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Dr Katrina MacDonald, Professor Amanda Keddie and Professor Jill Blackmore write:

In Victoria, recent media attention has been given to misconduct by education bureaucracy staff and principals uncovered through investigations of the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, the Victorian Ombudsman and the Victorian Auditor General’s Office. The misconduct investigated has ranged from the failure to follow school financial and procurement processes, allegations of nepotism and alleged corrupt conduct of senior education bureaucrats.

In our ARC-DP research project, investigating the social justice implications of school autonomy reform, we have interviewed 42 stakeholders including representatives from educational bureaucracies, government, parent organisations, principal associations, principals, professional organisations, academia, and teacher unions across four Australian states (New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia). These interviews have provided some insights into the daily realities of principals working in public education systems across Australia.

In terms of the alleged misconduct uncovered in recent Victorian investigations, we believe it is important to ask questions such as, ‘what motivates a principal to engage in the mal-administration of school funds?’ Some findings from the research and our data would indicate important factors to consider:

  • Some principals are inexperienced and not fully aware of supports available to them from their education departments

  • The demands associated with principal’s work are constantly escalating and principals are under considerable stress (compromising their health and wellbeing)

  • Some schools (especially, those in rural and remote areas, low SES schools and small schools) with fewer resources do not fare as well as more advantaged schools in devolved systems (given these schools require more support than is readily available, e.g. through the community, parents). Principals in these schools may experience higher workloads and greater stress than in more advantaged schools

  • The competitive system (of audit and accountability) creates a culture that pits schools against each other and forces principals to ‘do what it takes’ for their school to succeed (there is evidence that this culture creates a ‘gaming’ of the system)

We are particularly concerned with how the current demands associated with principals’ work are undermining their health and well-being. Professor Phil Riley’s research (2018) provides a particularly illuminating account of this impact. He points to the high incongruity between the number of tasks principals are required to do and the time available to perform these tasks; the emotional demands of the job; and demands for hiding emotions as nearly double what is generally expected in other jobs. The health and wellbeing impacts of these demands are extremely worrying and bear out (when comparing principals’ experiences with the general population) in principals experiences of: greater trouble sleeping; poorer general health; higher levels of physical and mental fatigue; higher levels of stress and higher levels of depressive symptoms (Riley, 2018). Also worrying is the subjection of principals and assistant principals to far higher levels (than the general population) of offensive behaviour at work including threats of violence and actual violence (Riley, 2018).

Greater devolution coupled with increasingly restrictive systems of compliance and accountability from the centre does not tend to work for principals. While most principals welcome autonomy in decision making for their schools (indeed, they want more autonomy), such systems intensify workload, are often punitive and reflect a sense of professional mistrust. The Victorian Auditor General’s Office is currently undertaking two audits that are directly related to system support of principals in their work. The first is an audit of the Management of the Student Resource Package, and the second, Systems and Support for Principal Performance.

School autonomy, as our stakeholders (including principals) have consistently argued, cannot be mobilised in productive ways (i.e. for social justice) without sufficient resourcing and assistance. Consistent with much previous research in this space, we would argue the significance of greater support for schools so that principals can devote more of their time to being pedagogic not managerial leaders by:

  • Strengthening regional support for schools/principals to respond to the needs of schools in contextually sensitive ways (devolution tends to decimate regional support) especially for rural and remote schools, small schools and low SES schools;

  • Providing ongoing and targeted professional development for principals including mentoring;

  • Strengthening school capacities to manage their financial resources and responsibilities (more professional support for principals and bursars);

  • Promoting systemic collaboration rather than competition through strengthening professional networks (developed by and for principals, not imposed from above);

  • Avoiding punitive forms of accountability and monitoring of principals;

  • Reducing principal workload (e.g. greater support to manage administrative tasks).


Riley, P. (2018). The Australian principal occupational health, safety and wellbeing survey 2017 Data. Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, Faculty of Education and Arts, Australian Catholic University.

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Professor Amanda Keddie writes:

There is strong political consensus in contexts such as Australia, England, the USA and New Zealand, that greater school autonomy (i.e. devolution of responsibility from the state to schools) will drive up academic standards. While devolution in these contexts is far from new, there is renewed policy commitment to this reform and its capacity to generate more effective public education systems.

Australian education has experienced a long history of school ‘autonomy’ reform. It was promoted over forty years ago in the Schools In Australia (or ‘Karmel’) Report. As education in Australia is ostensibly a state government responsibility, there has been wide variation in how school autonomy has been articulated at a state level – Victoria remains the most devolved or decentralised state and NSW the most centralised. The most recent version of this policy is the Independent Public Schools (IPS) initiative at both federal and state levels).

School autonomy reform and social justice

There is evidence that attests to the social justice possibilities of school autonomy reform. The independence and flexibility for principals in school management and parents in school choice can reflect political justice in according these stakeholders a voice in matters of school governance. The focus here is on fostering schools’ greater independence, flexibility and freedom to manage, innovate and better respond to local communities. Such independence and flexibility can also support cultural justice in freeing up schools to better recognise and value the cultures of marginalised groups and economic justice in leading to greater resource efficiencies and a more equitable distribution of material and human resources.

Despite strong political commitment, there remains little conclusive evidence linking greater school autonomy to improved academic attainment - whether examining the efficacy of academies in England, ‘self-managed’ schools in Australia or charter schools in the USA.

Indeed, there are links between this reform and increasing social injustice in schools and education systems across the globe. This increase is attributable to the neoliberal logic driving centralised authorities’ governance of school ‘autonomy’. In theory, this logic, i.e. diversity of provision, parental choice and inter-school competition will ‘improve’ schools and their systems by creating the conditions for ‘good’ schools (i.e. those that do well on external accountabilities) to flourish and ‘bad’ schools (i.e. those that do not do well) to be shamed into improvement or to close. Set against a backdrop of increasingly limited resourcing to public schools, however, where schools must do more with less, must compete with each other for their market share of students and must ascribe to ever greater systemic accountability, school ‘autonomy’ has mobilised in ways that compromise social justice.

School autonomy reform and political injustices

School autonomy reform does not necessarily lead to according all a voice. The increased freedoms that principals are granted in autonomised education systems may not lead to professional autonomy for teachers, especially in schools where principals adopt a compliance perspective in leading their school.

The notions of diversity of provision and parental choice are central platforms of school autonomy reform. However, it is well recognised that the option of school choice advantages some parents and students, for example, those who are capable of acquiring the information necessary to make well informed and optimal educational choices and indeed those who are able to relocate to move nearer to preferred schools. The ‘right to choose’ discourse has reframed social justice as an individual choice and ignored the issue of structural disadvantage in parents’ capacities to choose. School choice schemes have generated greater segregation and residualisation within the public education system and new forms of exclusion, compounding the hierarchical tiering of schools on the basis of ability, class and race/ethnicity.

School autonomy reform and cultural injustices

Further injustices are apparent when considering how schools must operate within the narrow vision of education prioritised within the performance demands of audit and accountability. When principals and teachers are dogged by external accountabilities and when schools feel pressured to compete with each other in relation to these accountabilities, it is more than likely that they will narrow their curriculum and pedagogy to focus on these areas. As is well recognised, this climate has produced a degrading of curriculum and pedagogy and encouraged a teach-to-the-test mentality – sidelining the social, creative, aesthetic, cultural, moral and spiritual aspects of students’ development. This sidelining has delimited opportunities in schools for culturally inclusive teaching and learning.

School autonomy reform and economic injustices

One of the main arguments against school autonomy reform is that it is profoundly compromising in relation to economic justice. Devolved education systems shift the responsibility for education provision and governance away from the state sector to schools, local communities, families and individuals so that the state is no longer the primary locus of response in relation to education concerns. The market imperatives of competition, economic efficiency and external auditing accompanying this shift have forced schools to run themselves like businesses and prioritise the goals of enterprise and economic efficiency over educative goals.

As many have argued for some time, this is a privatisation of state schooling that is problematic for economic justice in drawing increasingly limited public resources away from the public sector and in decreasing state intervention in ensuring the equitable distribution of these resources. For many, these shifts and circumstances are entirely at odds with the idea of schooling as a public good.

They have transformed education from state-dominated service provision to a mixed economy approach in which the state, the voluntary sector and commercial actors interact as co-partners in the planning and delivery of what previously were state services’ (ref). The reduced capacity of the state has opened up spaces and opportunities for edu-business and philanthropic providers to expand their role in schools and schooling systems often on a for-profit basis.

Where to from here?

In thinking about how this reform is being mobilised, it is important to consider the ways in which the freedoms of school autonomy located as they are within various performative and compliance demands, can both support and undermine social justice. In this space, the significance of moral leadership in the ‘intelligent’ take up of autonomy becomes clear. As Michael Fullan has argued such leadership is about engaging with a broad view of the purposes of schooling in terms of pursuing both private and public goals.

It is also important to consider the ways in which the public education system in Australia is still closely tied to, and regulated by, centralised authorities. In this respect, it differs markedly from systems such as those in England and the USA in being far less devolved and polycentric and thus far more amenable to protecting the ‘public’ in public education.

In terms of social justice, such centralised authority and regulation are particularly important in preventing the further subjection of Australian public education to the unfettered market logic of the private, for-profit or philanthropic sector. Such subjection in England and the USA has greatly undermined the hallmark values of public education 1) public ownership (e.g. in making it less possible for democratic, collaborative and locally responsive school governance), 2) equity and access (e.g. in promoting segregation and stratification between schools leading to practices of exclusion) and 3) public purpose (e.g. in sidelining the moral and social purposes of schooling). To some extent, Australian education is also experiencing these ill-effects.

The greater centralised authority of our system and, indeed, the policy parameters of school autonomy reform at federal and state levels and their intersection with equity policies (such as the Gonski reforms), do protect these hallmark values and will continue to be imperative in supporting schools to meet their social justice and equity responsibilities. We cannot trust a devolved education system driven by market imperatives to this task.

Keddie, A. (2017). School Autonomy Reform and Public Education in Australia: Implications for Social Justice. Australian Educational Researcher, 44(4-5), 373.

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Team member Associate Professor Richard Niesche discusses with Wade Zaglas of Education Review, the particular challenges that principals have faced during the pandemic. In this interview, Richard highlights the uncertainties that principals have faced, disparities in funding across sectors, and the health and wellbeing impacts on principals.

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