Guardians of the system?: an anthropological analysis of early 21st century reform of an Australian educational bureaucracy

Sarah Robinson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This ethnographic study of Australian state education contributes to an understanding of how rhetoric becomes practice. Inside an Australian State Department of Education for ten months I observed the working-lives of the people in Central Office. Consistent with the broad thrust of strategies that are often associated with neo-liberal reform a document that stipulated a focus on successful students, excellent teachers and good schools was released. To achieve the goals of the document centrally run literacy and numeracy programs, previously delivered by Central Office staff, were withdrawn. The schools were allocated the resources in the form of funding to make them autonomous and responsible. For the people inside the organisation who delivered the numeracy program, the bureau-professionals, this meant a dramatic change in their work. Their close relationships with schools were severed and their vast knowledge of mathematical learning and pedagogical expertise was lost to schools. As the section delivering programs to schools was restructured to reflect the changes proposed in the document the confusion and lack of understanding about the reasons for the changes became clear. Discourses often associated with neo-liberalism provided the basis for changes that resulted in a shift from a bureaucratic organisation which valued professionalism and expertise to one that valorised managerialism and information systems. Paradoxically the document stipulated a focus on explicit teaching practices and a strengthening of teacher quality which were fundamental elements of the abandoned numeracy program, yet the bureau-managers driving the changes appeared to be unaware of the content of the programs; ignoring or obscuring the valuable and effective practices of the program in preference for the neo-liberal rhetoric of decentralisation, autonomy, and responsibility.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2010


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