War and Peace in Educational Disadvantage

Lea CampbellLea Campbell works as a researcher for a social welfare organisation in Australia, addressing educational disadvantage among young students. She argues that constructive conflict makes a difference in educational policies.

Dr Lea Campbell


As I am writing for Working Notes two thoughts come up. First, I wonder if the term ‘applied sociology’ sits well with me. Application and sociology go hand in hand, so to specify ‘applied’ seems to be superfluous given that sociological insight is precisely constituted by the practice-theory nexus. I do, however, like the phrase ‘sociology at work’ because this is the process where we get our hands dirty and engage in the conceptual messiness of research, methods and topics/problems at hand. As for the situatedness of this work within or outside of academia, I think this is a matter of how ‘unreal’ and ‘real’ we conceive academia to be. Arguably, it is a special and specific place of knowledge construction, but how does that inform and alter sociological thinking and practice?

The term ‘applied’ might also divide our audiences along the academic/non-academic lines and for me this is often regrettable because we miss out on others’ expertise and experiences. Secondly, I keep thinking of myself as a sociologist and then not as a sociologist. Having studied sociology it is only too easy to identify as a sociologist and there is no question about a certain likeness of the thinking among sociologists. However, we too, can fall into the conceptual trappings of disciplinary silos so identification as ‘sociologist’ should not come too easily. Indeed, sociologists constantly struggle between aspiring to and needing to be transdisciplinary and supporting the recognition and legitimacy claims of sociological forms of knowledge. A balance can and cannot be achieved; it needs to be in constructive tension.

So, having acknowledged my immediate like and dislike of ‘applied sociology’, I would like to tell you briefly about my struggles to make an impact in policy and research on educational disadvantage in Australia. It will not come as a surprise to many of you that Australia still struggles to understand, to some extent even recognise, its achievement gap in educational performance in primary and secondary schooling and its inequitable educational attainment.

On the one hand we have decades of policy interventions (such as the Disadvantaged Schools Program) behind us providing us institutional insights into how we can overcome some elements of educational disadvantage. On the other hand we do not know enough about how disadvantage plays itself out in pedagogy, curriculum and assessment. We know much about inequitable educational outcomes and difficult youth transitions. However it seems we are still groping in the dark as to how we can systemically conceptualise educational disadvantage and design policy interventions, let alone translating these insights into a political will for change.

Some people are good at producing statistics and putting their fingers into the wound. Others are good at the political rhetoric but fail to specify how what they demand can be achieved. And yet others still have given up all hope and aspiration in the face of adversity or have been stifled by complexity whilst others again are slowly but surely plodding away to achieve incremental changes and ‘make a difference’ on the ground.

The people who are unaware of the strong relationship between social position and educational disadvantage are often ‘hard to reach’ themselves. The ones who are aware often disagree on how to proceed. Integrated knowledge and evidence of how children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds ‘fail’ in their schools are hard to come by. We know that children’s educational disadvantage can start before they even come to school. We know that community development work is needed to help schools and teachers who cannot do it alone.

Some social services and philanthropic bodies have good insights into the life (hi)stories of disadvantaged children and young people and tackle cost barriers to educational participation. However, the problem of educational disadvantage is too big for any particular sector to take on. Partnerships are meant to overcome this dilemma of working in isolation but those partnerships need to attract staff with the right skills and attitudes and be sustained by good governance, resources and leadership and a commitment on the ground as to what is desirable and achievable. There is also a tension between what people are paid to do versus the work that needs to be done. How do you organise societal consensus/democratic legitimacy to pay for the work and care that is necessary for the well-being of all? This is a universal dilemma of course.

The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians Melbourne, signed in 2008 by all Australian Education Ministers, aspires to an educational institutional dualism of addressing equity and excellence equally. Yet ACARA, the national curriculum authority, despite acknowledging the challenges of achieving equity, publicly infers that equity belongs to the realm of teachers, i.e. pedagogy, and hopes that by ACARA concentrating on excellence there will be some benefits to equity. This is clearly not good enough. Fundamentally, such attitudes reflect the paucity, if not absence, of a decent conversation on how to close the achievement gap and how to explain educational inequities in this country. If we do not consider it a collective responsibility we won’t succeed.

So, where to from here? Should we not reflect on the fact that often the needs of the ‘disadvantaged student’ are abstracted from the ‘mainstream’ student’? Is this always appropriate? There are obviously consequences to ‘othering and saming’ the disadvantaged student. That is, we cannot assume that disadvantaged students are (simply) lacking and that all we need to do is ‘support’ them to ‘catch up’ with the mainstream student, although support is obviously needed and not often enough funded. Equally, we cannot assume that disadvantaged students are (simply) different. What we seem to need is a careful and situated balance between the ‘saming’ and the ‘othering’ of these students, especially if we want them to be genuine members of school communities who are treated with respect, dignity, attention and be given the flexibility to thrive on their own terms as well as society’s.

Besides, rethinking education in terms of 21st century requirements around social cohesion, human rights, sustainability, democratic participation and the cultural politics of schooling, also throws up huge challenges for how we do education for the ‘mainstream’. How do we identify the problems for the different school children of disadvantaged backgrounds? How do we bring students, parents and teachers and other important stakeholders together to have powerful and respectful conversations around the educational, social and emotional needs of students? How do we translate these discussions into actions and meaningful change?

For example, addressing the problem of cost barriers to participation in public schools by providing scholarships or concessions to get textbooks, uniforms or go to camps might be a viable ‘fix’ but it does not translate this barrier into a policy that makes school participation affordable for all Australians. Similarly, overcoming cost barriers does nothing to tackle the ‘hidden curriculum’, alienation and lack of differentiation in pedagogy and curriculum work for low socio-economic status children. Furthermore these children are often lumped together with ‘other equity groups’ and ‘diversity’ measures or are simply assumed to be underperforming due to lack of will or ability, creating a dangerous synergy between structural and mental impediments to overcome educational disadvantage. Only high academic expectations in a supported environment can lift these children and their aspirations for their future.

A multipronged approach is therefore indispensable to attack the synchronic and diachronic nature of educational disadvantage: prevention; teacher education; multidisciplinary education knowledge; forms of intervention and differentiation in school’s pedagogy, curriculum and assessment; school-student-parent partnerships; community development and education system/market design — all need to be brought together and be ‘wrapped around’ the needs of children and their families/carers in a holistic manner.

Sociologists construct their knowledge with and through ‘the social’ and seek answers and different questions in ‘the social’. Refusing to limit themselves to particular discourses, sociologists are uniquely placed to describe the situated context of educational disadvantage in Australian schools. Being ‘fiercely’ empirically and theoretically informed, I argue that sociologists’ ways of seeing educational disadvantage through the social lens illuminate the various battles described above that are taking place in the education policy community in addition to the stakeholders that need to tackle it on the ‘ground’.

Arguably, sociologists could act as diplomats trying to engage in peace talks when faced with multiple actors and systems that need to understand the perspectival nature of knowledge and the inequities of social systems. Doing peace studies for educational disadvantage would require constructive conflict with interest groups and powerful dialogue with stakeholders to start answering some of the questions I posed and to allow the innovative potential of social actors to come to the fore. It would also involve upscaling those programs and initiatives that have already made a difference to children and young people’s positive school life.


Dr Lea Campbell has worked at the Australian Catholic University and Monash University, authored book chapters and was an editorial board member for Just Policy, a VCOSS publication. In 2008, she obtained her doctorate in sociology having studied how human service workers work with drug users. She is a member of the Equity in Education Alliance for a collaborative project called Esther’s Voice comprising Good Shepherd Youth and Family Service, Jesuit Social Services and MacKillop Family Services. Esther’s Voice is currently undertaking a research project of digital storytelling to address educational inequities by making the voices of disadvantaged students easier to hear for the public.

SAW logoArticle copyright: © Lea Campbell 2010. Published by Sociology At Work. All rights reserved.

Article citation: Campbell, L. (2010) ‘War and Peace in Educational Disadvantage,’ Working Notes, Issue 1, June, online resource: https://sociologyatwork.org/war-and-peace-in-educational-disadvantage

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