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Education and work: Some evolving policy perspectives*

Millicent E. Poole**
* This article is based on the three papers below. It reports part of Professor Poole's presentation at the AGM of QIER held in November 1990.
  1. M. Poole, in Education and Work. ACER Monograph (in press).
  2. M. Poole & J. Langan-Fox, Conflict in Women's Decision-Making About Multiple Roles. Paper given at Silver Jubilee Conference of the Australian Psychological Society, 1990.
  3. M. Poole, J. Langan-Fox & M. Omodei, 'Determining Career Orientations in Women from Different Social Class Backgrounds', Sex Roles, 23(9,10), 1990.
**Professor of Education, Monash University.

The relationship between education and work is a central concern in Australia today. As in most OECD countries, there continue to be major debates about the nature of education and its role in preparing young people for the world of work. Policy perspectives on education and work are constantly changing, but over time settle into dominant patterns. What I want to present are two types of analyses relating to changes over two decades. My first set of analyses relates to current perspectives, and shows a shift towards the new economic rationalism, centralism and corporatism, influenced by global market trends and the rhetoric of the New Right. My second set of analyses is set at a different level and broadly overviews, through a large data bank, how policy perspectives influenced the educational and work lives of a cohort of young people from 1973 to 1982, when the policy rhetoric was more one of access and equity. My intention in presenting these two different kinds of analyses is to indicate something of the ways in which changing policy perspectives on education and work over time need to be referenced to the changing life trajectories and life histories of people over their life cycle.


Policy perspectives on education and work are not constructed in a socio-cultural vacuum. They are developed in a particular historical period in which educational directions and discourse are guided by, amongst other things, the values of politicians, policy analysts, business and unions, and educational leaders - themselves influenced by global and international trends. For example, the shifts in curriculum away from liberal education towards increased vocationalism, or from social programs towards economically-based training programs, can be seen as part of a national policy aimed at making Australia 'clever' and more competitive in the global economy (Poole, 1989). Such moves are not new. At the turn of the century more vocational courses were being advocated and introduced to make Australia more competitive with Germany, the USA and Denmark. Likewise, the move towards science is not new. In the mid-1950s, when the Russians launched their first Sputnik, educators were urged to concentrate more on science teaching to make their nations more economically and militarily secure. Education and work policies have thus long been associated with the changing and re-emerging goals of the state, propelled by shifting social concerns and demands (Poole, 1989). National calls for education to follow particular directions are features of most nation states. Popkewitz (1988), for example, has argued that schools in the USA have been called upon throughout the century to respond to changing social and/or economic needs. At the turn of the century school subjects were invented to respond to challenges of industrialisation, urbanisation, and immigration. The content of academic and vocational education was seen by labour groups and immigrants as a means towards achieving an 'open and just society'. Later in the 1920s the direction was towards Americanisation and the development of the work ethic as well as the development of the conception of democracy. The argument to be made is that expectations are placed on educational institutions through the state to make education relevant to whatever policy goals are currently the imperatives of the state.

In Australia new messages are being transmitted concerning the goals and directions of education and its relationship to work and to national reconstruction. Equality and equity (issues of the 1960s and 1970s) have been overtaken by a concern with economic recovery and competitiveness of the nation, and the role that education is expected to play in that process. The discourse is that of crisis and survival (e.g. 'a nation at risk', 'in the national interest'), efficiency and effectiveness (e.g. 'management', 'performance indicators', 'outcomes', 'strategic plans') and standards and excellence (e.g. 'discipline', 'school effectiveness', and 'privatisation' themes). The national vision for education has shifted over time from a liberal humanistic view of education and the construction of a socially just and equitable society to a vision of an economically competitive and industrially restructured society in which economic imperatives drive the education of all young Australians. There is a new emphasis on the productive culture.

(a) Changing directions in policy and administration

Specifically, what have been the directions of education policy in the 1980-1990s as they influence notions of education and work? A major change, signalling a redirection, was the restructuring of the Commonwealth Government administrative sections dealing with education and work to form the new mega Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET). These changes reflected in part a general ideology of implementing a "rational" model of bureaucracy. However, the amalgamations can also be viewed as a response to the economic demands of the previous two decades which had seen youth unemployment rise; demands by the private sector for an appropriately skilled workforce; and general community concern over the future of Australia's youth.

(b) Centralisation and corporate planning

The corporate ideology, framed to govern the whole administrative changes in education and training, may be interpreted as part of the overall tendency in bureaucratic, industrialised countries to move towards centralisation of political affairs. This centralisation has long been present in education, especially with the increased role of the Commonwealth government over education affairs within Australian schools. Analysis of the terms used in the DEET annual report of 1987/88 such as 'corporate structure', 'efficiency', 'rationalising overlapping functions', are all terminologies echoing Weberian rational ideology: a mechanism the government espouses to legitimate its practices. The corporate planning framework also reinforces the ideology of scientific rationalism in planning and projecting within the areas of education and work, and in the legitimation of funding cuts.

Lindblom (1968), among others, argues that the whole political nature of policy making is such that the rational/ corporate model can be seen as an unrealistic approach. This is in the sense that it does not adequately depict the value-laden, pragmatic nature of policy and the difficulty in ensuring accurate evaluation and forecasting. In such a volatile economic environment, where economists themselves find it difficult to predict accurately, the task of integrating and reorienting education to the needs of the changing Australian and international market places are very difficult to plan for rationally.

Aside from the government's use of powerful entrenched ideologies to legitimise its future directions, there are other contextual factors that have contributed to the arena of debate concerning Commonwealth education policy and their significance for the world of work.

(c) Education and work policies: economic contextual influences

What these changes in the direction of Australian education policy have signified is the strength of economic factors and international competition from OECD countries in reshaping the nature of education in Australia, so that it can contribute to economic restructuring. Problems within the economy such as the uncornpetitive structure of Australian traded goods and service industries has led to an over-reliance on imported goods, the consequences being the variable commodity prices on Australian living standards and high government trade deficit.

Likewise, the over-emphasis of Australia on primary exports has made it difficult to compete with the high technological markets dominated by countries such as Japan and West Germany. Consequently it is the aim of the government to upgrade those technologically based skills in the labour force (DEET: 1987-88). This type of policy was also instigated due to consistently high youth unemployment in the 1980s and the pressure for government to overcome this problem by encouraging greater skill development, requiring students to stay longer at school.

However, this discourse signalling an instrumental view towards education cannot be attributed solely to the values of bureaucrats and politicians. It is also an attitude espoused by many students in schools. For example, many youth attitudinal surveys (ANOP: 1984, 1986) reveal that young people want education to be relevant to their future work environment. The call for a more vocationally based curriculum has been derived in part from youth themselves, who report alienation from a schooling system where curriculum is seen as being irrelevant to their needs, and from a workforce which might have difficulty accommodating them. The government has indicated its heavy reliance on the education sector to help implement successfully its economic strategy. Through education, the foundation of a 'highly skilled, adaptive and productive workforce as well as for a well-informed and cohesive society' will be laid (DEET: 198788 p. 23). Specifically the government is concerned with the school to work transition. Accordingly their policy focus is on the secondary, TAFE, and higher education systems.

In an analysis of education policy over the last two decades, Crittendon (1988) argues that a significant shift in values and rhetoric has occurred. In the 1970s "policy makers felt that schools would be able to promote equality of economic opportunity for individual groups in the early 1980s, policy makers shifted their attention to equal average outcomes among groups....Now in 1989, the focus is not directly on what economic benefits individuals or particular groups can attain through schooling, but how the system of education can be used more effectively to lift the economic prosperity of the nation as a whole." As such the whole thrust of education is economically based.

From these developments, it can be seen that the economic situation within Australia has set the climate for the introduction of a new approach to education in Australia. This policy has moved away from the liberal-humanistic view of education which values education for its own sake, to promoting an instrumental view of education for youth. However, as argued by Crittendon (1988), the debate concerning the nature of education policy and directions has been ongoing, and in my view will continue to be so.

A major influence in the emergence of this new economic corporation and instrumentation has been the so-called 'New Right', and its influence on the education and work debates is briefly outlined below.


Many current beliefs about the inadequacies of education owe their existence to the New Right, a loose array of interest groups sharing a common ideology including "free market devotees, libertarian political thinkers, moral conservatives, religious fundamentalists and biological determinists". The intent of the New Right is to make interventions in culture. As Seidel (1986:107) argues, "they are engaged in a cultural battle to unsettle and displace the dominant ideology which constructed the post-war liberal and social democratic consensus". Within both a national and a global context, the New Right is promulgating crisis management strategies concerning compulsory and post-compulsory education (e.g. 'A Nation at Risk', 'In the National Interest'). New Right conservative doctrine has increasingly dominated the discourse of education, work and training, especially in relation to a perception of inadequate educational standards and a lack of basic skills suitable for workforce participation by each cohort of school leavers.

There was also much rhetoric from advocates of the New Right for the government to cut expenditure in welfare programs, creating a climate potentially at odds with the social and cultural ideals of post-compulsory schooling in the interests of more instrumental economic goals. Education became a focus for New Right discourses to gain influence. Private enterprise and big business, the link between education and the economy, and skills relevance and training have come to dominate education thinking. Wexler and Grabiner (1986) argue that two distinct but contradictory discourses have coalesced on the question of public education. On the one hand, cultural restorationists argued for a traditional way of life and a return to past educational principles and practices, viz. the back to basics movement. On the other hand, free market interests campaigned for social and political stability linked to choice in curriculum matters and private schooling, seeking change in the governance of education such that it was tied to the market place, i.e., the 'privatisation' and 'choice' movement.

As Cooper (1988:282) argues "the New Right has advanced its message. The language of 'choice', 'competition', and even the 'marketplace', is being adopted." It has been a powerful force in constructing debates around education, not only regarding policy and curriculum content, but teaching methods and standards as well. As such it has been a powerful force for school reform. It has been effective in directing how people talk about education, and has diverted people's attention away from many of the root causes of problems experienced within schools and society. Economic arguments and rationalities are being used to justify changing orientations and policies. As Apple (1988:273) notes, within the American context, "...schools must be brought more closely into line with policies that will 'reindustrialise' and 'rearm' America so that we will be more economically competitive". The Right has been successful in the United States and elsewhere in mobilising support against the educational system, blaming education for the current economic crisis. Apple (1988:275) sees that one of the New Right's major victories "has been to shift the blame for unemployment, underemployment, and the supposed breakdown of 'traditional' values and standards in the family, education, and the paid workforce, from the economic, cultural, and social policies of business and industry to the school and other public agencies."

The failure of the liberal reform movement in the 1970s created ground for oppositional forces such as the New Right to gain strength and legitimacy, and shifted a new vision of post-compulsory education and work away from social and cultural transformation to economic transformation. Within this context, I have in a recent book Education and Work canvassed a number of important issues in the current debates on education and work. Specifically the book reappraises the vocational education debate; examines the school to work transition; explores socialisation into the world of work; analyses the changing work and family orientations of women and their structural location in education and work; and ends with a consideration of international comparisons on selected aspects. Conclusions are then drawn and their implications signalled for education and work in relation to post-compulsory education.

Rather than working through some of the arguments attached to these four issues, what I would briefly like to do, is to indicate some of the approaches to studying education and work that I am currently using to address questions relating to how policy changes and directions impact on people's lives; how education and work histories are constructed over time; and how new approaches to education and work need to be developed to take into account the notion of a life course where the personal, the social and political interact dynamically. I shall illustrate the approaches that I am taking by describing analyses undertaken in the Career Development Project which has traced the educational and work lives of some 5000 young people from 1973 to 1982. I shall refer specifically to analyses of women's educational and work lives, and to three approaches to tackling an enduring problem of methodology in the social sciences - how to connect the individual to the social, and how to account for change and continuity. The three approaches I shall briefly detail relate to (i) The use of Timelines to show how life course changes and transitions are occurring over changing policy timeframes; (ii) the use of LISREL structural equation models to look at the influence of clusters of variables influencing educational and work outcomes over time; and (iii) life histories which enable interconnecting aspects of life to be seen as critical to educational and work decisions and outcomes.

Let me illustrate these. I have neither time nor intent to focus on the specifics or the detail. I merely want to raise with you questions concerning the approaches that I and my associates have used to reflect on how changing policy perspectives influence individual lives and the lives of groups; and to challenge you to speculate on how the current policy perspectives I outlined in the first part of my paper might be influencing the lives of people in educational and work contexts.

(i) Timelines

Let me in relation to timelines raise some interesting questions. Can the life cycle be changed in structure and content by changes in policies to education and work? What are the lead-in times and lags to policy changes which can influence life structures at key periods in the life cycle e.g. transitions from school, to higher education, to work, to early career establishment? Timelines refer to the time frames in which people's lives are lived (e.g. 1973-1983) and refer to the major social policy statements occurring in, and influencing or changing people's lives. For example, major reports on the education of girls showed lesser patterns of participation, restricted curriculum choices and limited career horizons. This led to new policies aimed at encouraging participation and entry to apprenticeships and non-traditional career paths. Such timelines (historical and policy related) occur at important life stage development periods, e.g. transition from secondary schooling to higher education and work, i.e. through a timeframe of exploration to one of crystallising choices. Developmental time-lines interact with policy and historical timelines (for elaboration see Poole, 1989; Poole, Langan-Fox {in press)).

(ii) Structural equation modelling

In relation to LISREL structural equation models, what powerful and enduring patterns seem to continue to influence the educational and work trajectories of people over time? In the Career Development Project we examined the career orientations of 1300 women. Using a LISREL structural equation modelling technique and guided by Krumboltz's (1981) theory of decision making, we looked at the effect of social-class background in determining orientation to work. The major predictors we used were the secondary school - early career life stage of development, political attitudes, occupational interests, senior school achievement and professional attainment. Differences were found for the social class groups in terms of the motivational tendencies and work satisfaction on model variables. (See Poole, Langan-Fox and Omodei, 1990, for a complete analysis.)

(iii) Life histories

In terms of life histories for women, we took a contextual approach. One of the major influences in relation to education and career continues to be personal decisions concerning marriage and family formation, as indicated in the life of Rachel, one of the cases that we used to look at lives in context and lives over time. Rachel's career changed in a number of directions according to her educational qualifications, her jobs, and perceived conflict arising from relationships which affected her decisions relating to her jobs, marital status, and the possibility of parenthood. Rachel was raised by parents who placed a high value on education, and she completed the H.S.C. with a science orientation. As she entered the transitional period from late adolescence to adulthood, choice of career became her most significant problem. While her mother advised her to enter a traditional occupation like teaching, the feminist movement encouraged her to take a non-traditional course at university and she enrolled to study law. Rachel soon abandoned the study of law in favour of an Arts degree, majoring in psychology. After graduation, she developed a romantic interest which temporarily influenced her career aspirations and she changed cities so that she could be with her partner. At a time when there were significant increases in females undertaking courses in veterinary science, medicine, law, agriculture, and business, Rachel followed the trend when she obtained a Diploma of Business Management which enabled her to obtain a job as a market analyst in Sydney. Here she was faced with a painful choice, she could either pursue her career and move to Sydney, or get married. Because she still felt too young for marriage, she chose her career. Since then, the problem of career vs. marriage has presented itself more than once. Rachel is painfully aware that her childbearing years are passing, and resents the choices that confront her. Some women in the Career Development Study found that their original career choices did not readily accommodate the demands of childrearing, and they were anxious to return to education in order to obtain a new qualification for a more suitable career. Changing life structure has been demonstrated as a major factor in responses to career planning and education.


To conclude, I have, by constructing my presentation in two parts, tried to present a contemporary policy perspective on the discourse impacting on education and work, as well as presenting some approaches which have enabled me to use data to try to construct how policy impacted on lives in the previous decade. My purpose in doing this is that I think it critical that policy in relation to education and work needs to be viewed in relation to people and their life courses and life trajectories. Policies are for people and, in the current economic debates on education and work, there has been a silence on the individual and the social. When Hawke vowed that no Australian child would be living in poverty in the 1990s, his discourse saw this interconnection. In the area of social p olicy, we are fortunate to have the voice of Archbishop Hollingworth to keep this policy promise in focus. In the areas of educational policy, alas, we have yet to develop a new discourse to challenge that of the new right and to find either a Don Quixote to bring back idealism into the debate or a David to slay the arid giant of economic instrumentalism.

The challenge as I see it is to work towards a new synthesis of the liberal and democratic perspectives on policies relating to education and work to transform both the individual and the social.


Apple, M. (1988) What reform talk does: Creating new inequalities in education', Educational Administration Quarterly, 24(3), 272281.

Australian National Opinion Polls (ANOP) (1984) Young Australian Today: A Report of the Study of Attitudes of Young Australians by ANOP Market Research, Canberra.

Australian National Opinion Polls (ANOP) (1986) Young Australians Today: A Survey of Community Attitudes to Issues Affecting Young People, Canberra.

Cooper, B. (1988) 'School reform in the 1980's: The new right's legacy', Educational Administration Quarterly, 24(3), 287-298.

Crittendon, B. (1988) 'Policy directions for Australian secondary schools: A critique of some prevalent assumptions', Australian Journal of Education, 32(3), 287-311.

Department of Education, Employment and Training (1987-88) Annual Report, Canberra, Government Press.

Lindblom, C. E. (1968) The Policy-Making Process, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall.

Poole, M. (1989a) 'Adolescent transitions: A Life-course perspective', in Hurrelmann, K & Engel, U. (eds.), The Social World of Adolescents: International Perspectives, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter.

Poole, M. Education and Work, ACER Monograph (in press).

Poole, M., & Langan-Fox, J. (1990) 'Conflict in Women's Decision Making About Multiple Roles', paper given at Silver Jubilee Conference of the Australian Psychological Society, University of Melbourne, 23-28 September, 1990.

Poole, M., Langan-Fox, J. & Omodei, M. (1990) 'Determining Career Orientations in Women from Different Social-Class Backgrounds', Sex Roles, 23 (9/10).

Popkewitz, T. S. (1988) 'Educational reform: rhetoric, ritual and social interest', Educational Theory, Winter, 38(1), 77-93.

Seidal, G. (1986) 'Culture, Nation and Race in the French New Right', in Levitas, R. (ed.), The Ideology of the New Right, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Wexler, P. & Grabiner, G. (1986) 'The educational question: America during the crisis', In Sharp, R. (ed.), Capitalist Crisis and Schooling, South Melbourne, Macmillan.

Please cite as: Poole, M. E. (1991). Education and work: Some evolving policy perspectives. Queensland Researcher, 7(1), 4-15. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr7/poole.html

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