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Counting national school enrolment shares in Australia: the political arithmetic of declining public school enrolment


In 2017, it was excitedly pronounced across major newspapers in Australia that public schools’ share of student enrolment had increased, marking a “determined end to a 40-year decline”. The claims were bolstered by numerical data, and an accompanied media release, issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. These bold claims immediately caught my attention, first for the assertion they were making and the implications for public schools; but second, for the way in which they potentially elided complex and variable units of analysis, to simplify and stabilise the numbers into a depoliticised narrative. Education reform relies on measurements, quantification and statistics to inform policy, but also to inform public opinion. Drawing on Petty’s notion of political arithmetic and Gorur’s “sociology of measurement”, this paper explores and critiques the role of counting in relation to national school enrolment shares, as divided between public and private schools in Australia.

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  1. For example, see ‘PM Queries the value of State Schools’ (The Age 2004), or ‘sex education curriculum in public schools makes the Prime Minister’s ‘skin curl’’ (McGowan 2018).

  2. Some of the ABS datasets make distinctions between junior secondary and senior secondary—this paper incorporates both junior and senior into one category—‘secondary’. The data relates to full-time students only, not part-time students.

  3. Note that numbers may not add to 100 due to rounding.

  4. It is likely that it has declined since the 1970s, but this paper is only focussing on data from 1996 to 2017.


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Thank you to the anonymous reviewers for their feedback and critique of the earlier versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Emma Rowe.

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Rowe, E. Counting national school enrolment shares in Australia: the political arithmetic of declining public school enrolment. Aust. Educ. Res. 47, 517–535 (2020).

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  • Public schools
  • Sociology of measurement
  • Large-scale comparisons
  • Counting
  • Enrolment shares
  • Private schools