Building Unity out of Diversity in Australian Schools:

Making 'One Nation' the Sum of its Parts.


Bill Cope, Mary Kalantzis & Scott Poynting


Australia now has one of the most culturally diverse populations of any nation in the world and this diversity is almost entirely a product of a post World War Two immigration program which, in per capita terms, has been second only to that of Israel . The diversity, however, was not part of the initial plan but rather a product of circumstances.

While the British Isles were always the first focus in the drive to recruit these post-war immigrants, 'racially acceptable' immigrants from Northern and Central Europe were also recruited by the Australian State in the early stages of this massive migration program. And when it soon became obvious that migration from these areas would not be able to meet the labour needs of the postwar boom, immigrants from Southern Europe - notably from Italy and Greece - were increasingly encouraged as well. This was to continue throughout the 1950s and 1960s. From the 1970s the net was further widened to include countries beyond Europe - to the Middle East, which meant predominantly Turkey and Lebanon and, still later, Latin America. The end of the Vietnam War also saw increasing numbers migrating from South-East Asia - initially many of them as refugees.

The consequence of this extraordinary half-century of immigration is an Australian population which has shifted from being 90% Australian-born and overwhelmingly anglophone in 1947; to the current diversity which is made up of about 100 ethnic groups and 80 immigrant languages (Castles, Kalantzis, Cope and Morrissey, 1988: 24-25). The most recent census (ABS, 1996) indicated that almost 4 million out of a population of around 18 million were born overseas, with more than half of these born in countries where English is not the main language spoken. The most prevalent countries of origin are the United Kingdom (about 1.1 million), New Zealand (290,000), Italy (almost 240,000), Vietnam (150,000), Greece (130,000), China (110,000), Germany (110,000), the Philippines (93,000), the Netherlands (88,000), Malaysia (76,000), India (78,000), Lebanon (70,000), Hong Kong (68,000), Poland (65,000), South Africa (56,000) Ireland (52,000), Malta (51,000), the former Yugoslav Republic (51,000), the United States (50,000). Of the Australian-born, some 2.6 million had fathers born in overseas countries (a little over half of these being the Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States); while 2.2 million had mothers born abroad, with much the same proportion from the above group of countries where English is largely spoken. Some 13.5 million (over five years old) are monolingual English-speakers; while 2.5 million speak a language other than English (LOTE). Somewhat over 300,000 identified themselves as Aboriginal. This extraordinary cultural diversity is reflected, of course, in Australia's school population, but it is regretably not always as strongly reflected in their teaching.

Unfortunately the existing 'disarray in the collection of ethnicity data' (Cahill, 1996:150) means that statistics on the ethnic background of students in Australian schools overall are less than adequate for the educational researcher. However, we can present here some indication from the two most populous and most ethnically diverse states, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria. Of these NSW has the most people born abroad in a non-English-speaking country, with 14.9% in 1991. In 1992, there were 141,548 students, or 18.8% of the school population, whose 'main language ... spoken in the home' was 'other than English' &endash; the only relevant statistic kept by the NSW government. Previously Victoria had long possessed the largest percentage of population of non-English-speaking immigrant background, but shifts in the migrant influx since the mid-1980s have produced a relative decrease. However, Victoria's statistical measure of NESB, which is broader than that of NSW, gives 134,854 NESB school students in 1992, or 25.2% of the school population (Cahill, 1996: 21, 23).

Historically Australian society has handled this remarkable diversity exceedingly well. Currently, however, the political and cultural situation with regard to this diversity is becoming for the first time a highly volatile one - a fact which is now presenting important and inescapable challenges to education professionals, from classroom teachers to senior bureaucrats. The present division between the major political parties over the issue of immigration is of very recent origin. From the mid-century, in fact, there has been broad bipartisan support from the major political parties for immigration policies, and to the development of approaches for managing this cultural diversity. Since the late 1960s this political concurrence has seen both governments and oppositions agree to the abandonment of the overtly racist 'White Australia' immigration policy; the replacment of assimilationist policies in relation to both immigrant and indigenous peoples with various forms of multiculturalism; and (at least at the rhetorical level) the granting of self-determination for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

The leadup to the 1996 federal election, however, put an end to this agreement as the conservatives launched a virulent ideological attack on what they defined as 'political correctness' which included attacks on 'the multicultural industry' and 'the black armband view of history'. After coming to office the conservative Coalition government, whose leadership had articulated these views and taken advantage of their escalation into extreme forms widely held to be unacceptable in Australian politics since the demise of the 'White Australia Policy' (see, e.g. Hanson, 1996), did little to put a brake on the growing unrest. Unfortunately, this racialisation of politics and culture has not been effectively challenged by the Labor Opposition, so that although it is not unopposed within the Prime Minister's own Liberal Party (Cope and Kalantzis, 1997), there appears by default to be a climate of acceptance to a situation which could well become progressively more unstable.

This ideological climate has already had profound impact for teachers. Although the eventual policy outcomes are not yet clear, this present article is, by necessity, being written in a situation of flux. Despite 'the greater competence of specialist teachers of immigrant students and the leadership of more confident and knowledgeable principals', Desmond Cahill reports, 'many of the gains of the 1980s are on hold or are in reverse; there is a sense of stepping back from the enthusiasm and the energies of the early 1980s to respond to the needs of immigrant and refugee students as a certain tiredness and smugness and covert hostility have crept in' (1997:2).

A brief historical outline will serve to sketch here just what had been achieved, and by definition therefore so recently lost, by the early 1990s in intercultural education. It is only by outlining just how great these gains were; and by describing precisely what sort of assimilationism that 'multiculturalism' originally replaced, that a true measure of what is being lost can be made.

In keeping with a national ethnic affairs policy of assimilation during the 1950s and 60s, it is unsurprising that 'educational bureaucracies ... simply denied that the experience of migrant children or their teachers was in any way different from anyone else's' (Martin, 1978:133). Immigrant children were just pushed off the deep end into a supposed monolingual, monocultural mainstream, and expected to swim, perhaps with a little help from well-meaning neighbours:

The fact that the New Australian child is eager to master the language and, indeed is forced to do so if he [sic] wishes to take his place amongst Australian children, makes the teacher's task much easier. It has been found that children with little or no command of English appreciate being given an 'adjustment period' of a fortnight or so during which they can observe their new class and 'get the feel' of the new conditions without being unduly worried by formal classwork. The adjustment process is helped by seating the migrant beside a sympathetic Australian child (NSW Department of Education, The Education Gazette, 1951, cited in Kalantzis, Cope, Noble and Poynting, 1990: 16).

This policy of indifference to differential needs was, as Fazal Rizvi (1985:11) points out, 'ludicrously cheap to the State'. As well as this economic consideration, the strategy of demanding that migrant children merely 'fit in', unassisted, served ideologically to make individual migrants appear responsible for their own fate. For migrants it was very much a case of sink or swim. Clearly, some swam, with varying levels of effectiveness. Others, however, would have sunk without a trace. It was, it would seem, like any other ruthless process, entirely up to the individual. For government policy was premised on the idea that:

... the success of migrant adaptation depended 'fundamentally, not on structures and policies, but on the goodwill of individual migrants and individual Australians' and that 'it would be contrary to the prevailing egalitarian values and detrimental to assimilation for migrants, as migrants, to be given unique privileges or consideration of any kind (Martin, 1976, cited in Rizvi, 1985:11; see also Foster, 1987:221).

This ideology possesses strong resonances with those extreme right wing views being articulated by Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party in 1997 - the key difference in effect being that NESB immigrant communities are now organised and strong enough politically to insist that their interests are not again overlooked as they were in the 1950s and 60s.

By the late 1960s, such assimilationism had become obviously untenable. The influential report of Ronald Henderson and others, People in Poverty, found in 1969 that 'all groups of recent migrants had a higher proportion of poor people than the population as a whole'. Southern European immigrants, particularly, were much more likely to be living in poverty than the Australian average (Henderson et al, cited in Collins, 1975: 118-119). The Australian Council of Social Services found that 'migrants were ... subject to discrimination and deprivation in the fields of health, education, social services, political participation and legal rights', with one Victorian survey in 1962 recording that 'only 20 per cent of migrant children in schools receive adequate English tuition and even these children receive instruction under extremely poor physical conditions' (cited in Collins, 1975:119). In an attempt to combat this, the Italian welfare association Co.As.It. was founded in 1967, followed by the Australian Greek Welfare Society in 1969. By 1972 a 'migrant vote' had begun to demand a voice (Castles, et al, 1988: 60).

Andrew Jakubowicz believes that this created a growing legitimation crisis for the State; a crisis which necessitated important developments in social policy leading directly to the eventual abandonment of the policy of assimilation:

If equality would not automatically flow to Australian-born children of non-English speaking immigrants, then their commitment to the system that had offered a refuge to their parents might be threatened. Constant repetition of 'I love a sunburnt country' was no replacement for the dim futures facing tens of thousands of children classed as slow learners because of their ethnic background and language skills (Jakubowicz, 1981).

Consequently from the 1970s a series of social welfare reforms began to construct the outlines of a new policy designed to replace assimilation - integration. In 1971, the Commonwealth-funded Child Migrant Education Program (CMEP) was introduced, fundamentally to provide English as a Second Language (ESL) tuition for migrant children in schools. Numbers of ESL teachers and children in special classes increased tenfold from 1970 to 1976, to 2,291 teachers and 90,810 children, at a cost of $13.1 million in 1975, the final complete year of CMEP operation. Jean Martin records how this growth was not anticipated, and that the Program brought to light the many children with problems which had previously been overlooked or ascribed to individual incapacity (Martin, 1978:113-114).

Clearly, such growth would prove to be unsustainable following the fiscal crisis of the State in the recessional wake of the 1974 'Oil Shock'. Jerzy Zubrzycki, in recommending in 1968 'a special education policy for migrant children', had noted that 'the problem calls for bold and necessarily costly measures' [emphasis added] (cited in Martin, 1978: 107). The mid-seventies was not a time for fiscal boldness and costly State measures; yet nor was a return to 'ludicrously cheap' assimilationism a politically tenable one. The first report, in June 1975, of the Schools Commission initiated by the Labor Government in its dying days as a reforming party, proposed that the CMEP be wound up, and that 'funds for child migrant education should be provided to the States through the General Recurrent Grants Program of the Schools Commission', which was effected by the incoming Coalition Government in 1976 (Martin, 1978:123, citing the Schools Commission, 1975). Jean Martin notes that 'Labor's curtailment of government expenditure in 1975 and the tougher restrictions introduced after the Liberal Party won power again at the end of that year ... resulted in embryonic developments [in migrant education] being delayed or stifled for lack of funds ...' (1978:119-120).

The CMEP was but one aspect of the Australian government shift in policy from assimilation to that of 'integration'. The mental leap here was the acceptance that 'migrants no longer needed to totally and immediately discard their cultural past and become part of an homogenised Australian culture', along with a 'recognition of migrant disadvantage and of the need for government policy to redress the most blatant examples' (Collins, 1991:231). The policy of integration formed an historical transition from assimilation to multiculturalism. It was a period of subtle changes and developments; tiny steps and small victories. But it was groundbreaking. And it was perceptible change. So while Al Grassby, Labor Minister for Immigration from 1972 to 1974 in the Whitlam Government, is usually credited with instituting multiculturalism as State policy in his famous 'Family of the Nation' speech (1973), with its emphasis on ameliorating disadvantage and building unity, this new multiculturalism was not clearly distinguishable from integration and it certainly did not spring direct from its opposite, assimilation.

True to its spirit of reform, with Labor's admonition to the Australian people that 'It's Time' for change ringing through the country, Grassby's wholehearted support and development of the concept of multiculturalism stamped it irreversibly with his name. However, the full-blown multiculturalism was not to take shape until the conservative Coaltion Fraser Government which ousted Labor in 1975, developed the form of a 'neo-conservative policy of cultural pluralism which attempted to dismantle Labor's welfare reformism, not to build upon it' (Kalantzis, et al, 1990:19). Epitomised in the Galbally Report (1978), this was to be a multiculturalism of recruiting 'ethnic communities', usually under the leadership of conservative, middle-class spokespeople for the community (Jakubowicz, Morrissey, and Palser, 1984), as 'self-help welfare agencies' dispensing minimally financed 'ethnic specific' services. It 'was a clear, determined and extremely cost-effective element in pruning and re-constructing the welfare state'. 'Ethnic schools' were an example of this type of multiculturalism. And in multicultural education, the new Multicultural Education Program took on a 'lifestyles' approach (Kalantzis, et al, 1990:20).

This idea is well exemplified in a report of the Schools Commission (1981), which held that:

The plurality of Australian society is demonstrated by the variety of values, lifestyles, political viewpoints, beliefs and roles which operate. This holds true in a racial and ethnic sense: while Anglo-Celtic values and traditions continue to dominate Australian society, the social composition of Australia continues to change in terms of numbers and representation of different national groups [emphasis added].

This marks the shift from the early multiculturalist project of cultural reform, which still harbored a residual integrationism in that all are seen to be entitled to the socio-linguistically powerful forms of the dominant culture, and equal access must be given to these, to that of a pluralist multiculturalism of cultural relativism, where cultures are simply proclaimed to be equal and their diversity superficially celebrated. The 'spaghetti and polka' (Kalantzis and Cope, 1981) approach of school multicultural days, where culture is fetished as exotic food, folk dance and colourful national costume, is an example of this approach (Kalantzis et al, 1990:21-22).

Joseph Lo Bianco has identified two poles in multicultural social policies which have been reflected in education policy. One is the 'stress on the needs of minority communities to equip them with the linguistic skills and cultural knowledge so that their adjustment to the dominant societal values would be eased, and to bring about social justice, occupational mobility and educational equity ...', which has already been discussed above. The other is 'the enrichment to the whole society through diversity and social pluralism', giving rise in education to community languages initiatives and 'multicultural perspectives' across the curriculum (1990: vii). The second pole faced the same setbacks as the first in the mid-seventies funding cuts, but proved, historically, more amenable to incorporation into the new multiculturalist project of the Australian State.

The Committee on the Teaching of Migrant Languages in Schools (Mather et al,1976) recommended, among other things, the teaching of community languages in primary and secondary schools; language maintenance programs in schools for NESB migrants; intercultural study from early primary school onwards; English across the curriculum approaches; and bilingual education programs. While all of these innovations were eventually to be found in 1989 in those Victorian and NSW schools identified by their systems as exemplary in providing for cultural minorities, they faced endemic funding difficulties at this time, and thus the projects developing them tended to be localised, small-scale, and relatively short-lived (Kalantzis, et al, 1990).

This emphasis on cultural diversity and linguistic maintenance, introduced under Fraser-Galbally multiculturalism, with 'limited rationales of self-esteem and cultural maintenance and inadequate funding', continued in the first three years of the Hawke Labor Government from 1983 to 1986 (Kalantzis, et al, 1990:22-23). Cahill sees the years 1979 to 1986 as 'the high-water mark in immigrant and multicultural education' (1996:15). After this date the monetarist 'economic rationalism' of the later Hawke Government, combined with economic recession in the early 1980s and attendant anti-immigration (particularly anti-Asian) attacks spearheaded by right-wing academics and public figures such as Geoffrey Blainey and tabloid and talkback media populists, all led to severe federal budget cuts to ESL teaching and multicultural education in schools in 1986 (Castles et al, 1988: 74-75; Collins, 1991:243). The Jupp Report of that year (Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1986) had retreated from the use of the term 'multicultural' in the face of attacks on the 'multicultural industry' and belief in the decline of the 'ethnic vote', but had reasserted in theory a social-democratic concern with social equity as against the ethno-specific service provision of the preceding regimen. In practice, however, the 'mainstreaming' of educational and other programs for migrants amounted to little more than a rationalising of cutbacks (Castles et al, 1988:74-79; Kalantzis, et al 1990:25).

One tack which could make headway in this current was the argument that the learning of LOTEs, as well as ESL, and indeed the productive harnessing of cultural diversity through education and training, was an economically advantageous way to proceed. An important turning point in this respect was the National Policy on Languages (Lo Bianco, 1987). Arising out of a languages lobby organised by the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia, it combines government interest in Asian languages of trading partners with the ethnic communities' interest in language maintenance. In languages education, it stipulated English for everyone; support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages; and a LOTE for every school student. Some $69 million was allocated for these ends from mid-1988 to 1989, including $13 million per annum for the extension of ESL provision and $7.5 million for 'community' languages and 'languages of economic importance' .

These comparatively small amounts of money, of course, have been inadequate to the tasks set them, and have, in any case, been consistently reduced in subsequent budgets. Moreover, by subsuming multicultural education under language education, the need for those vital socio-cultural programmes which are essential for schools to address racism (the funding for which was chopped in the 1986 budget) could be conveniently overlooked (Kalantzis, et al 1990:26). It is this crucial lacuna which was subsequently to prove critical in the face of increasing social and cultural unease.

Finally, in 1988, the Fitzgerald Report (Committee to Advise on Australia's Immigration Policies, 1988) went futher than than merely shying away from the term multiculturalism. Rather it recommended a regression to pre-multiculturalist principles: that immigrants should preferably be English-speakers, skilled, businesspeople and the like; and that attachment to a unified national identity ought to take precedence over multiculturalism. This left even more of a problem as to how, in the absence of a working multiculturalism, it would be possible to deal with the issue of racism.

The following year, when the Hawke Government released its National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia, a further turn was made towards Asia with a trade and investment orientation propping up a reasserted multiculturalism which, as the conservative Lachlan Chipman, longstanding opponent of multiculturalism, pointed out, contained 'little that an assimilationist or an integrationist ... would disagree with'. Its terms were increased ESL provision, better recognition of overseas qualifications, and the like (cited in Kalantzis, et al 1990:28).

Even this, however, smacked too strongly of the 'political correctness' of a 'multicultural industry' based on 'the black armband view of history' for a triumpant conservative Coalition government riding to power on a wave of economic and social disatisfaction with Labor's failing vision for Australia. The current climate of social dissatisfaction and the growth of extreme right wing groups such as Pauline Hanson's One Nation party, certainly owes a not inconsiderable debt to the Coalition Government's lack of direction at what has proven to be a critical time. However, the seeds of this unrest - the confusion felt by many in a heightened form during this period of social and economic uncertainty - are not just the product of the last few years during which multiculturalism became insidiously unravelled. Rather, they are also a product of a problem intrinsic to the conceptual makeup of pluralism itself.

The historical move from educational theories and practices whose project was assimilation, to philosophies and practices of pluralism which regard 'minority' students as their exclusive concern has created as many new problems as it has solved old ones. From this experience, it is now time to move on to new visions of multicultural education, visions which have the potential to transform pedagogy for all students, and to reconstitute mainstream social and educational practices in the interests of all.

To do this, we need to reconsider the most basic terms of the debate. Unsatisfactory conceptual constructs often creep into the terms of reference, and these colour the analysis as a whole. Taking one of the most fundamental of these key terms, the presence of a 'majority' implied in the concept 'minority' accepts the aggregating pretensions of groups that would like to think of themselves as a majority. In Australia, the majority is frequently referred to as Anglo-Celtic, both by government agencies as they deal with diversity, and in popular discourse. But again, this is an absurd aggregation of groups that have traditionally defined their identity against the other's imperial predilections: the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh against the English, for example, not to mention the vehement traditions of regional and class cultural and linguistic differentiation even within England. The idea of Anglo-Celt, historically and culturally, is no more meaningful than Palestineo-Israeli or Turko-Greek.

Similarly, the concept of 'race' does not describe a physiological or phenotypical reality that has any social significance beyond the construction historically put upon it by racist discourse. 'Race', in common usage now, describes a social relation rather than something of biological significance.

But if the categories of 'majority' and 'minority' have become a fiction this doesn't mean that there is not a dominant - a group that imagines itself to be a majority bound by 'race' and culture in order to justify its social position and projects itself across social realms into powerful positions of cultural symbolism, politics and socio-economic power. It is this dominant that generates categories like 'White' and 'Anglo-Celt', and along with them the complementary categorisation 'minorities'.

A multicultural education that accepts these categories and accepts its brief to be for 'minorities' exclusively, brings with it two kinds of limitations. First, it limits its charter to those so-called 'minorities', who are possibly in need of some sort of remedial help to improve their social access, or simply in need of cultural affirmation. In reality, however, it neglects that part of the so-called 'majority' which is both culturally and socio-economically much more fractured than this simple category would suggest. A large number of those the dominant conceives to be members of its own apparent majority do not understand themselves to be majority/dominant, at least not unequivocally so or so all the time. The 'problem' of cultural and linguistic diversity, in other words, is a much bigger one than the dominant culture can visualise.

Secondly, an exclusive concern for the schooling of 'minorities', formulated under the rubric of pluralism, does not necessarily mean that this sort of multicultural education does the best thing even for the students that it conventionally regards as its own constituency. In particular, it accepts the minority/majority distinction in such a way that it is unable to reconstruct the mainstream or dominant culture.

The project of multicultural education needs to be more than a 'live and let live' pluralism which satisfies itself with affirming diversity. Unless multicultural education considers itself to be a mainstream issue - an issue that has the potential to transform the mainstream in positive ways - the inequitable relation of different cultural and linguistic groups will remain unchanged. What we need is an equitable multiculturalism in which cultural difference is effectively employed as a resource for securing social access for all.

In schools, teachers faced with very practical everyday needs that are not met by pluralist multiculturalism have found themselves, by dint of necessity, moving towards a multiculturalism oriented to social equity and the practical needs of all students. In a study of this phenomenon, we found teachers cynical about 'the stuff on festivals' that seemed to sum up the tokenism and bad faith of the pluralist version of a multiculturalism that produced stereotypes and which had as much potential to feed into racism as to alleviate it.

What we need is not a multiculturalism of irreducible difference. Rather, it is a multiculturalism that is a core social and educational value; a positive, value-laden response to diversity; an evolving, negotiated and renegotiated set of common principles; a dialogue of centre and margins in which centre is able to move beyond the repressive tolerance of allowing difference its own exotic and thus marginal spaces. Indeed in the negotiation process, the centre will itself need to shift to provide all students with tools for social access. Cultural diversity can be marshalled as a resource for access. If social access is one of the objectives of education, then those for whom the cultures and discourses of power do not come 'naturally' need to have the ways and means of these cultures and discourses spelt out explicitly. And if we admit there is something positive to be learnt by inhabitants of the dominant culture and discourse from a transcultural dialogue with those on the margins, the same principles of explicitness apply.

Explicitness about the culture of schooling, however, does not have to mean assimilation. Curriculum, rather, should be a process of lending consciousness, lending language and lending culture for purposes outside the child's domestic or commonsense purview. This is a lending and borrowing which needs to go both ways, between cultures that are in positions of relative social power and those that are not. Precisely because different cultures and languages are denaturalised in the process of making their methods and intentions explicit, there can be no assumption that they need be used for any more than contingent, strategic, culturally located ends. Effective negotiation of life possibilities in a multicultural context involves a constant process of shunting backwards and forwards, across and between cultures and levels of necessarily multilayered identity.

This multicultural education would neither use a singular pedagogy for all students (as does traditional curriculum) nor would it diversify curriculum simply in order to affirm difference as in a pluralist progressive curriculum. Rather, all students would be educated for cultural and linguistic diversity, and insofar as curriculum has the goal of providing students with tools for social access, variant, specialist pedagogies would be required for this common end. English as a Second Language or bilingual education have the potential to be such specialist pedagogies.

Obviously, this discussion has taken us a far cry from the normal concerns of multicultural education. But this is precisely the point. Thinking through the issues as they affect so-called minorities leads us to rethink whole paradigms. If we accept that the dialogue of core and margins has the potential to transform the core, so too in education, the process of rethinking multicultural education so that it addresses itself to all students, has the potential to transform, not only our educational paradigms, but the social and cultural epistemologies that underlie them.

Bill Cope, Centre for Workplace Communication and Culture, Sydney

Mary Kalantzis, Faculty of Education, Language and Community Services, RMIT University, Melbourne

Scott Poynting, Faculty of Education, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur


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