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School leadership and ‘language games’ in neoliberal times: A critical ethnographic case study of the Independent Public School policy in Western Australia

Browning, Iain W. P. (2021) School leadership and ‘language games’ in neoliberal times: A critical ethnographic case study of the Independent Public School policy in Western Australia. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis is a critical policy ethnography (CPE) of school leaders in three low socio-economic indicator (SEI) government schools in Western Australia (WA) that have achieved Independent Public School (IPS) status under the state’s IPS policy. It draws on the stories of school leaders to understand the logics, processes, and tensions they experience in enacting this policy maneuver, and how it is negotiated and resolved at the school level (Ball, 2003).

The introduction of WA’s IPS policy occurs in the context of a distinct and well-documented shift in the ideological forces driving education policy in the Western world. Such a shift has resulted in the ascendancy of neoliberalism as the dominant discourse within government education policy formation. Further, this shift is clearly evident in responses provided by the school leaders throughout this thesis.

Central to this thesis is the argument that independent or autonomous government schools are part of what Lyotard (1984) terms ‘language games.’ These language games occur within a broader set of neoliberal discourses driven by the idea of ‘homo economicus,’ which governs the ways in which individuals conceive of themselves and society. Such a reconceptualization of homo economicus represents an elemental disruption of democracy as individuals within the neoliberal language game strategize for themselves (Dilts, 2011).

The use of CPE provides an opportunity to locate the daily experiences of school leaders in the context of these broader ideological shifts as it relates to the enactment of the IPS policy at three school sites. Ethnography also allows an anthropological approach to the study through seeking to describe participants’ actions, intentions, motives, and reasons. In selecting this particular methodological approach, the voices of participants are given center stage. CPE is a methodology that critically examines the ways in which official policy discourses constitute the lived realities of individuals. In this case, the formal school leadership is comprised of heads of learning areas, deputy principals and principals.

The thesis makes a specific contribution to research by examining the broader effects of neoliberal language games through the enactment of the IPS policy in WA via a range of primary and secondary sources. In particular, it examines the effect of the enactment of the IPS policy from the perspective of school leaders in socially disadvantaged WA government high schools.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Education
Supervisor(s): Down, Barry and Thompson, Greg
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