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Liberal doses of in/equality: Advance Australia where?

By Linda Graham - posted Monday, 28 May 2007

The relationship between social background and achievement has preoccupied educational researchers since the mid-20th century with major studies in the area reaching prominence in the late 60s.

Despite five decades of research and innovation since, recent studies using OECD data have shown that the relationship is quite possibly stronger now than in the early post-war period (Achievement and equity: Where is Australia at? McGaw, 2005). While distribution of outcomes is not as inequitable here as the US and UK, OECD data from consecutive TIMMS (The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study)  and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) studies show there is a definite gap and in some cases it is widening.

Some political commentators have argued that the post-war settlement was responsible for a decline in standards and a culture of mediocrity. Conservative governments since the late 70s have thus dismantled many of the egalitarian frameworks put in place in response to the problem of social, economic and educational inequality.


In education, neo-liberal market policies under the banner of “parent choice” and “competition” have taken their place and the result has been growing social inequality and disadvantage. The subsequent abandonment of social policy to the agnosticism of the market has ratcheted that inequality to new heights, while disguising illiberal value judgments and unequal distributional effects.

International comparative data shows that market systems unmediated by social policy, epitomised by systems in the countries towards the right of the political scale, fail to provide equality of access much beyond formal or simple terms.

Alternatively, social democratic nations such as the Nordic countries, which employ a policy mix towards the centre-left of the social investment scale, appear to realise excellence in educational achievement and a more equitable distribution of results.

A recent review of curriculum and equity using OECD data (Curriculum and Equity: A review of the international research, Luke, Graham, Sanderson, Voncina & Weir, 2006), found that nations with neutralist governance models sitting towards the right of the political spectrum populate the high-quality/low-equity quarter of McGaw’s equity/quality quadrant. Those employing social democratic policy mixes, like that exemplified by the Nordic Model, tend to occupy the high-quality/high-equity corner.

In addition, research literature reporting on the relationship between the introduction of market policy and the trend towards inequitable distribution in educational achievement is beginning to emerge from Korea, Japan and Norway - joining long-standing literature in this area from Chile and New Zealand.

There is now considerable evidence from such paradigm cases that neo-liberal governance and the failure of markets has contributed to decreasing social mobility and equality. Moreover, international comparative research shows that the popular notion of US “exceptionalism” (high intergenerational social mobility) is no longer true because this measure is now lower there than in the UK and Nordic countries.


Indeed in the traditionally libertarian United States, sons born to fathers in the lowest and highest quartiles are particularly likely to remain there. Elsewhere, there is evidence of growing social inequality and declining mobility. These include but are not restricted to:

  • skills shortages resulting from labour market deregulation policies and a subsequent lack of employer reinvestment into labour;
  • a redistribution of poverty adding children and parents in single-parent families and elderly women to ranks of the new poor;
  • the persistence of structural inequalities together with market failures; and
  • increasing disparity in educational experience and the cumulative dichotomy between the advantaged and disadvantaged, fuelled by outsourced “user-pays” services rearticulated as the offer of individual “choice”.

Starting Australia’s fast gallop down the reform road, the Hawke-Keating Labor Government introduced economic rationalist policies in the 1980s. Upon grasping the reins in the early 90s, the Howard-Costello Coalition Government has emulated the harsh neoliberal reforms of the US, UK and NZ - effectively dragging Australia to centre-right on the political scale.

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About the Author

Dr Linda Graham completed her doctoral study, Schooling Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders: educational systems of formation and the "disorderly" school child at Queensland University of Technology in 2007. Of particular interest was how schooling practices and discourses may be contributing to the increased diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). While at QUT, she contributed to an international review of curriculum and equity commissioned by the South Australian Department of Education & Community Services and chaired by Allan Luke. Linda is now Senior Research Associate in Child & Youth Studies in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney.

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