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The plight of principals and schools: school autonomy, marketisation and social justice

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

Amanda Keddie writes:

Increasing school autonomy has been a feature of the different state public education systems in Australia for decades. Greater school autonomy is meant to offer schools more freedom (from centralised control) to make their own decisions and manage their own responsibilities. It purports to give principals and schools the freedom to innovate and drive-up academic standards. In reality however, these freedoms are increasingly being contained by the market imperatives of economic efficiency, competition and public accountability required by state and national education systems. There is evidence indicating that such imperatives exacerbate inequity within and between schools and their systems (Blackmore 1999; Smyth 2011).

Our study is examining the social justice implications of school autonomy reform within public education systems. In the first phase of this study, we explored the perceptions of this reform with 42 key education stakeholders across three states, Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. They generally expressed support for schools having greater autonomy in relation to decisions about their operation. However, they highlighted some of the negative equity implications of school autonomy reform when it is driven by market imperatives.

Consistent with other research in this area, they drew attention to two key concerns: 1) the ways in which competition between schools, alongside external accountabilities, has produced hierarchies and residualisation within education systems and 2) the ways in which devolution of greater responsibility to schools (when driven by economic rationalism) has reduced material and professional support for schools (Smyth 2011). These processes undermine economic and political justice (Fraser 2009) – i.e., they create a system of winners and losers where some schools receive more resources and are able to have more say over their governance than others.

Also similar to other research in this space, the stakeholders raised concerns about the plight of principals and particular schools when policies of school autonomy converge with market imperatives of economic efficiency, competition and public accountability.

The plight of principals and schools

According to the stakeholders, principals and schools are struggling to operate with 1) the greater responsibilities of school autonomy reform and 2) the market imperatives driving this reform.

Principals are finding it difficult to manage the extra responsibilities and pressures of greater school autonomy and accountability; while schools (especially small schools and schools in rural, remote and disadvantaged areas) are experiencing a lack of capacity to mobilise the ‘freedoms’ of this reform in ways that adequately support their students.

Most principals welcome autonomy in decision making for their schools. However, the market imperatives driving this autonomy intensify workload, promote competition between principals and schools and reflect a sense of professional mistrust.

The pressures and expectations of the present system mean that it is difficult to recruit school leaders particularly in remote areas. Many principals (especially early career principals) are unprepared with many lacking the necessary skills and capacity to manage their school resources effectively and equitably for their students. A view expressed by many stakeholders was that principals are not provided with adequate centralised and regional support to manage their schools. Equally worrying amid these conditions is the plight of small schools and schools in low socio-economic, rural and remote areas. These schools’ extra and particular needs are not being met by current resourcing initiatives. They tend not to have the same capacity and access to extra support as larger and better resourced schools where, for example, generous parent fund raising can supplement dwindling budgets.

So, what can we do?

As with previous research in this space, we reiterate the significance of greater centralised and regional support for principals to mobilise the freedoms of school autonomy in ways that adequately support all students (see Thomson 2009). Heffernan and Pierpoint (2020) offer important suggestions in their report Autonomy, Accountability, and Principals’ Work that we also recommend in our study –there needs to be more clarity, definition and professional support for principals in relation to managing budgets and workloads as well as ensuring that principals have access to a range of wellbeing programmes and on-going tailored professional development.

In relation to the negative impacts of devolution on particular schools (small schools, low SES and rural schools), we reiterate the significance of a greater support to these schools that responds to their specific needs. We acknowledge the significance of existing differential funding (at state and national levels) across Australia’s public education systems and its support for equity. However, it is clear from our study that such funding requires greater differentiation to better address the enduring challenges of access and resourcing in these contexts associated with rurality and remoteness (see Downes and Roberts 2018).

These sorts of strategies continue to be crucial in addressing these problems. However, we argue, that they are not enough to transform the market imperatives of economic efficiency, competition and public accountability that now permeate the governance of our public school systems. These imperatives in their production and reproduction of inequities are continuing to move public education away from the public good (see Gerrard, 2018).

Nearly 10 years ago, Smyth (2011) offered three key propositions for a politically activist view of school autonomy that remain as urgent now as it they were then. We frame them here as closing questions (115–116). How can we reform the current systems of public education:

(1) so that schools are not driven by a quest for possessive and competitive individualism within and between themselves but rather a concern for community and collective action?

(2) so that decisions about schooling are informed much more by educational considerations than those of economics (and) entrepreneurialism?

(3) so that schools are engaged in questioning what it is they are doing, not from an accountant’s point of view, but from the perspective of how their agenda fits with a broader view of what constitutes a just society?

Further reading:


Blackmore, J. 1999. Troubling Women: Feminism, Leadership and Educational Change.

Buckingham: Open University Press.

Downes, N., and P. Roberts. 2018. “Revisiting the Schoolhouse: A Literature Review on Staffing Rural, Remote and Isolated Schools in Australia 2004–2016.” Australian and International Journal of Rural Education 28 (1): 31–54.

Fraser, N. 2009. Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World. New York: Columbia University Press.

Heffernan, A., and A. Pierpoint. 2020. Autonomy, Accountability, and Principals’ Work: An

Australian Study. Brisbane: Australian Secondary Principals’ Association.

Smyth, J. 2011. “The Disaster of the ‘Self-Managing School’– Genesis, Trajectory, Undisclosed Agenda, and Effects.” Journal of Educational Administration and History 43 (2): 95–117. doi:10.1080/00220620.2011.560253.

Thomson, P. 2009. School Leadership: Heads on the Block? London: Routledge.

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