Professional Voice 14.2.7

Public Education and school autonomy reform: Implications for social justice

Katrina MacDonald, Jill Blackmore, Amanda Keddie

In Australia, autonomy reform policies are entangled with policies of market competition, school choice and accountability creating a complex public education landscape. There has been a strong political consensus across political divides in Australia and internationally that greater school autonomy and localised decision making will drive up academic standards and improve public education. There is, however, little empirical evidence for this consensus. Instead, evidence indicates we are seeing increasing inequalities at system and school levels. Our project, School Autonomy Reform and Social Justice in Australian Public Education (an Australian Research Council Discovery Project), examines how school autonomy is understood by key education stakeholders in Australia, how it is enacted in Australian public schools, and the implications for socially just schooling. We aim to identify barriers and enablers to enacting social justice within this policy context.

In the first phase of our research we conducted a policy review from the 1970s that explored how the social justice intentions of school autonomy reform have shifted across the last 50 years. We have also interviewed public education stakeholders across Australia, including representatives from educational bureaucracies, government, parent organisations, principal associations, principals, professional organisations, academia and teacher unions.

These interviews sought to explore understandings of school autonomy including the origins and development of this idea in Australia and more specifically the differences between state jurisdictions; the continued focus nationally and internationally on school autonomy reform; the impacts of this reform at the school and system level in terms of social justice (e.g., in relation to decision making, the allocation of resources and differential benefits regarding student outcomes, leadership practices and teachers’ work); important factors for mobilising school autonomy in productive ways; and the role of regional and other support in autonomous systems. We are currently undertaking case study research in schools across different state jurisdictions to understand the ways in which social justice practices in schools are constrained or enabled.

In the following discussions we outline some of our early findings organised around the ideas of student outcomes, parent and community involvement in schools, principal and teacher working conditions, and the impacts on public education systems more generally.

Student outcomes

Our research supports previous findings that school autonomy does not necessarily lead to better student outcomes. Greater freedom for principals to decide about resources and staffing does not automatically 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.

Parental and community involvement

Since the 1970s, there has been a shift in parent participation in school governance 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 has the effect of limiting the diversity of perspectives allowed to enter into school decision-making. As one of our participants commented, “There has been the empowerment of some parents; but that doesn't empower parents. That empowers a parent and their judgment”. Teachers on school councils do not have parity with parents in terms of numbers and therefore in decision-making, and there is an emerging trend for school councils to select external members who have professional expertise.

Principal and teacher work

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 as large scale surveys have indicated (Riley, See, Marsh, & Dicke, 2021). The change in the principal role, and the time demands, has placed undue pressure on school principals without the necessary supports.

We have also found that 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 the autonomy granted to them in whichever system they work 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. In addition, more experienced principals have established networks to call upon. We have found that 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 with regard to student needs and staffing. 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 autonomy in ways their urban colleagues can.

Critically, we are finding that school autonomy does not necessarily lead to teacher professional autonomy. Autonomy in the management of schools does not necessarily translate into the improvement of curriculum and pedagogy, nor, importantly teacher professional development, the most important in-school factors to impact on students. The entangled policies of compliance and accountability, through for example high stakes testing, create performative tensions for both teachers and school leaders and significant administrative workloads. Crucially, we see that school leaders who can use their local decision making to enable teacher autonomy, creativity and professional collaboration are more able to harness school autonomy to improve student and staff experience.

The impact on public education systems

The complexity of Australia’s education governance (state and federal responsibilities, and the three sectors - Catholic, independent and public) has led to different articulations of autonomy across different states over different time frames. School autonomy reform has developed localised versions shaped by state political ideologies and institutional histories, along with federal interventions. 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. Our research shows that teachers feel they have less professional autonomy not only because of the ongoing cascade of policies that schools are expected to implement, but that there is little time to embed practices least of all evaluate their effect systemically or at the school level. Lack of time together with the seeming acceleration of time, are key factors impacting on teachers' sense of professional autonomy.

Our research adds to the multiple voices concerned with growing inequalities within our public education systems exposed by the pandemic (Eacott et al., 2020). We have found that the earlier intentions of school autonomy reform have shifted from a socially democratic view of autonomy in the past, to market and competition driven forms in which all the risk and responsibility in devolved systems of education are shifted onto principals and then teachers. Earlier policies were based on socially democratic aims to redistribute resources on needs-based formulae 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 the marketisation of public schools, competition between schools and external accountability requirements.

Degrees of autonomy and measures of accountability imposed upon schools fluctuate with the political ideology of the governing parties within state and federal jurisdictions (MacDonald et al., 2021). School 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, as with the Independent Public Schools policy, with shifting responsibility to schools and principals while also cutting structural (regional) support services within state education departments.

Schools have to seek such supports at their own costs through paying, for example, for professional and leadership development programs, which diverts funds away from the core work of teaching and learning. These supports are critical to the equitable redistribution of economic, material and structural human resources to schools and students who need them the most, such as school-based disadvantage (contextual such as rural, remote or in areas of low SES), or student-based disadvantage, for example Indigeneity, disability and English language proficiency and background. To remedy inequalities between schools and students there needs to be significant political will and commitment, as well as a shift back to needs-based funding.

Concluding comments

Our research suggests that the effect of school autonomy reform on social justice can be considered through the following paradoxes (Keddie et al., 2020):

  • The discourses and practices of economic efficiency and differential funding (between the public and private sectors) constitute school ‘autonomy’ in ways that create economic injustice, decimating the public education sector, exacerbating stratification and residualisation within this sector and exacerbating economic disparity between public and private sectors.
  • The discourses and practices of competition and individualism shaping education systems constitute school autonomy in ways that undermine equity at the system level. For example, competition constitutes 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.
  • The discourses and practices of devolution and economic rationalism shaping the public education system constitute school autonomy in ways that disadvantage (already disadvantaged) schools.
  • The discourses and 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 injustice also includes, in some cases, the misappropriation and misuse of funds by school leaders or system administrators.

Our project is a multi-institution project funded by the Australian Research Council. The lead Chief Investigator is Professor Amanda Keddie (Deakin University), together with Professors Jill Blackmore (Deakin University) and Jane Wilkinson (Monash University), Associate Professors Scott Eacott and Richard Niesche (University of New South Wales), Drs Brad Gobby (Curtin University) and Katrina MacDonald (Deakin University). We invite you to visit our website and to follow us on twitter @SchoolSasj for further information about these findings and the project more broadly.


Eacott, S., MacDonald, K., Keddie, A., Blackmore, J., Wilkinson, J., Niesche, R., & Fernandez, I. (2020). COVID-19 and Inequities in Australian Education – Insights on Federalism, Autonomy, and Access. International Studies in Educational Administration Quarterly, 48(3), 1-13.

Keddie, A., MacDonald, K., Blackmore, J., Wilkinson, J., Gobby, B., Niesche, R., Mahoney, C. (2020). The constitution of school autonomy in Australian public education: areas of paradox for social justice. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 1-18. doi:10.1080/13603124.2020.1781934

MacDonald, K., Keddie, A., Blackmore, J., Mahoney, C., Wilkinson, J., Gobby, B., Eacott, S. (2021). School autonomy reform and social justice: a policy overview of Australian public education (1970s to present). The Australian Educational Researcher. doi:10.1007/s13384-021-00482-4

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2011). PISA in focus. Retrieved from

Riley, P., See, S.-M., Marsh, H., & Dicke, T. (2021). The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2020 Data.




Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Education, Deakin University, Australia. Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, educational research history, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina is a former anthropologist, archaeologist and primary and secondary teacher in Victoria, Australia. She tweets at @drfreersumenjin

Jill Blackmore AM FASSA is Alfred Deakin Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University. Her research interests include, from a feminist perspective: globalisation, education policy and governance; international and intercultural education; educational restructuring, leadership and organisational change; spatial redesign and innovative pedagogies; teachers’ and academics’ work, all with a focus on equity. Recent higher education research has focused on disengagement with and lack of diversity in higher education leadership, international education and graduate employability.

Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University within REDI (Research for Educational Impact). Her published work examines the schooling processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in schools. Amanda’s qualitative research has been based within the Australian, English and American schooling contexts and is strongly informed by feminist theory.

This article appears in Professional Voice 14.2 Re-evaluations: Climate education, pedagogy, wellbeing and professional autonomy