Climbing the opportunity ladder

The burden of hope and ambition

IN THE LATE summer of 1912–13 a new public high school was established in Parramatta, on the western outskirts of Sydney. The local newspaper, The Cumberland Argus, followed its early growth with excitement. One report described it as ‘the people’s school’, contrasting it with the older, fee-charging non-government providers of secondary education in the area. Another declared that it would become ‘the Oxford of Australia’. State high schools were rare in Australia at that time and not well understood. Local civic leaders, expressing excitement that their town had been chosen for this new, modern institution, helped to organise a series of celebrations – for the school’s first week in 1913, for the laying of the foundation stone in 1914, for the opening of purpose-built premises in 1915. At each of these events, speeches were made that explained what a modern high-school education had to offer a certain type of ‘boy or girl’. The Parramatta High School, according to one newspaper report, ‘offers an opportunity for ambitious boys and girls such as they have never had before in this district. The University, the professions, the Public Service are all within reach; the special aim of the school is to help students to qualify for them. All that is required is grit and self-sacrifice on the part of the pupils – and their parents.’ The location of the school in Parramatta was interpreted as an endorsement by the NSW state government of the town’s status as a prosperous modern commercial centre.

Schools and schooling so thoroughly saturate our lives in the twenty-first century that it seems hardly possible that a local high school could be a novelty, or that people might need to be told, almost from first principles, what to expect of it. The new high school at Parramatta would in some ways be very recognisable to a twenty-first century observer – although in other ways not very much at all. By the 1910s compulsory schooling laws were reasonably well established in each of the Australian states, but although most non-Indigenous kids spent at least five years at school, very few stayed beyond the finishing age of about fourteen and attendance was likely to be more regular in cities and larger towns than in the country. Several elements of schooling that are now considered common sense had not yet been invented, including strict age grading and an automatic transition from primary to secondary school. In NSW, Aboriginal children had limited formal rights to public education, especially before the 1940s, and access in the other states and territories was uneven. Children with disabilities were often excluded from ‘mainstream’ schools, as were young people who were categorised as ‘delinquent’.

NSW public high schools began life as academically selective institutions for the few, not the many, and the idea that any but a handful of students would make a journey through secondary schooling to university was still decades in the future. Of the first Parramatta High cohort in 1913 only a quarter of the original first year persisted to what was then the fourth and final year. Despite the school’s strong academic profile, the number of ex-Paramatta High students at university was so tiny in the 1910s that their successes were described case-by-case in the local newspaper. In Australia, high-school completion rates did not move above 50 per cent until the 1980s and universities did not become mass institutions until the 1990s. There was plenty of well-paid work to be had, especially for young men, that required neither high school nor university credentials.

The establishment of Parramatta High was part of an ambitious program of public secondary school expansion by the NSW Department of Public Instruction. Parramatta was one of six regional high schools founded during 1912–13, along with others at Grafton, Orange, Wagga Wagga, Bathurst and Goulburn. An earlier attempt to expand public high schools into regional NSW in the 1880s had failed due to lack of demand. The state government’s strategies to ensure success this time included a public-relations campaign that emphasised the place of the high school in a new public educational ladder of opportunity, and this central structure of the state’s public education system was emphasised again and again by its supporters. In the 1910s and 1920s the NSW educational ladder was celebrated by its architects and advocates as exemplary nation-building by a progressive and enlightened state. It can be seen as part of the same confidence in public policy – and the same liberal-socialist egalitarian institutional landscape – as other reforms that made the ‘working man’s paradise’ of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Australia, including the creation of the Labor Party, the family wage and the secret ballot.

The public education system was represented in photo essays and line diagrams as a hierarchy of different kinds of state education institutions, from the smallest country elementary school at the bottom to the University of Sydney at the top. The imagery was intended to make concrete ideas of both efficiency and fairness. The ladder was considered efficient in the sorting by public school systems of children and young people into their best suited path- ways – rather than leaving those decisions to family, church or other private interests. The fairness question was directed at two main problems: providing opportunities for advanced schooling in rural as well as urban places and to all children regardless of their social class, wealth or parents’ connections. ‘The people are the State. The children are the State’s as well as the family’s… it pays the State to educate her future citizens,’ offered one 1927 assessment by a Sydney Teachers’ College academic. Part of the contract proposed for parents was to accept the system’s decision about how far their child should progress and to support them financially if they persisted at school beyond employment age. After 1911, NSW high schools did not charge tuition fees, except for a brief backlash against free secondary education in the 1920s.

Not everyone was a fan of the new high school. Parramatta is home to one of the most famous of Australia’s private schools, The King’s School, originally founded in 1831 as a boarding school for the sons of the new country gentry. King’s enrolments and public examination results dipped for a few years as Parramatta High expanded; in the pages of The Cumberland Argus during 1913 and 1914, King’s headmaster came close to describing the new school as a coaching factory, complaining about the prioritisation of examinations results over character formation. Others worried about the channelling of too many of the brightest young people into the professions and clerical classes rather than into trades. The relationship between the state education departments and the Catholic Church is another story, but essentially a smaller, parallel schooling ladder was assembled for Catholic families.


THE EDUCATIONAL LADDER of opportunity and advancement – in its various historical iterations – is expected to be a ‘meritocratic’ system. That means – theoretically – not only that people get what they deserve but also that we are all better off because the best people rise. Mass culture is full of propaganda for the possibility of meritocracy, peopled by heroes who use their wits to forge their own paths to leadership, no matter the lottery of birth. The coinage of the term ‘meritocracy’, however, is usually attributed to the British social reformer Michael Young, who intended it to be derogatory. In his dark 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young depicted a dystopian future where the old system of hereditary social class had simply been replaced by another hierarchy, with a different set of people at the top. To make matters worse, the new ruling classes believed they really deserved their privileges because they had earned them by ‘merit’. By Young’s logic, meritocratic educational ladders are as much about the climbing as the learning.

A crucial task for meritocratic systems is identifying and measuring the individual qualities that constitute merit, because educational ladders are built on the premise that people possess different degrees of talent. The question of how best to identify that talent has animated teachers, system builders and education experts for more than a century. In Young’s mid-century dystopia the formula was simply ‘IQ + effort = merit’. The apparent clarity of this is in itself a commentary on the confidence with which successive generations of educators have made assessments of who is good at what and by how much, in minute comparison with others – and equally the extent to which such measures have been accepted as true by everybody else.

While surely not everyone believes that their worth (or their children’s) can be summarised by a rating on an IQ test or a mark on a big school examination, the ways in which people are told things about themselves in schools do resonate, sometimes for decades. People often say, for example, ‘I am hopeless at maths’, or summarise their aptitudes and capacities according to the kinds of school subjects they were told they were good at years ago. When I conducted an oral history of Parramatta High in the early 2000s it was striking how many people remembered whether they had been ranked in the A, B or C classes – or lower. One ex-student in her mid-eighties who had been extraordinarily successful in later life explained to me that she had gone through the school as a C-class student in the 1920s, not considered bright enough for the more prestigious Latin classes: ‘Because we took the non-Latin course, we were second-class citizens… Anyone who didn’t take Latin was a bit second rate.’

The school examination has been central to the meritocratic project, and examination success has often relied on both a fairly narrow range of abstract pen-and-paper skills and a fairly narrow range of key school subjects. In the 1920s, examinations in schools were mainly about either testing what had been taught in the classroom or testing ‘general knowledge’. There was a big emphasis on British literature and British Empire history, and knowledge of things such as the kings and queens of England was considered not just a question of what had been rote-learnt at school or at home but also a sign of culture and intelligence. From the middle decades of the twentieth century onwards, these more traditional kinds of knowledge-based tests were complemented by increasingly complex aptitude and capacity testing, such as IQ tests, from the growing scientific field of educational psychology – but they still mainly concentrated on measuring very specific kinds of abstract thinking.

At its heart the early twentieth-century establishment of free public high schools had been a vision of white British men who saw people like themselves as the ideal meritorious subjects. It is not the whole story, of course – schools and school systems are never entirely neat or predictable in how they operate. Many girls, people of non-British heritage and some people of colour very successfully climbed the meritocratic ladder of opportunity even before the dismantling of the White Australia policy in the 1960s and 1970s. But that ascent required certain cultural or material resources, which made it harder for some than others. As early as the 1940s, analysts from the academic fields of economics and sociology – and others – began to publish studies that identified robust correlations between social class and schooling success that had apparently persisted despite the construction of the public education ladders. The spread of systems of ‘comprehensive’ high schools during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, to replace the older, restricted-entry public secondary systems, was partly a response to such analyses of class-based inequality. There were a number of reasons for the dramatic opening of access to secondary schooling in post-Second World War Australia, but certainly the ladder metaphor was no longer central to the official messaging about equality of opportunity. The imagery was more expansive, emphasising such hoped-for outcomes as social cohesion and the fostering of democratic sensibilities. Broadly speaking, comprehensive high schools offered a somewhat wider range of subjects and enrolled all young people of a certain age in their local area, no matter their scholastic ability as measured by tests. This meant, theoretically, that the kind of advancement promised to those pioneering students at Parramatta High had at last become available to all. One concern expressed by reformers had been a lack of faith in the accuracy of the selection methods that set young people on different educational pathways at the age of eleven or so. By the mid-1970s, roughly three quarters of secondary-school students in Australia were enrolled in public high schools, mainly comprehensive, with the other quarter either in Catholic schools or the older elite private schools.

For conservative cultural critics in the 1980s such as the education academic Alan Barcan, who deplored what he saw as declining academic standards in the new high schools, the ladder had become a ‘conveyor belt’. As Barcan saw it, anyone could be pushed along, no special gifts or efforts required. Others argued that the old meritocratic modes still existed within the new comprehensive high schools, despite the messaging, in the form of valuing certain forms of knowledge over others and channelling students who were considered smarter than their peers while others were sidelined. In 1973 the Karmel Committee – appointed by the reformist Whitlam Labor government to review and assess the needs of schools nationally – issued a report that devoted a whole chapter to describing educational inequality. In Australia, the committee found, ‘Among tertiary students of all kinds, the children of manual workers are under-represented and those of higher status families over-represented’. Or, as the sociologist Raewyn Connell caustically argued twenty years later in Schools and Social Justice (1993), ‘Statistically speaking, the best advice we can give to a poor child keen to get ahead through education is to choose richer parents.’

The expansion of comprehensive secondary schooling, and the flatter promotion pathways they promised, might logically have reduced the power of examinations in the sorting and selecting of students. Instead, a number of things happened to intensify the pressure and to reaffirm the examination as a key tool. These included structural economic changes that resulted in the collapse of most of the career pathways for young people, especially young men, that did not require advanced educational credentials. High-school retention rates rose and demand for university places grew. Comprehensive high schools began to lose their market share of enrolments, as new state and federal government education policies in the 1980s and 1990s encouraged parental choice and increased competition between schools. The growth of a new sector of less expensive non-Catholic private schools was facilitated by the generous distribution of federal and state government subsidies, which also contributed to the rising fortunes of the older Catholic and other private schools. In NSW, fresh concern about the education of academically ‘gifted and talented’ children was one of the factors that led to a revitalisation of the academically selective high-school system, now co-existing with the much larger number of comprehensive high schools.

As entry to favoured courses such as law and medicine became more competitive in the 1970s and ’80s, the most elite of the non-government sector threw more and more resources into securing the highest results in the public examinations that mark the end of secondary schooling and constitute the main metric for sorting young people into university and other post-school trajectories. In twenty-first-century NSW, a handful of elite private schools vie each year with the reinvigorated academically selective public high schools for the top marks in the annual Higher School Certificate (HSC). By 2020 the public school share of Australian secondary school enrolments had fallen to around three fifths, with a particular drift away from enrolments in comprehensive high schools.

Despite decades of criticism of examinations as an educational tool, and at least fifty years of annual opinion pieces along the lines of ‘you are more than your HSC mark’, the twenty-first century still apparently cares very much who climbs the ladder and how. One meritocratic shock sustained in the 1990s was the fear that girls, formerly considered to occupy a category of relative disadvantage, were outranking boys in NSW HSC results. Headlines in the main Sydney newspapers included ‘Boys shock HSC losers’ (1995), ‘Test fails boys: alarm at poor HSC results’ (1996), ‘“Crisis” as girls outperform boys’ (1998) and ‘HSC results: the boys are back in town’ (2003). Coinciding with the later stages of the unfolding boys’ HSC crisis was a public debate about the disproportionate success of ‘Asian’ students in gaining entry to the reorganised selective NSW public high schools. Many column inches were devoted to why this was a problem, including the idea – reminiscent of the King’s School headmaster’s criticism of Parramatta High back in the 1910s – that Asian children were too focused on examinations at the expense of developing or exploring other qualities. A common argument was that these students were only doing so well because of excessive test practice and that their success was thereby undeserved.

It is important to note that in neither of these outcries was the meritocratic principle itself seen to be the problem. In both cases the essential sorting mechanism – the examination – remained in place, while public policy attention was paid to addressing the glitches that allowed the wrong people to get ahead. To address the gender crisis, state and federal committees were set up to examine whether boys were being treated fairly by teachers in school classrooms. The NSW selective schools’ entrance tests were reviewed to try to reduce their ‘coachability’ and revised to incorporate a stronger emphasis on English language skills.


IF THE EDUCATIONAL ladder has been in place, one way or another, for all those decades, the work of holding and stabilising it has certainly been transferred. In the last century and a half, schools have transformed the experience and the labour of parenting, reaching right into the family to shape how it operates as a social and economic unit. As more kids have spent more of their lives in schools, the school–family relationship has become one of the most consequential of modern parenting. This has partly been because of how the people who instigated, built and worked in schools saw them as institutions responsible for creating the future social worlds that school students would populate as well as for improving their students’ families in the here and now. It was also because of the intensification of family labour required to support children’s schooling.

A hundred years ago parents might have finished with their children’s schooling by the time they were fourteen or so, being told they had done a good enough job if basic attendance requirements had been met. Now it is not only a longer journey but one that is less about background support and more about all-in participation.

At a visit to Paramatta High School in 1914 one NSW Education Minister claimed there was ‘no Government Department and no civic organisation that comes so intimately into touch with the lives and the homes of the people as the Education Department’. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, schools made aspects of family life visible to outsiders in new ways as teachers made judgments about families based on how children dressed, spoke and behaved at school. The nineteenth-century NSW requirement that Aboriginal children only be admitted to public schools if they were ‘clean, clad and courteous’ is one example. Many school practices faced outwards into the family, such as correcting non-standard patterns of English speech and teaching subjects such as hygiene or domestic science. In the second half of the twentieth century schools were key social and cultural institutions in successive immigration settlement policies – assimilation, multiculturism, integration.

Schools have been important institutions in the explicit and implicit endorsement of certain family forms over others, specifically the father- headed, two-generation family – with other kinds of arrangements treated as exceptions, if tolerated at all. Households of married heterosexual parents with children have dominated school curriculum materials and been the default category for all kinds of routine school administrative regulations and practices, including letters home. In the present day, many religiously affiliated schools continue to defend the right to teach against such things as divorce and same-sex relationships.

Several historians have argued that the establishment of mass elementary schooling was a critical factor in the dramatic decline of the birthrate in places such as Australia at the end of the nineteenth century, as these schools turned children from family workers into economic dependents, deskilling them in practical household chores by soaking up so many of their waking hours. In any case, families grew smaller as children and young people were encouraged – or forced – to spend time in education rather than at work. At the same time families had to organise their lives around the rhythms of the school day and the school year, and this contributed to the conditions that created the kind of close attention by parents to their children’s schooling that is now considered natural.

The extent to which families or parents were themselves invited into schools is complex, varying between groups (race, social class), between places (country and city), between primary and secondary schools, and over time. A small minority participated in groups such as Parents and Citizens Associations and glimpses of occasional, more pointed encounters appear in the historical record, including Indigenous families and communities calling for educational justice. Mostly – at least for the first half of the twentieth- century – parents were encouraged by education departments and school teachers to trust the school to do its job, and this included trusting schools’ assessments of how far up the educational ladder their children were best suited to climb. This message – trust the school – was endorsed in the 1950s and ’60s by popular parenting advice published in mass-market advice books and popular women’s magazines. Broadly speaking, parents in the post- Second World War era were encouraged to be more attentive to intangibles such as wellbeing and psychological nurture than earlier generations, but the bottom line was clear: parents were not educational experts, and they should not interfere. As one Australian Women’s Weekly article put it in 1959, ‘Even if a mother were ideally equipped, even if she were a trained teacher, she might not be the right teacher for her child.’

By the 1980s, however, the same social, economic and political forces that sharpened focus on the terminal school examinations were also intensifying the educational labour of parents. Not only were their children economically dependent for longer, but the stakes had risen. Increasingly, the educational ladder was the only way up – but no longer underpinned by the confidence in public schooling that had characterised the ambitious secondary school expansions of the earlier twentieth century. By the 1990s parents were being encouraged to research and choose their children’s schools from an array of different school types, including private and public. The decision-making rationales and processes of school choice constitute a small academic field of research in themselves, but family wealth and strategic knowhow are clearly an advantage. In the same vein as Connell’s advice to ‘choose richer parents’ is the sociologist Philip Brown’s 1990 proposition that in Britain, an ‘ideology of meritocracy’ had been replaced by an ‘ideology of parentocracy’, whereby ‘a child’s education is increasingly dependent upon the wealth and wishes of parents, rather than the ability and efforts of pupils’.

In 2021 it would be almost impossible to keep track of all the ways in which parents are encouraged to step up, speak up and generally be activist and entrepreneurial in the pursuit of an excellent education for their children. This might include choosing the right school, securing the right after-hours tutor, timetabling an array of extracurricular activities and upgrading the household internet connection. The MySchool website, created by the federal government in 2010, facilitates detailed school comparisons on a range of measures, including test scores, finances and a purpose-built index of ‘socio-educational advantage’. All the while, parents – especially those designated as ‘mothers’ – can be criticised as ‘helicopters’ or ‘steamrollers’ if they do too much, or for just plain ‘not valuing education’ if they do too little. No wonder everybody is exhausted – even before considering the effects of the global pandemic.


IN THE SECOND part of 2021, with greater Sydney in a state of lockdown, Parramatta High School’s buildings were closed, but its teachers continued to work creatively with students and their families to meet a suite of educational milestones and deadlines, including looming annual HSC exams. The old Latin motto Fax mentis incendium gloriae (‘The torch of the mind lights the path of glory’), has been supplemented by a set of ‘core values’ – ‘Respect, Responsibility and Honesty’ – just one of the many shifts the school has been through since 1913. It was a comprehensive high school in the 1980s and now has a mix of comprehensive and selective-entry classes. According to the MySchool website, nearly all the school’s families are relatively recently arrived migrants. Public high schools belong to the only Australian education system open to everyone, educating a disproportionate number of new arrivals to Australia and of young people with complex needs – as well as accommodating a significant proportion of kids who ace the examinations.

These past two years, Australia’s schools and families have been in survival mode. But the pandemic, and in a different way the devastating fire season that immediately preceded it, underscore the importance of exploring questions about the complex contractual relations between schools and families and how these relationships shape broader social structures and processes. For some, the work that schools do is more visible than ever through the phenomenon of the online classroom beamed into the family loungeroom. Will this further entrench ‘parentocratic’ tendencies? For those who are locked down without strong internet connections, the continued conduct of school lessons requires masked teachers and adult family and community members to deliver and pick up paper lessons from central depots. It is too early to tell the equity effects of that – but what kinds of new movements and questioning might such ruptures precipitate?

As a useful metaphor, the ladder has probably had its day, not least because of how it has operated to conceal and embed deeper social inequality. If, in the 1910s, the citizens of Parramatta apparently needed to be taught what a public high school was and did, perhaps in the twenty-first century we need to reconsider what we think we know all too well about what schools do – and how they tell us who we are – in order to make some changes.

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