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Schooling's credibility problems: What can practitioners do? *

Mike Middleton
Brisbane College of Advanced Education

* A Paper Presented at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, May 1987, to the Queensland Institute for Educational Research.


This paper is in three sections. The first samples the credibility crisis in education as it is expressed rhetorically in the popular media, and among some writers in the field of education.

The second section explores evidence to determine whether or not the credibility crisis is just media scapegoating in a time of economic hardship and high unemployment, or whether there are justifiable and strong criticisms which need to be used as a basis for educational reform. Evidence is growing that the latter is the case.

The third section grapples with the nature of the problems facing schools and school systems. It argues that many practices in schools are based on an inherent confusion of purposes which has crippling effects on the potential of schooling to serve the needs of individuals and of society. Furthermore, the confusion also subverts the schools' attempts to help preserve and develop important knowledge and cultural resilience.

The paper highlights two of the most powerful pressures for reform - the pressure for an earlier, more specialized pre-vocational emphasis in schooling, and the opposing pressure for increased retention of students in a schooling designed to be broad, general, and relatively common to all students. The argument is made that both of these reforms fail to address the major dysfunctions. The first is designed for productivity - but its effects will create an even more rigid and less productive generation. The second is designed for equality as well as for productivity. The paper argues that the current patterns of schooling are inherently biasing in that they exacerbate existing inequalities. If current schooling practices are inherently differentiating, then more schooling will differentiate more. And an unequal society is productive only for the powerful, and then only in the short term.

The paper implies the need for a major paradigm shift which extracts the debate out of the spectrum defined by these two opposing pressures for reform. It asserts that there is no point in merely redistributing educational packages so that students get more or less of one kind of package than of another. The two pressures for reform outlined above are both based on changing the way specialized curriculum packages are administered. In the first, students are drafted early into a small range of specialized study packages in the hope that they can become more expert in their particular field, and more useful to potential employers and professions. The second type of reform suggests that all students should stay on at school longer and receive a balanced set of packages right through until Year 12, the aim being to generate equity by giving all students access to all the important and powerful packages right through to the end of their formal schooling.

The problems facing schools in society cannot be solved in either of these ways because the crippling mechanisms which destroy quality and which regenerate inequality are lodged in the packages themselves in the way the curriculum is delivered - the way it is played out in the classroom. It is thus school practitioners (parents, teachers and students), and teacher educators who are at the heart of reform, and who must therefore be heavily involved in setting agendas for reform. Those who administer and resource schools, and those who wish to use schools to create economic resilience and a healthy work ethic need to be aware that no amount of simplistic macro-adjustment will generate a productive culture, a commitment to democracy, or a loyalty to state or nation.

The answer is in the classroom itself.


Greg Sheridan in The Australian, Bob Ansett in the press and on radio, and Justice Michael Kirby are just three of the people who have recently gained widespread media attention to their claims that schools in Australia, particularly state secondary schools, are educating for mediocrity. Academics such as Chipman in New South Wales and Partington in South Australia echo the same kinds of criticisms and call for a return to the old standards of literacy and numeracy, backed by an excluding competitive rationale where only the purest of academic brains will find their way through to the universities and to social leadership. It's often easy to dismiss these criticisms because they come from people who are perceived to belong to one side of politics (although Michael Kirby is not easy to locate on the political spectrum).

It's much more difficult to be dismissive of criticism when we sample the conclusions of some of the foremost thinkers in education communities. For example, Professor Phillip Hughes and Cherry Collins, writing in the A.C.E.R. commissioned 1982 publication Where Junior Secondary Schools are Heading conclude (p.38):

Changes in junior secondary schooling are urgent. There is curriculum failure on a grand scale : the goals which those who know secondary schools best regard as most important are, by and large, not met. There is organizational failure : the basic developmental needs of youth growing towards adulthood cannot be catered for in the present system.
The Beazley Report (Western Australia, 1984:29) acknowledges the widespread nature of the disquiet among Australians:
Rightly or wrongly, there is a growing belief that standards are slipping below acceptable levels and that many students are poorly educated and even unemployable.
A.H. Halsey (1984:87) describes the crisis from a British perspective:
There is now widespread scepticism about the wealth creating capacity of education, and widespread resistance to its further financial support. Pessimism abounds concerning the power of education to equalize life changes - at least as a policy initiated from other egalitarian policies. The efficacy of bureaucratised schooling is challenged. Still more important, the whole historically determined relation of education to work is contested.
Goodlad (1984:161) following very comprehensive research of the American school system, further attacks the equality issue when he concludes:
There is in the gap between our highly idealistic goals for schooling in our society and the differentiated opportunities condoned and supported in schools a monstrous hypocrisy.
Perhaps the best known criticism of recent schooling in the United States, however, is not about equality in education. It is the attack on quality written in the Report of the National Commission for Excellence in Education:
Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world... the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people (Norton Grubb, 1984:4)
Such conclusions may well be reflected in the figures for the percentage of public expenditure which is afforded education in most countries, including Australia.

Figure: Percentage public spending on educationFigure: Public expenditure on education as a % of GNP
Australia: Percentage public spending on
education (State + Federal)
Public expenditure on education as a % of GNP

An extrapolation of this decline in expenditure is supported by George Fane who advises governments through EPAC that they should finance education only until the end of year 8 - providing vouchers for families, worth $1,800 per student per year. Beyond year 8 he suggests that all secondary schools, TAFE Colleges, CAEs and Universities be sold to private enterprise whether or not they are to be used for educational purposes.


There is growing evidence to cause us to question the wisdom of our schooling patterns, particularly those applying in secondary schools. Professor Colin Power from Flinders University recently carried out research among several hundred students (Power:1982). The focus of his research was the transition from primary to secondary school. His findings indicate some areas of real concern. This is exemplified by three of the many issues investigated.

Figure: transition from primary to secondary - overall satisfaction, clarity and usefulness. Data from Power (1982)

Power concludes:

That students should begin to view their school subjects as more and more useless and irrelevant suggests a mismatch of major proportions.
Power's findings are further substantiated by more recent work by Jack Walton from the University of New England (Walton:1985). Working among students in Wollongong and in Sydney's Western suburbs, Walton finds a similar depression in satisfaction and motivation during the middle secondary years. However, late in secondary schooling the average satisfaction rises as the "losers" drop out and the "winners" remain to reap their academic credential.

My own work in schools in Tasmania (1982), Queensland (1986) and South Australia (1984) accords closely with the work of Power and Walton. However, I have become aware of some consistent differences in the patterns of response when different learning experiences are analysed. Most subjects in most schools follows the general curved pattern shown below. (Pattern A)

Figure: Pattern A

Figure: Pattern A

However, there are occasional subjects which are represented by a quite different pattern. [Pattern B]

Figure: Pattern B

Figure: Pattern B

The pattern B responses are often "relevant" subjects such as manual arts, art, and home economics. Some thinkers express views which suggest that these pattern B responses occur because the learning is both relevant and easy.

I wish to challenge these views in the strongest possible terms. The dichotomy between academic end relevant is quite false. In schools as varied as the Range Convent School, Rockhampton, Elizabeth West High School, S.A., Katherine High School, N.T., Glenora High School, Tasmania, and Ipswich Girls Grammar School, there is overwhelming agreement among students that the most important subjects are Maths, English and Science, invariably in that order, and invariably far ahead of other subjects in perceived importance. The subjects are seen as strongly pre-vocational in that they are the ones necessary to obtain a credible credential; they are the ones needed to get a job. Relevance is the credential, and the academic subjects top the list in this respect.

If the pattern B learning experiences are easier, it is not because they are soft options. It is because they adopt more appropriate learning strategies, albeit often inadvertently. This explanation is reinforced by the fact that subjects such as home economics are frequently found to have a pattern A response while English sometimes has a pattern B response. Comparative work in two neighbouring Rockhampton secondary schools (Middleton, 19B6) showed that in one school, English followed the typical A pattern while in the other it showed a very marked pattern B response. Further investigation showed that in the first school, a text book oriented, "learn and then test" approach was used. In the latter, a productive approach was policy with presentation or publication an integral part of the strategy. It is likely that all subjects can be taught in the productive mode and that all will generate a pattern B response.

Generalizing, it appears that where a subject is predictable, where goals are known, and where students can achieve positive feedback about their own work independently of the risks taken in presenting it for recorded assessment, student motivation and support remains high. This is often associated with learning that is more rigorously and overtly structured and therefore allows a more relaxed informality and solidarity. It is also often associated with learning that is shared with others rather than being seen as in opposition to others.

This is not surprising. What may be surprising to some is that the formal outcomes of such learning patterns are at least as high as those achieved by the traditional "learn for the test" modes. It may also be true that there is a powerfully different hidden curriculum in the two modes. In the productive mode, the product is the motivation. In the traditional mode, the "marks" are the motivation. It is not difficult to see the potential implications of the two modes when young people enter the work force; will they work for the product or for the pay?

Summarizing, there is evidence to suggest that currently widespread patterns of schooling are satisfying neither most individual students, nor the society at large. There is also some tentative evidence to suggest that more productive patterns are already struggling into recognized existence and are practised, albeit tenuously, in a small but increasing number of Australian classrooms. Hopefully, the K-10 reform in Queensland will take advantage of the opportunities offered.

Why are such reforms so tenuous? Why so often easily extinguished? The following section argues that confused and conflicting purposes in school are to blame. The conflicting purposes erode each other and reduce most schooling patterns and practices to pragmatic survival modes.


If Australians are asked what schooling in Australia is for, there are three groups of answers. The first focuses on students. Schooling should provide every young person with the skills needed to take part confidently, proudly and skilfully in the life of society. Others will narrow their answer a little and talk mainly of helping all young people to find satisfying jobs. Others may also mention the development of individuals who are morally upright and who value excellence in all they attempt.

A second kind of answer focuses on the needs of society. A society needs people committed to a variety of roles includ1ng skilled tradespeople, drivers, miners, engineers, farmers, clerks, cleaners, doctors, and so on. It also needs skilled voters, parents, community workers, entertainers and sportspeople. An education system must not only provide basic skills and knowledge to underpin active and critical participation in these later roles. Importantly it must also work to help protect the dignity each role deserves.

A third group of responses alludes to knowledge itself. Some people will argue, and most others agree, that one of the important functions of education is to preserve and further develop important knowledge. This knowledge includes the main patterns of meaning - the disciplines, as well as the cultural heritages of the groups which make up society.

Many policy documents reflect these three main facets of schooling - the individual, the society, and knowledge.

However, if the parent in the street is asked, as a parent, what they want from schooling for their child, there is often a subtle, but very powerful shift in emphasis. Now the phrases like "the best for my child", "giving my child an edge" or "helping my child compete" are frequently heard. Herein is the source of Goodlad's "monstrous hypocrisy" referred to earlier. Schools are ultimately caught between the demands of policy ideals and the pressures applied to them to maintain privilege. The already privileged are able to exert more pressure on their schools. The other schools can compete only by playing the same game - badly! It is a game which turns knowledge to mercenary ends, which caters for a minority of individuals, and which in the process denies each new generation of Australians access to the knowledge it corporately needs to meet its challenges.

It is not difficult to reflect on ways in which this pre-occupation with staying in (or out of) the race subverts the other purposes.

In terms of the needs of individuals, the continual threat of exclusion affects security and self esteem. It hinders original thinking and thus hinders intellectual (as opposed to academic) pursuits. Lateral thinking and risk taking are not encouraged. In terms of job achievement, the effect of intensified competition has been the process of credentiallism. Here I'll quote from Making the Future [C.S.C. 1988]

"At a recent Conference of representatives of state credentialling agencies, one of the participants expressed the strong view that "all the rhetoric about general secondary education in this country is subverted by the mad scramble for Tertiary Entrance places".

He went on to describe the urgent need to analyse and combat the pressures of tertiary institutions downwards into the schools. He believed that the effects were felt well down into primary schooling.

"The selection gates have been pushed upwards from year 7 to year 10 to year 12".

This was a reference to what many others have called credentiallism.

There is a general recognition among these people, as well as among credentiallers, that this is an accurate reflection on the processes which have been occurring in the past few decades. There is also wide recognition that the problem is critical.

Every state as well as New Zealand is in the process of trying to alter year 12 certification procedures in an attempt to break the dominance of exclusive privilege - of too little "room at the top". The danger is that this will merely continue the leap-frogging effect. Generating greater equality of formal outcome simply catalyses the next step - a new filtering process to reassert discrimination.

Despite all the improvements schools can generate, the side effects will continue, a devaluing of previous credentials, because different kinds of young people are now making it through the filter - young people who "don't speak as well as they used to. Who don't dress as well. Aborigines and working class young people. The standards must have dropped. Things are not what they used to be. We'll put a higher standard for entry on our vocation."

As the Adelaide Advertiser editorial (17/5/1986) expresses

"The great majority of the unemployed are in that predicament through no fault of their own. To condemn them for their plight is cruelly unjust and insensitive. The assertion that 'anyone who really wants to can find a job' is simply untrue if applied to those who, again through no fault of their own, lack any of the qualifications, including even the manner or appearance, that employers tend to seek." (Our underlining). The effect of these attitudes is to force up retention. But this in turn redefines upwards the boundaries of childhood and dependence. "We've never employed school leavers. And we're not going to start now. We want a person with some experience and maturity." Twenty years ago, eighteen year olds were such a people. Now they are "just kids". The mechanism pushes the youth labour market further away. The more we reach for a solution, the more it recedes from us - it is an ultimate Catch 22.

It is our very strong view that such inflationary credentiallism is a major stumbling block in stopping schooling from helping to generate

Far from being a tool to promote excellence it is a tool which continues to rip at our social fabric.

Its effects thread forward into adult life and backwards into childhood. In some states, banks and other employers not only choose employees on the basis of Tertiary Entrance Scores. They set the starting wage on the basis of their detailed score. When this happens, there is what is sometimes called an "internal labour market"; the salary differential does not fade with time, it increases. Discrimination on the basis of a year 12 credential can thus have a life long effect, not only between vocations, but within them. The idea of "outcomes" as if learning stops at 18 is neither equitable nor rational.

Of more direct concern to schools, however is the backwards effect that credentiallism has on education. It creates its own ends, replacing authentic learning with a competitive race. It erodes the cultural heritage by making it a means to an end.

It restricts and interferes with learning by rendering certifiable only that learning which is individual, unproblematic, write-able, known already by teachers and therefore measurable. It promotes taking knowledge and not making knowledge. It is a mechanism which conscripts schools to the narrow and dominant purpose of maintaining the status quo by acting as an agent of social allocation.

Evidence is also growing that tertiary institutions are shying away from the immediate products of secondary schooling. The best information available indicates that, in 1985, 52% of all new tertiary enrolments in Australia were not directly from year 12, and this percentage continues to grow. It grows because many other social activities are viewed as more productive, in terms of educational foundations, than is schoolwork.

In terms of society's needs, the focus on academic studies creates a minority of people who have learnt the answers necessary to achieve the credential above others, but who have had little opportunity for creative risk taking, for learning organizational or entrepreneurial skills, or even for developing technological literacy. (The academic curriculum is defined by what teachers know, and knowing how a car, a T.V. set, or a computer works is not considered academic).

Those who have not succeeded are downgraded to work in areas perceived to be less important. Excellence is not the name of the game here. If they'd been excellent they wouldn't be here. Only life experiences can remedy this attitude; too often life experiences reinforce it.

Knowledge itself suffers. It 1s treated as a means to an end, packaged for the credential, and then discarded once the purpose is achieved. The curriculum is what is already known. (How else could learning outcomes be assessed?) Knowledge is thus not created, nor even recreated, in most cases. A productive society must also produce new knowledge.

In summary, the purpose of naming winners and losers has been allowed to dominate school practice. The result has been a subversion of the efficacy of schools in meeting individual and social needs, and in maintaining and developing important knowledge and social unity."


This should be the topic of our discussion this evening.


Collins, C. & Hughes, P. 1982, Where Junior Secondary Schools are Heading. Australian Education Review, No. 18. ACER, Melbourne.

C.S.C. 1988, Middleton et al. Making the Future: the Role of Secondary Education in Australia, Canberra.

Goodlad, J., 1984, A Place Called School McGraw Hill.

Grubb, N. (1984) Responding to the Constancy of Change : new technologies and future demands on U.S. education. Stanford, New York.

Halsey, A.H., 1984, "Schools for Democracy?" In Ahier, J. and Flude, H. (Eds) Contemporary Education Policy, Croom Helm, London.

Middleton, M, 1986, Report to Rockhampton Catholic Schools Committee.

Power, C., 1982, The Needs of Early Adolescents, Flinders University, Mimeo.

Walton, J., 1985, Academic or Relevant : A False Dichotomy? New England University, Mimeo.

Western Australia, Beazley, K. (Chairman), 1984. Education in Western Australia, Perth.

Please cite as: Middleton, M. (1987). Schooling's credibility problems: What can practitioners do? Queensland Researcher, 3(3), 14-28. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr3/middleton.html

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