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In the Classroom

Key Findings

Progress Report Two

Our second progress report can be found here


In the second progress report we outline our preliminary observations based on four case studies:

1. Rural and regional schools

In autonomous systems with limited or no centralised support, rural and regional schools continue to face problems in attracting qualified staff to fill teaching and allied staff positions. Often these schools have a high turnover of staff with students being taught repeatedly by inexperienced graduate teachers.

2. Distance from the centre

In more autonomous and devolved systems, rural and remote schools experience greater physical distance from centralised bureaucracy/support. This means that schools are often operating independently without the same networks of support for principals and staff that are a common feature in metropolitan areas, reinforcing the critical role of the state in providing adequate support for rural and regional schools. One principal argued that rural and regional schools have been forced to embrace a ‘fend for yourself’ approach.

3. Teachers’ work

Educators want autonomy in the classroom. However, principal autonomy does not necessarily translate into teacher autonomy and this varies across sites. In smaller schools in our sample, educators reported greater satisfaction in opportunities for collaboration and agency and autonomy, however small schools don’t always allow for staff career progression. On the other hand, where staff turnover is high, such as in low SES, small and rural schools, inexperienced educators may find themselves fast tracked into middle leadership roles with minimal support or training.

In one of the case study schools, there was a clear disparity in levels of professional autonomy – while the leadership team experienced high levels of professional autonomy, the teachers felt disempowered. Where accountability measures included high levels of surveillance, this was experienced by educators as micro-management and distrust contributing to high staff turnover.

4. Competition between and residualisation of schools

The current education systems in Australia are marketised and encourage competition between schools (e.g., school success is measured based on performance on narrow external accountabilities, this success attracts more students and schools are funded on student numbers).  In this marketized system, neighbouring schools are increasingly seeking ways to distinguish themselves from their competitors through specific programs like sports academies, etc., to attract and retain students.  As one principal commented, ‘I know we need to make our school unique, to survive’. This has meant deploying staff to work specifically on marketing, or grant writing in an effort ‘to survive’. Such competition leads to residualisation within the system, where ‘good’ schools can attract more students and more resourcing, while other less fortunate schools are left to struggle – often with students who require more support. 


5. Politicisation of school councils/boards

The increasing marketisation of education has led to a politicisation of school councils/boards. Increasingly the membership of school councils/boards is focused on selection of board members co-opted from businesses and the community, or the political class, rather than the election of parent representatives. This has implications for parent-school partnerships – advantaging already privileged public schools who tend to have access to parents with higher credentials than less privileged schools. It also has implications for democracy – with school councils potentially no longer representing the diverse range of demographics in their school.


6. Finances and accountability

The accountability requirements for reporting equity funding expenditure vary across states. The oversight of this expenditure also varies. This creates conditions whereby this funding could be used for purposes than otherwise intended (i.e., in non-legitimate ways). The recent Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission investigations into the corruption of some education staff in Victoria have exposed the risk of autonomy without adequate oversight: inadequate oversight and accountability (or inadequate support for principals in financial literacy) can lead to mismanagement of resources.

7. External consultants

Some schools use their equity and SRP funding to engage external educational and non-educational consultants to manage a variety of issues, such as leadership coaching. The reporting on this expenditure varies across state jurisdictions but can have worrying impacts for equity and social justice when the funds are not directed to this purpose and systems do not demand sufficient accountability for how it is spent.

Progress Report One

Our first progress report can be found here

The key points from this report are:

1. The intentions of school autonomy reform have shifted from a socially democratic view of autonomy in the past, to market and competition driven forms of autonomy.
Policies of school autonomy reform in Australia initially had a socially democratic intention reflecting a desire to redistribute resources to support disadvantaged students, to support a greater diversity of schooling options, and for schooling to be responsive to the diverse social and cultural needs of students. The notion of autonomy has been re-articulated from these rationales to reflect a market-driven system that supports competition and external accountability requirements.

2. The complexity of Australia’s education governance (state and federal responsibility, and three sectors - Catholic, independent and public) has led to different articulations of autonomy across different states and over different time frames. School autonomy reform has developed localised versions within different state jurisdictions, across different time frames, shaped by state political ideologies and institutional histories, along with federal interventions.

3. Degrees of autonomy and measures of accountability fluctuate with the political ideology of the governing party within state and federal jurisdictions.
School autonomy reform has been subject to the ebbs and flows of education policy instated by governing political parties, both in granting greater autonomy to schools and principals, and reining in such autonomy through accountability measures. This can have dire consequences for localised support mechanisms for principals and schools, as policies granting greater autonomy tend to be coupled with shifting responsibility to schools and principals while also cutting structural support services within state education departments.

4. School autonomy does not necessarily lead to better student outcomes.
Greater freedom for principals to decide about resources and staffing does not necessarily lead to better educational
outcomes or more socially just outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2011) argues that school autonomy over financial and material resources (i.e. managerial autonomy) does not result in improved outcomes as measured by test results, however autonomy over teaching, curriculum etc. (i.e. professional autonomy) accompanied by appropriate system oversight and support can make a difference.

5. School autonomy is viewed differently by different stakeholders.
Different stakeholders (politicians, education bureaucrats, union leaders, principal organisations, principals) view autonomy in different ways. Politicians and education bureaucrats tend to view school autonomy in managerial ways with a prioritising of resource administration, performance indicators and outputs, while union leaders and principals tend to view autonomy in relation to professionalism in school leadership and teaching with a prioritising of capacity building and the shared autonomy for teachers to improve student learning.

6. School autonomy does not necessarily lead to teacher autonomy.
Autonomy in the management of schools does not necessarily translate into the improvement of curriculum and teacher pedagogy, the most important in-school factors to impact on students. School leaders who use their autonomy to enable teacher autonomy, creativity and professional collaboration harness autonomy to improve student experience.

7. School autonomy reform has narrowed leadership to forms of managerialism and compliance, simultaneously increasing work intensity and reducing instructional leadership opportunities.
It is well recognised that school autonomy reform within a context of economic rationalism and marketisation has forced schools to run themselves like businesses. In this context, school leaders find themselves spending increasing time on managerial and compliance tasks rather than leading teaching and learning in their schools. Increasing school autonomy has coincided with rising levels of stress, anxiety, poor health outcomes and increased workload for school principals. The change in the principal role, and the time demands, has placed undue pressure on school principals without the necessary supports.

8. School principals experience school autonomy differently depending on their levels of experience.
Career stage and levels of experience have an impact on the ways in which principals are able to leverage their autonomy to benefit their students and communities. Experienced school principals are often better able to manage and navigate systemic constraints that early career principals feel they cannot avoid.

9. School principals experience school autonomy differently depending on the context and profile of their schools.
The context of the school is critical in how school autonomy is taken up as different schools generate different demands depending on context. For instance, urban schools face vastly different pressures to small, low SES, hard-to-staff, regional and remote schools. Principals in these schools typically do not have the human and material resources to exercise their autonomy in ways their urban colleagues can.

10. Practices of economic efficiency and differential funding (between the public and private sectors) constitute school autonomy in ways that create economic injustice.
Practices of economic efficiency and differential funding (between the public and non-government sectors that receive significant public funding) constitute school autonomy in ways that create economic injustice, decimate the public education sector, exacerbate stratification and residualisation within this sector and exacerbate economic disparity between public and private sectors.

11. Practices of competition and individualism shaping education systems constitute school autonomy in ways that undermine equity at the system level.
Practices of competition shaping education systems constitute school autonomy in ways that can create greater equity for students at some schools (through forcing individual schools to prioritise themselves) but invariably undermines equity for other students and schools. These practices threaten a collective approach to education as a public good. Unless countered by systemic responsibility taken in the form of regional supports and access to resources, school autonomy reform can devolve all risk and responsibility for outcomes onto individual schools, principals and teachers inequitably.

12. Practices of needs-based funding can constitute school autonomy in ways that create economic injustice.
The practices of needs-based funding reflect a lack of transparency and nuance in their distribution. When coupled with a lack of support for administration of funding, school autonomy can create economic injustice for specific groups of students denied access to resources. Economic justice also includes, in some cases, the misappropriation and misuse of funds by school leaders or system administrators.

13. Parent participation in school governance has seen a shift from democratic participation to corporate governance.
In different state jurisdictions, school autonomy reform has prioritised corporate forms of parental involvement in school governance rather than democratic forms of parent participation. This can limit the diversity of perspectives allowed to enter into school decision-making.

From our international expert reference group conversations.


Our first meeting with our international expert reference group (IERG) about our preliminary findings from our stakeholder interviews yielded the following interesting provocations:

  • Specific national histories are reflected in moves to autonomy in schooling systems. There are, however, some similarities, such as the timing and sequencing in the social democratic agenda in Sweden.

  • Travelling discourses and policies of autonomy enacted very differently in different national contexts

  • The Australian school system (three sectors – Public, Catholic, Independent/Private) is unique. Australian research cannot ignore the influences of autonomous private systems since federation.

  • The IERG expressed interest in the idiosyncratic nature of Australian Federalism, and how concerns for equity have evolved.

  • Similar problems in other national contexts between schools in urban areas and rural locations. For example, rural and remote schools may be hard to staff, it may be difficult to keep staff, or hard to get qualified teachers. The market plays in favour of schools in urban areas.

  • The IERG expressed interest in how parent groups and unions have historically pushed back against autonomy reforms in Australia

  • Fruitful area for research in the autonomy and social justice area - what is taken for granted and common sense?

  • Shift in the educational justice scholarship - What is public about public education when you have different providers and the idea of the ‘public good’ is being eroded. What is the public? What is public education? Whose public?

Key Findings and Key Issues: About Us
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