Intersecting the private-public debate in education research

Trying to grasp a concept take work. It’s the whole two steps forward one step back thing. Have you ever felt like you have finally have grasped an idea and then complexity is added, sending you backward? I don’t think the struggle ever ends. I don’t think the theorising ever ends either. But, at some moment, there is a hook, and for me that is usually in the form of an empirical paper.

The empirical paper can be like a doorway into another world. Often it is a doorway that you would not generally pay any attention to, but circumstances are such that at this particular moment in time, you do.

This time the doorway came in the guise of Health, Sport, and Physical Education (HSPE) and the world was an idea that there is more to education than meets the eye.

Benjamin Williams and Doune Macdonald report data on specialist health and physical education teachers’, principals’ and external providers’ reasons for participating in outsourcing arrangements (p 57) at schools. In other words, the authors report on reasons why schools might hire specialsit sporting professionals to conduct acitvities in schools. Williams and Macdonald report three findings: firstly, that the practice helped provide valuable educational experiences for both students, teachers, and providers; secondly, that the practice meant a variety of experiences could be provided by the school because the external providers brought activity specific expertise to teaching the skills; and, thirdly the practice helped provide symbolic resources (or kudos) to the school, valued by the parents and useful for attracting further enrollments.

Williams and Macdonald in reporting on outsourcing are essentially reporting on the privatisation of education. The interesting (and possible troubling part of this report to education researchers and commentators), is that it is very difficult to agree that outsourcing (thus privatisation) of HSPE expertise is a bad thing.

The general media would have us believe that there is a polarity in education between public and private schooling. It is impossible to avoid passionate commentary about the amount of government funding the private sector receives in Australia.

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What the authors of this article do is begin the important intersecting of that debate. They say that the school is neither being exploited by the private companies, nor are the private companies passive in their business-driven need to be involved in schooling. In fact, both sides of the discussion are far more complex, dynamic and entangled (p67).

I find this concept fascinating and one which needs careful consideration by education researchers. It is very easy to take the popular data (such as results and funding) and position research to prove that one point of view is better than the other. But this research is essentially research about schooling, not education.

Education is full of decisions, not based on hard data, but based on internal motivations such as value and symbolic worth. It is based on parents desire for a certain type of schooling for their child. Education is far more complex and messy than popular research would lead us to believe.

Williams and Macdonald have opened the door to a different way of seeing education research. They present education researchers with a challenge. As such, I plan to grapple with the theoretical basis of this research and see if I can find a way to understand education through the disarray rather than the logic. Maybe then, I can start to think about education rather than just schooling.

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One thought on “Intersecting the private-public debate in education research

  1. Thanks Naomi. There are many aspects of your piece that I want to engage with you about here. Too many. I’ll stick to just one and I’ll lead off my response with a quote from a book I adore:

    “Many of us have learned to want to cleave to an order. This is a modernist dream. In one way or another, we are attached to the idea that if our lives, our organisations, our social theories or our societies, were ‘properly ordered’ then all would be well. And we take it that such ordering is possible, at least some of the time. So when we encounter complexity we tend to treat it as distraction. We treat it as a sign of the limits to order. Or we think of it as evidence of failure.” (Law, 1994, pp. 4-5)

    I really puzzle over the order(s) “we” cleave to in “our” discussions of issues like outsourcing and privatisation. Here’s one reason why:

    “Pools of order are illusory, but even such illusions are the exception. They do not last for long. They are pretty limited. And they are the product, the outcome, or the effect, of a lot of work – work that may occasionally be more or less successfully hidden behind an appearance of ordered simplicity.” (Law, 1994, p. 5)

    I think that much talk about the “public/private divide” has the appearance of an ordered simplicity, even (perhaps perversely) when it is “critique talk” illustrating (revealing?) the extent to which this “boundary” has been/is being blurred.

    So, I ponder, to what extent do proponents and opponents of these practices cling to the purity of this public/private mode of ordering as they make their arguments for and against? And with what effects? Are their ways of talking and writing about outsourcing and privatisation that practice other modes of ordering? What kinds of stories would they be? Who would be their “heroes” and who would be their “villains”? And how might such stories encourage “us” to engage with other aspects of the practices Doune and I (and others in our field) are referring to these days by the shorthand term “outsourcing”?

    Oh, and by the way, the book I cited was this one. Read it. Seriously. It might change your life like it changed mine.

    Law, J. (1994). Organizing Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

    Liked by 1 person

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