13 SES 16 A, The Paradox of Public Education: A European Exploration
Public education has emerged in different countries out of a range of different histories and under differing societal conditions (e.g. Green 1990). In some countries public education emerged as an alternative to education controlled by the church – e.g., the history of the English ‘public school’ which, eventually, morphed into privately-funded education. In other countries public education emerged as a general provision for ‘the public,’ initially with an ideological connection to official state religion but over time becoming secularised (see, e.g., Sweden and, more recently, Norway). And then there are hybrid forms which combine state funding with governance by the church (e.g., in Ireland), or where the state funds a wide spectrum of different ideological and pedagogical forms of education (such as the long tradition of state funding for denominational schools in the Netherlands, the “subsidised” private schools in Spain, or, more recently, the establishment of ‘free schools’ in Sweden and England). What unites the different ways in which public education currently exists, is not just a reliance on state-funding, but also, in principle, accessibility for everyone – public education as non-selective education – and an orientation towards education as a public good rather than a private commodity. Justification for public education ranges from society’s responsibility for investment in the future workforce, via a concern for social cohesion and integration, up to a rights-based argument where every societal group can claim collective funding for its educational ‘projects.’
There is a significant amount of evidence that suggests that public education, in its different forms and manifestations, is under pressure, and in some cases it can even be argued that public education has virtually disappeared (e.g. Green 2014; Giroux 2015; Locatelli 2018). There are a number of developments that have contributed to this. On the one hand, neo-liberal policies have actively sought to bring market forces into the educational domain, partly with reference to the idea that ‘choice’ is a good thing in any field, including education, and partly in order to create competition on the, probably mistaken belief that this would raise the quality of the entire education system (e.g. Ball 2007). The erosion of public education is, however, not just the outcome of deliberate policy interventions, but also the result of choices made by parents about where to send their children, or choices made by students for particular colleges or universities. Despite policies that seek to make education more inclusive, parents and students who are in the position to choose, often aim for what, in their perception, is the ‘highest’ or ‘best’ school or university they can get into, thus contributing to the establishment of educational monocultures that are either elite or contain the most ‘difficult’ students (e.g., Dahlstedt & Fejes 2018).
While the erosion of the idea and practice of public education is a concern in itself, one remarkable aspect of these developments is that policy makers still turn to public education systems in order to address key societal problems, such as social cohesion, democratic citizenship, and sustainability (see, e.g., European Commission 2018). The contributions brought together in this symposium seek to analyse and discuss this ‘paradox’ of public education – the fact that policy makers turn to public education in order to address societal issues that are actually undermining public education itself – in a number of different European contexts. The four contributions to this symposium seek to provide more detailed and contextualised analyses of transformations of public education vis-à-vis national and supra-national policy developments and seek to articulate ways forward for public education, particularly with regard to philosophical and political justifications for the ‘project’ of public education.
Ball, S. J. (2007). Education plc. London, Routledge. Dahlstedt, M., & Fejes, A. (Ed.) (2018). Skolan marknaden och framtiden Lund: Studentlitteratur. European Commission (2018). Council recommendation of 22 May 2018 on promoting common values, inclusive education, and the European dimension of teaching. Brussels: European Commission. Giroux, H. A. (2015). Education and the crisis of public values: Challenging the assault on teachers, students, and public education. New York: Peter Lang. Green, A. (1990). Education and state formation : The rise of education systems in England, France, and the USA. New York, NY: St Martin’s Press. Green, A. (2014). Education and the state: Whatever happened to education as a public good? Uddannelseshistorie, 48(1), 11-30. Locatelli, R. (2018). Education as a public and common good: Reframing the governance of education in a changing context. Education Research and Foresight Working Papers Series, No. 22. Paris: UNESCO.
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