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School autonomy reform, public education and social justice

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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