This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Gerry Redmond, Gill Main, Alexander O’Donnell, Jennifer Skattebol, Richard Woodman, Anna Mooney, Joanna Wang, Sabera Turkmani, Catherine Thomson and Fiona Brooks. Click here to access the article.
While the term ‘social exclusion’ is no longer used in official policy discourses in most English-speaking OECD countries, the issue of social exclusion remains a key problem for social policy. As the UK sociologist Ruth Lister puts it, social exclusion suggests a concept of social division that is familiar to readers of Charles Dickens, where encounters between poor people and more advantaged people usually only take place under carefully prescribed circumstances, and usually with little mutual warmth or conviviality.
Schools are one such place where encounters between poor and non-poor students are commonplace. Our research examined how these encounters played out. Using data from a national survey of young Australians (age 13-14), we compared school experiences of young people who reported being in a low affluence family, or being deprived of things that most young people take for granted (for example, a mobile phone, clothes to fit in with other people their age, pocket money, or being able to go on school camp), with experiences of young people who reported high levels family affluence and low levels of deprivation. We focused on three experiences; (i) young people’s satisfaction with their school life, (ii) their perceptions of support from teachers, and (iii) their experiences of bullying by peers. While poverty was not found to be a consistent predictor of satisfaction with school, we found that young people from poor backgrounds were significantly more likely than their more advantaged peers to report low levels of support from teachers and high levels of bullying. Moreover, we also found that poor young people reported significantly lower levels of subjective wellbeing, or life satisfaction, and that experiences of low teacher support and bullying explained a significant proportion of the relationship between poverty and life satisfaction.
When policymakers talk about ‘social exclusion’, they often do so with the purpose of encouraging people to take responsibility for overcoming their own exclusion (for example, by getting a job, or doing well at school). On the other hand, social policy academics often seek to identify exclusion as a structural issue, facilitated by broader inequalities in society (this is what Ruth Lister is alluding to in her descriptions of encounters with poverty in Dickens’ writing). In our paper, we looked at young people’s actual experiences of exclusion – there is nothing abstract about being bullied, or not having a teacher to call on when you need support. We showed that these experiences are directly associated with experiences of poverty, and that they in turn are associated with subjective wellbeing – a predictor of mental health problems in adulthood.
Policymakers accept that these experiences matter. For example, they invest significant resources in anti-bullying and social-emotional wellbeing programs at school and in other settings. Yet the policy focus on individual responsibility rings through in these programs. Policy sees the agents of exclusion – those who do the excluding – as the young people who bully, or the teachers who do not provide support. In doing so however, they failing to ask some important questions. For example, why should these experiences fall most heavily on poorer young people? Do the principal goals of education policy in Australia and other rich countries – to continually improve student academic performance as measured in national and international tests – trump concerns with experiences of exclusion at school?
It’s not just that education policy uses testing regimes to improve student academic performance. These same testing regimes are used to hold teachers (and schools) to account for their performance. In a national context, schools that can show above average test results can attract more students, while schools with below average results can be branded as ‘failed’ schools and attract fewer students and resources. In an international context, education systems that show high average achievement are seen as promoting stronger productivity and economic growth. Support for students who encounter difficulties or who experience bullying is often provided through individual-focused programs which portray bullying as an individual problem. Larger societal forces – such as those which result in poorer students being much more likely than more advantaged students to experience exclusion at school – are ignored. Policy focus remains firmly fixed on individuals (whether excluded or excluding), rather than on societal structures which not only facilitate inequalities such as those manifested by poverty, but which also create, perpetuate, and legitimise particular forms of exclusion.
While educational interventions that directly focus on bullying or teaching practice can produce positive impacts, they do not address material disadvantage that is strongly associated with exclusion. In the Australian context, as in other countries in recent years, policies that impact material disadvantage among families with children have focused on reducing the generosity of payments, for example by freezing means tested payments to families, or changing the conditions under which payments are awarded. The last time (in 1987) the Australian Government pledged to address child poverty, child poverty rates fell significantly; however rates of child poverty have not fallen significantly since, and Australia remains mid-table in the OECD child poverty rankings. Our analysis suggests that policies to reduce child poverty may perhaps also have an impact on young people’s experiences of social exclusion, and on their subjective wellbeing.
About the authors
Gerry Redmond is Professor and Dean of Research at Flinders University.
Gill Main is Professor of Childhood, Youth and Social Justice at the University of Leeds.
Alexander O’Donnell is Lecturer at the University of Tasmania.
Jennifer Skattebol is a Researcher at the University of New South Wales.
Richard Woodman is Professor in Biostatistics and Epidemiology at Flinders University.
Anna Mooney is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Macquarie University.
Joanna Wang is Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney.
Sabera Turkmani is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney.
Catherine Thomson is a Researcher at the University of New South Wales.
Fiona Brooks is Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences at Auckland University of Technology.