Public Purposes of Education

The public purposes of education across the Western world are based on common ideologies of social justice, liberty and equity (Wiseman, 2010). However, certain purposes gain dominance because of the political processes that reflect the climate of that time in history (Gunzenhauser, 2003; Reid, Cranston, Keating, & Mulford, 2011). There is evidence to support the failure of certain accountability arrangements, such as high-stakes testing in certain jurisdictions, when accounting for learning (Siegel, 2004). In Australia, the lack of alignment between the purposes of education and the federal and state arrangements of educational accountability has an effect on the way some educational leaders perceive their responsibilities of leadership notably their accountability of learning (Cranston, Reid, Mulford, & Keating, 2011). Pertinent to this blog is the educational leader’s ideologies about the purposes of education and the way these could have an effect on their interpretations of leading learning.

The next section identifies the influence of the economic and social climate on the public purposes of education. It identifies Australia’s public purposes of education and explains in general terms the way governments determine the shape and delivery of policy in their assessment-focused accountability and how certain arrangements affect leaders as they carry out the public purpose of education.

The economic, political and social climate for any particular time in history informs the priority given to particular educational purposes (Gunzenhauser, 2003; Reid et al., 2011). For instance in England in 2006, the emphasis was on the challenge to reform education through improvement in performance outputs (Education and Inspections Act, 2006). In the US at the turn of the century, the emphasis was on improvement in learning, with particular attention to closing achievement gaps and minimising disadvantage (“No Child Left Behind Act of 2001,” 2002). In South Korea and Singapore in 2008–2009, the emphasis was on social and economic regeneration (Darling-Hammond, 2010). In Australia, by the turn of the century the emphasis was on citizenship and economic responsibility (Lingard, 2010) as well as individual purpose (Cranston et al., 2011), with an increased accountability for outputs in education (Rowe, 2005).

Governments make choices regarding which public purposes take precedence (Biesta, 2004; Shipps & White, 2009). In education, economic aims have been pushed to the foreground (Siegel, 2004). For instance, in England at the turn of the century, one of the economic aims involved a significant vocational aspect, such as individual employment and social well-being through economic prosperity (Wilkins, 2002). This section examines the choices that the Australian Government has made in determining which purposes of education should take precedence.

Public Purposes in Australian Education

In the era of the federal Labor Government (2007–2012), a priority on citizens being competent economic contributors increased the focus on performance results in education (Lingard, 2010) rather than inputs on resources (Rowe, 2005). This economic priority, combined with the priorities from the Howard era that promoted choice of schooling, found their expression in the dominant assessment-focused accountability arrangements in this country.

According to (Reid et al., 2011), during the time of this study, Australia’s public purposes of education were dominated by three aspects: the democratic purpose, in which ‘society expects its schools to prepare young people to be active and competent participants in democratic life’; the individual purpose, which ‘aims to advantage the individual in social and economic life’; and the economic purpose, which ‘aims to prepare young people as competent economic contributors’ (p. 20, underline added). That is, the purposes that had precedence in Australia at the time of this study were the individual and economic purposes (Cranston et al., 2011; Reid et al., 2011).

The economic and individual priorities of these educational purposes were reflected in elements such as the structures of schooling, the culture and processes of schooling, and importantly for Norris’s research, the assessment and reporting practices of the official curriculum (Reid et al., 2011). These priorities and the way they have shaped education policies in Australia are discussed below.

In the period of the Howard Liberal federal government (1996–2007) the individual purpose in education was a significant priority, with education policy aiming ‘to advantage the individual in social and economic life’ (Reid et al., 2011, p. 20) and shaping policies that were premised on a view of education as a commodity (Bezzina, 2000). One priority, reflecting the individual purpose, was the emphasis on facilitating parents’ and students’ choice of school (Lingard, 2010; Reid et al., 2011). ‘Choice of school’ is characteristic of a neoliberal world view, which is believed by some to be a normalised practice in current Australian education (Angus, 2015). This emphasis, in turn, may have influenced the accountability mechanisms being used. For instance in Australia, reflecting this individual purpose, the My School website provides parents and students with public information on student performance results, to help them choose a school (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2009). The possible effects that these priorities may have on leaders are of interest, especially for those engaged in the leadership of learning and teaching.


Angus, L. (2015). School choice: neoliberal education policy and imagined futures. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(3), 395-413.

Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2009). My School and Beyond, from

Bezzina, M. (2000). Catholic Education: Corporate Commodity or Common Good. Paper presented at the The Inaugural Ann D. Clark Lecture, Parramatta, Sydney, Australia.

Biesta, G. J. J. (2004). Education, Accountability, and the Ethical Demand: Can the Democratic Potential of Accountability Be Regained? Educational Theory, 54(3), 233-250. doi: 10.1111/j.0013-2004.2004.00017.x

Cranston, N., Reid, A., Mulford, B., & Keating, J. (2011). What do we know about the purposes of education and their enactment in Australian primary schools? Tha Australian Educational Leader, 33(3), 20-25.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The Flat World and Education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gunzenhauser, M. G. (2003). High-Stakes Testing and the Default Philosophy of Education. Theory Into Practice, 42(1), 51-58. doi: 10.1207/s15430421tip4201_7

Lingard, B. (2010). Policy borrowing, policy learning: testing times in Australian schooling. Critical studies in Education, 51(2), 129-147.

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001,  107-110  (2002).

Reid, A., Cranston, N., Keating, J., & Mulford, B. (2011). Bringing back the public purposes of education. Professional Educator, 10?, 20-23.

Rowe, K. (2005). Evidence for the kinds of feedback data that support both student and teacher learning. Paper presented at the The Australian Council for Educational Research 2005 Conference, Melbourne.

Shipps, D., & White, M. (2009). A New Politics of the Principalship? Accountability-Driven Change in New York City. Peabody Journal of Education, 84(3), 350-373. doi: 10.1080/01619560902973563

Siegel, H. (Ed.). (2004). What ought matter in public schooling: Judgment, standards, and responsible accountability. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wiseman, A. W. (2010). The Uses of Evidence for Educational Policymaking: Global Contexts and International Trends. Review of Research in Education, 34(1), 1-24. doi: 10.3102/0091732×09350472


3 thoughts on “Public Purposes of Education

  1. Unfortunately, I have experienced in real life principal who tried at every juncture to ‘doctor’ the schools NAPLAN results including marketing to parents way outside the normal catchment zone, encouraging low academic performing students to not be at school on the day of assessment and spruiking the school’s results as if she somehow/ they were the result of extraordinary practices at the school. The correlation with lack of collaboration that has be hinted at in other literature was also very much in evidence. In terms of school’s purpose I am not convinced the school was performing very well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you James for your honesty. The public scrutiny of results places pressure on some principals. The pressure is manifested in many different ways – from pseudo curriculum to absenting students for. the test.


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