Social democracy and education: the formation of party policy on the question of comprehensive schooling in England and Austria
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Embargo end date08/07/2020
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This PhD investigates how the British Labour Party and the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) have changed their position on the issue of comprehensive schooling since the 1980s, motivated by a wider interest in how social-democratic parties have interpreted their goals and strategies in education policy after the ‘golden age’ of social-democratic educational reform in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout the 20th century, the question of whether children should be sorted based on their academic ability into different educational tracks has been one of the most controversial issues in education policy in Western Europe. Since the 1960s and 1970s, when reform movements sought to widen educational opportunities by abolishing academic selection in secondary schooling, comprehensive schooling has remained a reference point in often-passionate political debates over the purpose of education. At their core, debates over comprehensive schooling have focused on the relationship between educational selection, opportunities and standards; however, this policy has also become an umbrella for various reform ambitions and aversions concerning the organisation, content and governance of public schooling. While these controversies tend to be portrayed as a conflict between conservative and progressive perspectives, the positions of political parties on comprehensive schooling have not always been clear-cut. Although officially supporters of comprehensive schooling, social democratic parties often struggled to balance more radical aspirations for educational change with pragmatic strategies to expand educational opportunities within existing educational structures. Changing discursive and electoral contexts since the 1980s have given rise to additional challenges for these parties and their attempts to develop a vision and strategy for education policy. This research aims to contribute to better understandings of: 1) the different meanings a shared policy aspiration can acquire in different contexts and at different points in time, and 2) how such meanings are constructed, in this case, through the processes in which collective attitudes and policy preferences are formed within political parties. Building on a dialectical conception of political parties, this study understood political parties both as political actors who try to navigate external political arenas as well as internally differentiated coalitions which aim to unite different demands and have over time created shared understandings and collective norms. This research argues that investigating the interplay of parties’ engagement with their external environment and their internal dynamics can provide a more nuanced understanding of what parties want and do in education policy and why. In two in-depth case studies, this research traced processes of policy formation and contestation within the SPÖ and the Labour Party (with a focus on education policy in England) since the 1980s. Drawing on 41 interviews and a wide range of documentary sources, the empirical investigation paid particular attention to the actors involved in these processes, their ‘assumptive worlds’ and interactions in shaping policy. Based on the case study findings, this study then comparatively analysed on how shared concerns and dilemmas of social-democratic parties in the area of education policy have played out in different political and educational contexts. The case studies revealed considerable variation in the policy preferences, ideas and processes through which the Labour Party and the Austrian Social Democrats have interpreted and reformulated their positions on comprehensive schooling over time. These findings indicate not only the variety and fluidity of meaning that a shared policy idea can assume across political contexts and over time, but also the interdependence between such meanings and the processes in which collective preferences are formed. Despite their symbolic attachment to comprehensive schooling, both parties displayed a considerable degree of ambivalence in their vision and strategy for educational reform, which sometimes made it difficult to even determine their ‘official’ policy on comprehensive schooling. As such, this research indicates not only that political parties’ policy preferences are shaped by struggles at different ‘sites’ within the party where policy is created, contested and reinterpreted. The tensions between these different sites and demands also provide important insights into the nature of political parties as complex political organisations which a have their own identities and internal lives and whose policies are shaped by both their specific pasts and their ongoing attempts to make sense of themselves in their particular context. The historical and comparative perspective of this research further indicated that the institutional context (particularly political institutions and the ‘feedback effects’ of previous education policy) exerted considerable influence over actors’ perceptions of what is ‘possible’ and ‘desirable’ in educational reform in England and Austria. Highlighting the role of institutions, this study at the same time showed that the particular trajectory of the two parties’ struggles over comprehensive schooling cannot be understood without recognising the agency of a handful of key individuals, whose personal beliefs and various attempts to mobilise and construct opportunities for (and constraints on) change have left clear marks on the two parties’ visions and strategies for educational reform.