Social Justice

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Social Justice

Social Justice

Background to the study

Equity policy developments in Australia

Constitutionally, education is the responsibility of the states. However, the Commonwealth has taken an increasing interest in schooling, extending its reach initially via supplementary funding for special projects and the development of Commonwealth polices, and later through national policy and curriculum frameworks. Much - though certainly not all - of the impetus for the development of equity policy and programs has come from the Commonwealth. The Schools Commission, a quasi autonomous body set up by the Whitlam Labor government to provide independent advice to government on schooling, played an important role as a catalyst for reform throughout its existence. In addition, the Australian Education Council (AEC) and the Ministerial Council for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (MYCEETA) have facilitated Commonwealth-State relations in equity policy making, particularly in relation to the development of national policies.

Equity issues moved on to the Commonwealth policy agenda in the 1970s under the Whitlam government when a number of groups were identified as being 'educationally disadvantaged' and needing special attention. A number of Commonwealth Special Programs were set up - the Disadvantaged Schools, Aboriginal Education, Country Areas and English as a Second Language Programs - to address these inequalities. The Disadvantaged Schools Program (DSP), established in 1974 and continuing until 1997, was the most important and longest running of these programs. The DSP aimed to improve participation and outcomes of students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Since its inception it has provided extra funding to schools serving the poorest 15% of students, calculated by a socio-economic status index using Australian Bureau of Statistics data. For example, a total of $69 million was allocated in 1997. Distribution of funds was submission based and most states developed their own mechanisms for managing the program and distributing funds (Connell, White and Johnston 1991, Lingard 1998). The most important features of the DSP were that it :

While different systems evolved different administrative arrangements in relation to these groups, some general observations can be made. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education has had separate funding and administrative arrangements within all systems. In general, sub-sections within generic equity units were established to develop policy and programs for each of the targetted groups, each with own funding base. In 1996, when the Commonwealth broadbanded equity, some states adopted this change in their own structures while others continued to fund separate programs for identified target groups. Broadbanding was criticised by some as a cost cutting exercise which reduced the Commonwealth's commitment to equity because accountability for spending money on targeted groups disappeared. Others argued that broadbanding encouraged cooperation between units previously working in isolation (e.g. cultural diversity and gender).

Changing conceptualisations of equity in policy

There are no absolute meanings of the concepts associated with equity and social justice and educational disadvantage. Rather, the terms are constituted historically and politically - reflecting struggles by social movements to influence policy agendas. The terms have different meanings in different countries and also within Australia - across the ...
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