Challenging the Tyranny of No Alternative – Martin Mills

On January 22nd Prof Martin Mills (University of Queensland, Australia) gave a fascinating insight into Australia’s educational system that for the most part was all too recognisable. The title of the talk was ‘Challenging the “tyranny of no alternative” and students working towards socially just schooling.’  After a mention of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (There is No Alternative), Martin explained how in his research he seeks out alternatives and uses the voice of teachers and students to provoke discussion on the potential of really existing alternatives to the system.

Alternatives to…? What Pasi Sahlberg calls GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement) and the neoliberalisation of educational systems.  Accountability systems and various metrics are used to compare like schools with like and Australia with other countries through PISA and Timms.  League tables and comparisons instil a competitive mind set in which we seem to fight for our rank rather than re-considering our position, a distributive rather a re-distributive lens.  The consequences are familiar.  The hang ‘em and flog ‘em mentality gets applied equally and without contradiction to failing teachers, permissive social workers, uneducable children and feckless parents; leading to boot camps and troops for teachers rather than considering how societies assign resources or organise service?

It is in this context that we see a rise of interest alternative educational provision. We are all used to the stories in the UK where academies exclude pupils to improve their figures (see for example here here here here here).  The removal of pupils from mainstream to alternative education has rightly been seen as a hugely problematic practice.  Martin described how teachers and head teachers of non-mainstream schools labelled the excluded children as ‘rubbish’.  Drawing on Bauman, Martin linked the labelling and removal of pupils as rubbish in terms of the waste production in technical processes where waste is the bi-product and the product is shipped out of the front-door in lorries with corporate logos and the junk is taken from the back door at night.  Schools in a similar way have posters affixed to fences that advertise the number of 5 A-Cs achieved to prospective parents but the number of excluded pupils is forgotten.  The removal of the problem children is unremarked, as they are pushed out into other more suitable provision.

All of this we know. The hope that keeps many of us going is that there is an alternative yet we’re not quite sure of what this might be.  Martin along with Becky Francis attempted to produce a special issue of educational alternatives but found that authors struggled to identify what these alternatives might be. (Read the special issue here.)  Mills sees this work as part of a strategic response to the ‘dictatorship of no alternative’ (Fielding and Moss 2011), statements of realistic utopianism (Fraser 2009) or envisioning real utopias (Wright 2010).

The rest of the talk focused on Mills’ work exploring alternative school provision – flexi-schools and democratic schools – drawing on Nancy Fraser’s three forms of injustice: economic, cultural and political. None of these institutions were perfect.  There were fee-paying democratic schools that provided political inclusion to pupils but (at least in principle) excluded on the basis of economic injustice and the inability to pay. What they seemed to share were the principles of flexibility, respect, relationships, curriculum, extra support, and a commitment to social justice.

Lovely as it was to hear of alternatives to mainstream education, many in the audience were uncomfortable about particular dimensions of alternative education.  Was excluding pupils from mainstream to alternative education a way of maintaining the problems of the mainstream?  What kind of alternative did these schools enable pupils to enjoy when these were still were still essentially schools that in the main aimed to prepare students for work?  As Martin commented, these schools are for the disengaged pupils but we should think of these children as disenfranchised and failed by a system that needs wide-scale reform.

I’m always intrigued when politicians justify privatisation by saying something like ‘we will take the public sector’s skills in probity and the private sector’s flair for innovation’ presenting the view that there is no contradiction. In Martin’s talk we heard that as you make schools like businesses – within the context of systems of performance, accountability and competition – then they treat children as the focus of the industrial process and product. One of businesses great ‘successes’ is the internalisation of profit and the externalisation of social and environmental costs onto society. Here we see schools celebrating the achievement of getting some children good grades, and bravo, but the ones that are not performing are treated like rubbish, removed and pushed out like pollution onto the community and society. The curious fact is that the places these kids go to seem so good.  The issue perhaps then is not the children that are excluded but the ones that bump along in mainstream schools, suffering from an unreformed system but not experiencing, at least in Australia, a supportive environment in which they can flourish.

James Duggan

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