Neoliberal performance and resistance in Australia's flexible learning sector

Thomas, Joseph (2019) Neoliberal performance and resistance in Australia's flexible learning sector. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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This thesis is concerned with conceptualisations of value in Flexible Learning Options (FLOs), alternative educational programs that provide disengaged young Australians pathways to re-engage in education. It explores the positioning of FLOs in Australia's neoliberal political economy and the visions of change upon which these programs are founded. It investigates the development of flexible learning practitioners' professional identities as agents of social change, and the ways in which practitioners validate their impact as educators. As a work of critical scholarship, the research not only interrogates structural relations of power within the Australian educational system, but also uncovers opportunities to challenge these relations. To this end, the thesis demonstrates a validation of flexible learning outcomes using quantitative means. In so doing, it challenges the disabling effects of Australia's prevailing assessment paradigm, leveraging advanced econometric methods to evince alternative concepts of value.

Chapter 1 contextualises the role of FLOs in Australia's neoliberal political economy. It brings together critical scholarship on recent moves towards the centralisation, standardisation and marketisation of education in Australia. The chapter explores the resulting concentration of disadvantage in low SES-area schools and pressures to 'exit' low performing students—increasingly into the flexible learning sector. Discussion also draws on research concerning the proliferation of high-stakes, competitive testing in Australia and the outsized influence of national and international assessment regimes on local educational policymaking and praxis. The standardised, quantitative assessment currently privileged by policymakers is contrasted with FLOs' holistic approach to the appraisal of educational outcomes. The chapter concludes with the growing call among critical scholars to resist the notion of education as human capital production and the reductive modes of thinking that go along with it.

As sites of critical educational practice, FLOs aim to interrupt the cycles of disadvantage, disengagement and poverty. Such aims are often formalised in FLOs' foundational ethos, mission statements and official policies. Yet, to varying degrees, the modes by which such policies are enacted remain subject to deliberation among the practitioners themselves. Grounded upon Habermas's (1971) conception of education in the service of human beings' 'emancipatory interest,' Chapter 2 explores the ways in which flexible learning practitioners embody, enact and resist the counter-hegemonic policies of their parent organisations. Informed by Fraser's (1990) notion of the 'subaltern counter-public,' the chapter highlights the mediating role of FLOs' parent institutions in determining practitioners' practical potential as agents of social change.

Drawing on interviews with flexible learning practitioners at sites across Australia, Chapter 3 enumerates the outcomes valued in FLOs, as well as the various evidence forms cited by practitioners to substantiate those outcomes. Framing success as 'distance travelled' (i.e., an individual's progress relative to his or her own starting point), practitioners demonstrate critical awareness of the social and structural mechanisms by which young people are marginalised from mainstream schooling. Holistic assessment practices also reveal practitioners' efforts to expand the terms of reference by which educational outcomes may be validated in alternative education settings.

Few studies have systematically evaluated FLOs' ability to improve the long-term social and economic outcomes of students at-risk of educational disengagement. Informed by the qualitative analyses of Chapters 1-3, Chapter 4 proposes an alternative paradigm based on flexible learning practitioners' own stated priorities. The chapter begins with a discussion of the prevailing models by which returns to schooling are assessed. It queries these models' strengths and weaknesses through a methodological review of their underlying econometric bases. Based on this review, the use of matching estimators for the estimation of treatment effects is proposed as a method for establishing the long-term impact of flexible learning outcomes.

FLOs promote the educational re-engagement of disadvantaged young people for whom traditional schooling has not worked well. Given the profound conditions of disadvantage faced by members of the flexible learning cohort, practitioners often point to attendance itself as a valuable and noteworthy outcome. Due to a lack of longitudinal data on the life pathways traversed by flexible learning participants over time, however, the long-term effects of their continuous engagement as young people remains obscured. Chapter 5 utilises propensity score matching, a matching estimators technique for the estimation of treatment effects, to assess the impact of keeping disadvantaged young people in education, training or employment on their subsequent risk of experiencing disengagement as young adults. The study utilises data from the 2003 cohort of the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY), which follows more than 3,000 students over a ten-year period. Findings suggest that FLOs' efforts to keep disadvantaged young people engaged in upper secondary education until the school leaving age bear positive impacts for participants independent of their academic achievement and psychosocial outcomes in such programs.

FLOs also emphasise young people's sense of belonging within the learning environment as a requisite of educational success and a critical ingredient of their future social and economic inclusion. Despite the prominence accorded to young people's affective engagement in FLOs, however, scant research has endeavoured to quantify the long-term impacts of students' sense of belonging with regard to their subsequent quality of life. Chapter 6 investigates the effects of students' sense of belonging at school at age 15/16 on their life satisfaction and mental and emotional wellbeing as young adults. Also using propensity score matching and data from LSAY's 2003 cohort, findings suggest that increasing students' sense of belonging entails important psychosocial benefits that extend well beyond their time at school.

These empirical chapters are followed by a short Conclusion, summarising the dissertation's central findings and main theoretical and methodological contributions to critical educational scholarship.

Item ID: 60895
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: alternative education; educational outcomes; accountability; evidence; distance travelled; flexible learning options; pathways; return to schooling
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Copyright Information: Copyright © 2019 Joseph Thomas.
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Three publications arising from this thesis are stored in ResearchOnline@JCU, at the time of processing. Please see the Related URLs field. The publications are:

Chapter 1: Thomas, Joseph (2018) Flexible learning options in the neoliberal educational landscape. In: McGinty, Sue, Wilson, Kimberley, Thomas, Joseph, and Lewthwaite, Brian, (eds.) Gauging the Value of Education for Disenfranchised Youth: flexible learning options. Innovations and Controversies: interrogating educational change (7). Brill, Leiden, Netherlands, pp. 13-28.

Chapter 3: Thomas, Joseph, McGinty, Sue, Te Riele, Kitty, and Wilson, Kimberley (2017) Distance travelled: outcomes and evidence in flexible learning options. Australian Educational Researcher, 44 (4-5). pp. 443-460.

Chapter 5 and 6: Thomas, Joseph, and Welters, Riccardo (2018) The importance of belonging: the impact of young people’s belonging at school on their quality of life as young adults. In: McGinty, Sue, Wilson, Kimberley, Thomas, Joseph, and Lewthwaite, Brian, (eds.) Gauging the Value of Education for Disenfranchised Youth: flexible learning options. Innovations and Controversies: interrogating educational change (7). Brill, Leiden, Netherlands, pp. 105-129.

Date Deposited: 06 Nov 2019 05:33
FoR Codes: 13 EDUCATION > 1301 Education Systems > 130199 Education systems not elsewhere classified @ 50%
14 ECONOMICS > 1499 Other Economics > 149903 Heterodox Economics @ 25%
13 EDUCATION > 1303 Specialist Studies in Education > 130303 Education Assessment and Evaluation @ 25%
SEO Codes: 93 EDUCATION AND TRAINING > 9399 Other Education and Training > 939903 Equity and Access to Education @ 33%
93 EDUCATION AND TRAINING > 9305 Education and Training Systems > 930501 Education and Training Systems Policies and Development @ 34%
93 EDUCATION AND TRAINING > 9303 Curriculum > 930301 Assessment and Evaluation of Curriculum @ 33%
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