand alone subject; is it embedded within the curriculum, culture and community or is it cross curricula where other key learning areas are integrated? The integrity and purpose of Catholic education is clearly founded on the principles of providing equality in education for all yet Gleeson states statistics of “one in three low income Catholic children in Australia attend a Catholic school as against 60 per cent of children from higher income families. This is a stark comparison and questions the Catholic School and Church’s role in providing opportunities for the poor. Where is the relationship of neo-liberalism and the common good. It appears that one is dividing the purpose of Catholic education further from its central heart of common good.
Neo-liberalism will always be a past statement as each year unfolds a “new” neo-liberalism which will come to light. And with it, the debate as to the impact it can and will have on Catholic Education and its leadership will continue. Leadership is challenged to face these changes, economic, social and political, and at the same time respect the dignity of each student and the impact each individual will have on the overall common good. A confronting time for Catholic school leadership that I believe will present as continuing trials in Catholic education in the future.