School autonomy, school accountability and social justice: stories from two Australian school
1. Amanda Keddie (Research for Educational Impact, Deakin University,
firstname.lastname@example.org, t: +61 3 924 68426)
2. Jessica Holloway (School of Education, Deakin University, email@example.com)
Research for Educational Impact
Faculty of Arts and Education
Burwood, Australia, 3125
Phone: +61 3 924 68426
Word count: 6444
School autonomy, school accountability and social justice: stories from two Australian school
This paper explores issues of social justice in relation to the practice of two principals from two
Australian public schools. The stories of these principals are set against a policy backdrop in Australia
that has seen renewed emphasis on school autonomy reform, on the one hand, and heightened
external accountability and compliance, on the other. Drawing on interview data from a small-scale
study, we highlight some of the tensions for redistributive justice arising within this context. We
examine the ways in which the principals’ efforts for redistributive justice at the local school level
compromise redistributive justice more broadly. We highlight the ongoing significance of examining
how principals are framing their decision-making in relation to social justice. Within the freedoms of
the present climate, the paper draws attention to the enduring imperative of centralised equity-
Kevin and Grant are the principals of two large Australian public schools. They are committed to
leading their schools in ways that reflect equity for their students and their local communities. For
Kevin, this means utilising his Parents and Citizens fund-raising to resource an extra learning space in
his school to accommodate his growing student population and for Grant, it means partnering with a
philanthropic donor to realise his school’s vision of an ‘alternative’ holistic education for migrants
and refugees. These practices can be seen as reflecting social justice or, more specifically,
redistributive justice through their efforts to ensure a more equitable allocation of resources for
students (Fraser 2009). However, they also reflect potential to undermine redistributive justice. In
building an extra learning space at his school, for example, Kevin does not adhere to centralised
funding rules designed to ensure equitable resourcing across the system, while Grant’s reliance on
philanthropy potentially compromises his school’s holistic vision given this philanthropy’s prioritising
of business imperatives.
We locate these stories within the current policy context in Australia that has seen renewed
emphasis on school autonomy reform, on the one hand, and heightened external accountability and
compliance, on the other. School autonomy reform reflects a freeing up of the education system in
its devolving of responsibility away from the state to schools and other organisations. These
processes have ‘empowered’ school principals to self-govern, pursue opportunities and innovate. At
the same time, new forms of external accountability and compliance have reigned in and re-
embedded this system circumscribing this freedom for principals. These processes have generated
mixed effects for social justice.
With reference to the stories of Kevin and Grant, we analyse these mixed effects and their tensions
through the work of Nancy Fraser (2009). We draw attention to matters of redistributive (economic)
justice and, in particular, the principals’ efforts to dismantle the economic obstacles within the
context of their school that they see as impeding their students’ parity of participation – i.e. their
capacity to participate on par with others (Fraser 2009). Such efforts reflect a mobilising of
autonomy, consistent with its policy intention, to better respond to the needs of students at the
localised community level. We also consider how such efforts can undermine redistributive justice.
Here we examine how the freedoms these principals take up 1) erode some of the social protections
within departmental regulations that oversee equity across the system and 2) open spaces for new
forms of governance that prioritise business imperatives. These issues highlight the ongoing
significance of examining how principals are framing their decision-making in relation to social
justice. Within the freedoms of the present climate, the paper draws attention to the enduring
imperative of centralised equity-focused accountabilities.
School autonomy reform and social justice
In Australia school governance differs markedly from state to state. While national mandates
powerfully shape the direction of public schools in relation to school funding, curriculum and testing,
governance of these schools remains the responsibility of the states. Within these arrangements
state policy and practice in relation to school autonomy have varied considerably. Nevertheless, it
can be said that the thrust of such arrangements are similarly framed – to foster schools’ greater
independence from state governance. Such independence purports to afford school leaders the
flexibility and freedom in governance and decision-making around issues such as finance, staffing
and resourcing so that they can better and more efficiently respond to their local communities (see
Cobbold 2014; Gobby 2013; Wilkinson et al. 2018). This rationale for school autonomy is consistent
with the rationale undergirding similar reforms in other western nations – e.g. the charter school
(USA) and academies (UK) movements. And as this reform is associated with driving up education
standards and outcomes, it has been endorsed at a global policy level (OECD 2011; World Bank
2014). In Australia, the federal government has committed $70 million to ‘build on current
developments across the states to help schools become more autonomous and independent if they
so choose’ (see Australian Government 2015), while at a state level the Independent Public Schools
(IPS) policy has been introduced in Western Australia (in 2010) and Queensland (in 2013) to support
greater managerial freedom for a growing number of schools.
Despite the work pressure and intensification involved, principals have long embraced the imaginary
of greater autonomy in Australia as they have elsewhere (Thomson 2010; Kimber and Ehrich 2011).
As Thomson (2010) points out, principals continue to both support and actively lobby for more and
more autonomy as it accords them a greater voice in decision making about their schools. School
autonomy reform reflects a sense of confidence and trust that school leaders can make a positive
difference to their schools and the broader system (see Hamilton and Associates, 2015; Blackmore
2016). Certainly, there is strong evidence to indicate the advantages and innovations arising for
schools from the freedoms within this reform agenda for leaders to, in particular, make decisions
about staffing and resourcing that are contextually responsive and enriching (see Leithwood and
Menzies 1998; Gobby 2014; Wilkinson et al. 2018).
While linked in policy discourse to driving up education standards, there is little conclusive research
evidence that can attest to the efficacy of this reform in generating school improvement whether
this be in relation to Academy reform in England (Academies Commission 2013), charter schools in
the USA (Ravitch 2011; Darling-Hammond & Montgomery 2008) or Self-Managing Schools in
Australia (Jensen et al. 2013; Smyth 2011). In relation to its potential to support redistributive justice
(towards a more equitable allocation of resources for all students), the impacts of this reform are
mixed. On the positive side, more direct and increased flexibility in relation to school funding has led
in some cases to a more equitable distribution of material and human resources for marginalised or
disadvantaged students. There is evidence to indicate that the greater freedoms afforded by this
policy are being mobilised to support school retention, participation and achievement initiatives that
reflect redistributive principles; for example, food programs, uniform/clothing provision, family and
parenting support, housing assistance, welfare and health services and other community services.
There is also evidence to indicate that these greater freedoms are being mobilised to reflect a more
efficient use of material and human resources than was previously possible under more centralised
governance (see Bandaranayake 2013; Keddie 2015; Holloway & Keddie 2018).
The negative impacts of school autonomy reform in relation to redistributive justice become
apparent when considering how it is shaped by the market imperatives of economic efficiency,
competition and external auditing. These imperatives have forced schools to run themselves like
businesses against a backdrop of increasingly limited public resourcing (see Blackmore 2011;
Heffernan 2018; Gobby 2018). This privatizing of education – where responsibility for education
governance and performance has shifted away from the state towards the individual school – is a
feature of devolved or ‘autonomous schooling’ across western contexts (e.g. England and the USA)
that has attracted much opposition and critique (see Ball and Junemann 2012; Keddie and Mills
2019; Ravitch 2011; Lipman 2011).
(Blackmore 2016). Coupled with an increase in centralised systems of external and public
accountability, this shift has generated greater competition between schools which has, in turn,
increased stratification and residualisation within school systems – i.e. through valuing (publicly
rewarding) and de-valuing (publicly shaming) schools on the basis of their performance on these
measures, ‘good’ schools (that do well on these measures) tend to improve their reputation and
attract more students thus securing their place at the top of the system hierarchy while the reverse
situation tends to be the case for ‘bad’ schools (that do not do well on these measures). Other
‘perverse’ (i.e. anti-educational) effects arising from these public accountabilities are the increased
gaming practices they encourage where schools exclude more ‘needy’ [i.e. underperforming]
students to prevent reputational damage and a narrowing of curriculum and pedagogy to a teach (or
lead) -to-the-test mentality (see Lingard and Sellar 2012; Blackmore 2016; Heffernan 2018). Such
effects have led to increasing the inequities of maldistribution within Australia’s education system
(Smyth 2011; Keddie 2017; Gobby et al. 2017; Wilkinson et al. 2018).
Further compromising inequities of maldistribution, and related to the privatisation of public
education, is the new role that philanthropic and corporate actors are playing in school governance.
This is a move away from state-dominated service provision to a mixed economy approach where
‘the state, the voluntary sector and commercial actors interact as co-partners in the planning and
delivery of what previously were state services’ (Blackmore 2011, 456; see also Rizvi and Lingard
2010; Gunter 2012). Governments are increasingly looking to the voluntary and commercial sector
for ‘solutions’ to education ‘problems’ which has led to an enabling within state regulatory
mechanisms for increased private sector involvement (see Ball and Junemann 2012). Indeed, there
are clear expectations within the school autonomy movement for schools to be enterprising—to, for
example, work with business, industry and community organisations in developing innovative
partnerships and sponsorships that will provide extra support for students, schools and the local
community (see The State of Queensland 2014; Gobby et al. 2017; Gobby 2018; Holloway and
The ‘reduced capacity of the state has opened up spaces and opportunities for philanthropic and
corporate providers to expand their role in the governance of schools and schooling systems, [often]
on a for-profit basis’ (Lingard et al. 2017, 3; Blackmore, 2011; Holloway and Keddie 2018). These
non-state actors might offer resources (e.g., funding, professional development, etc.) to help
mitigate the absence of the state. The intentions, goals and values of these organisations, however,
tend to undermine educative and social equity goals through a prioritising of economic efficiency
and through a lack of transparent and participatory governance (see Dardot and Laval 2013; Ball and
Junemann, 2012; Gobby et al. 2017; Wilkinson et al. 2018). Also potentially undermining social
equity goals is the lack of oversight and monitoring of these players on the Australian schooling
landscape. Set against a competitive backdrop of audit and accountability, and increasingly limited
resourcing to public schools, the increasing role of philanthropic and corporate players within
Australia’s education system has contributed to inequities of maldistribution.
On a more positive note, there are many accountability mechanisms in this space that reflect equity
principles. There are mechanisms, for instance, that restrict the encroachment of for-profit
enterprise within Australian public schools. The Queensland IPS policy, for example, includes
regulations that prevent school councils from controlling funds or acquiring, holding and disposing of
property (The State of Queensland 2014). More broadly, a strong feature of IPS policy in Western
Australia and Queensland is the explicit delineation that IP schools remain part of the public system
thus ensuring that teachers and students receive the same entitlements and protections of the
public system. These entitlements and protections play out in mandates that most public schools in
Australia are subject to such as compliance mechanisms that control enrolment practices to ensure
equitable access for students across the system to prevent stratification and residualisation; pay
equity and resourcing for staff; and stipulations around how particular funds can be spent (Gobby
School leaders are navigating this space. On the one hand, school autonomy reform has notionally
‘empowered’ them to self-govern and make their own decisions about how they can improve their
performance and better meet the needs of their specific community (Australian Government 2015).
A more autonomised and devolved system (from the regulatory regimes of the state) is meant to
enable the freedom and flexibility for principals to engage in creative problem solving and to pursue
opportunities for change and innovation (The State of Queensland 2014). On the other hand, this
freedom is circumscribed by the market imperatives reflected in a re-embedding of the system
around increased regulation and accountability. While many of these regulations and
accountabilities are seen as compounding maldistribution within education systems, others are
equity-focused and support redistributive justice. Amid these tensions, school leaders are making
decisions about improving school performance and meeting students’ needs that are producing
mixed effects for social justice.
Research context and processes
The data presented in this paper derive from a small-scale study that sought to explore the
relationship between school autonomy and school improvement in a selection of ‘autonomous’
government schools across three education systems in Australia (Victoria, Western Australia and
Queensland). The study involved interviews with a total of thirteen school principals via Skype (six
from Victoria, four from Queensland and three from WA). These principals were invited to
participate based on their reputation as exemplary leaders within the context of school autonomy
reform (according to department representatives). The interviews were focused on exploring the
participants’ thoughts about the renewed focus nationally and internationally on school autonomy
reform, the impacts of this reform on their school and their leadership especially in relation to
equity issues and the contextual factors they viewed as supporting them to take up autonomy in
positive ways. The interviews were conducted at a time convenient to each of the leaders and lasted
in duration from 60-90 minutes.
The two stories were constructed from two of these interviews with leaders of schools in two of the
states in the study (the particular states are not identified here to adhere with the conditions of
ethical clearance from one of the departments of education). The particular interviews were
selected as best illustrating some of the key themes across all of the interview data in relation to
school autonomy reform and social justice. The stories are presented here as individual stories in an
effort to capture the relevancies and complexities of this process for each principal within the
context of their school. They are thus not intended to be generalisable in any way. As with all of the
principals in the study, Kevin and Grant are highly experienced educators and leaders and expressed
strong support in principle for school autonomy. Further detail about these leaders and their schools
is elaborated in their stories. The principal and school names have been given pseudonyms to
The data were analysed in light of the conceptual and theoretical literature outlined earlier. Fraser’s
work (2009) is drawn on to analyse matters of redistributive justice. Fraser (2009) argues that there
are three areas of justice that need to be considered if we are to work towards the principal of parity
of participation – which is the capacity for all members of society to participate in social life on par
with others. These areas or dimensions are associated with economic, cultural and political justice.
Transforming the injustices of society towards greater parity of participation, Fraser argues the
significance of economic justice (which requires a more equitable distribution of material resources
across social groups); cultural justice (which requires a greater recognition and valuing to those who
have been discriminated against on the basis of their culture or identity [e.g. gender, race, ethnicity,
sexuality, religion, ability]; and political justice (which requires according greater representation or
voice to those who have been silenced on the basis of their culture or identity (Fraser, 2009). We
recognise the significance of all three dimensions in pursuing social justice as well as the complex
ways in which they intersect and overlap. However, our focus in this paper is limited to matters of
redistributive (economic) justice given their salience to the issues we are exploring within the
context of the study and the research in Australia more broadly (Holloway and Keddie 2018;
Wilkinson et al. 2018).
Our focus is on the principals’ efforts to dismantle the economic obstacles within the context of their
school that they see as impeding their students’ parity of participation. We also consider how such
efforts may undermine redistributive justice beyond their schools. In so doing, our analysis highlights
some of the tensions that principals are grappling with in their support for social justice within the
context of school autonomy reform – how, on the one hand, the idea of freeing school principals
from departmental regulations does allow schools to better respond to the material and human
resource needs of students within their schools but, how on the other hand, it can lead to new forms
of injustice (Holloway and Keddie, 2019). In exploring these issues our analysis turns to focus on how
these principals are framing their decision-making in relation to social justice (Fraser 2008)
Kevin is the principal of Sunflower Primary School which caters to 1000 students and is located in a
suburban area. For Kevin, the ‘freedoms’ of school autonomy reform were compromised by the
regimes of compliance associated with being part of the state system. He described the ‘red tape’ in
the department as ‘huge’ and generating regulation and compliance issues around staffing and
resourcing that meant that there were ‘decisions that [he] just [could not] make’. He noted that
being part of the government system meant that he could not work ‘outside the box’. However, he
had ‘learned to stay within the box and just push those sides as far as [he could], before they
[broke]‘. One of the ways in which the school did ‘push those sides’ was in relation to the use of
Parent and Citizens’ Association fund raising to construct a building in the school so that he could
adequately provide for his growing student population, as Kevin explained:
My P&C raised quite a bit of money and they wanted to build another building for the school
… to help us with learning spaces, but they were told by our Department [of Education] if
they [built] it that for the rest of the natural life of that building, it would not come under
the security/insurance of the Department … We would have to maintain it, clean it, provide
the electricity, because it is not something the Department provided.
…even when parents are prepared to spend money to invest in the school, the Department
will say, "Well, you don't need that building so we are not going to take the on-costs of it. If
you want to build it, it's all yours". So that gets frustrating; but that's because, I guess … their
formula will say, "These are the buildings you have got and you do not need anything else"
[given your student numbers] [and] the three state schools around me have got empty
buildings … so [the Department is] not going to build a building at my school for students
who are passing three schools that have empty buildings.
…my P&C is quite affluent so they roughly raise between $400/$500,000 a year in profit,
which they are very happy to plough back into the school. As I tell them, we just have to do
things more creatively … it's about them being strategic … [so] with [the] building … we are
going to build a multi-purpose, after-school building type thing [rather than a ‘classroom’];
and then we can use it for whatever we want during the week … have a different sign …
Velcro a different sign over the top, when someone comes to visit, you know … we have got
to be innovative.
In this story Kevin understands the forms of compliance set out by the department of education in
relation to his school’s use of private funding as curtailing his independence and decision-making
and as unfair to his students. Such compliance prevents or makes it difficult for him to fund the
construction of an extra building for his growing student population. Kevin creatively defies these
limitations through going ahead with his building but labelling it a particular way to allow him to
draw on departmental funding for its maintenance. These actions can be seen as reflecting
redistributive justice – i.e. in going ahead with building the ‘multi-purpose’ room, Kevin’s actions
generate positive material change at his school. In order to do this, Kevin by-passes (at least in his
view) unjust state imposed regulations (that present economic obstacles to his efforts to adequately
materially provide for his growing student body) (Fraser 2009).
Kevin’s actions can, however, also be seen as undermining economic justice. The departmental
regulations that Kevin is attempting to avoid are based on social protection and social justice (Fraser
2013). They aim to ensure that resources are evenly distributed across the system. The lack of
departmental support for the maintenance of Kevin’s proposed building is designed to prevent
schools like his (oversubscribed and well resourced) from growing such that they take resources and
students away from neighbouring schools. His actions further advantage his already privileged
school and thus are compromising of economic justice at the broader systems level. His actions
erode the forms of social protection embedded within departmental regulations. They may also lead
to new forms of oppression in further advantaging his school and disadvantaging neighbouring
schools (Fraser 2013).
The tensions Kevin is navigating between autonomy and compliance reflect ambivalences for social
justice in their differential impacts at the school and broader system levels. Kevin effectively frees
his school from what he describes as excessive ‘red tape’ compliance around resourcing to maximise
the benefits of private and public funding. For his school and students this freedom reflects
redistributive justice. Such actions, however, generate injustice at the system level. Greater (private)
resourcing for this already privileged school works against the social protections embedded in the
department’s compliance regimes. The funding formula within these regimes reflects redistributive
justice – ensuring a fair allocation of resources across the system reflects potential to flatten the
hierarchical tiering and stratification characterising this system (Smyth 2011, Keddie 2017; Holloway
and Keddie, 2019). Kevin’s practice undermines these attempts. While working to provide better
resources for his own students and school, he compromises economic equity for other schools and
students – i.e. the three state schools around him will continue to have empty buildings (and less
resources for their students).
Grant is the principal at Brookvale College. The College is located in a different state in Australia to
the schools led by Kevin – a state with a longer history of school autonomy. Brookvale was designed
as part of a government initiative to revitalize schooling in disadvantaged areas. It came into being
about five years ago through generous government funding subsidized by ongoing philanthropic
support. According to Grant, the College is committed to providing an ‘alternative’ holistic education
for its migrant and refugee community. It is a birth to Year 9 learning centre, which includes early
childhood services, a primary and secondary school, allied and child health support and adult
learning. Grant described it as at the ‘forefront’ of socially just education provision – a ‘whole hub’
with a platform of programs for children, their families and the community.
For Grant, being a principal at Brookvale is like ‘running a big enterprise’ as a CEO. He embraced the
managerial responsibilities of this role. While accountable to his philanthropic donor with regular
weekly meetings to discuss the school and monitor progress, he described this relationship as very
autonomous in its respect for his decision making and ‘discretionary’ use of funds. Grant’s view of
his autonomy in relation to departmental regulations, however, was a different story. He described
his decision-making as:
…bordering on the edge of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed [where you make the
decision] and ask for forgiveness [later] … and the reason for that is bureaucracy. I mean,
bureaucracy changes every five minutes, anyway … you don't know who you talk to; half the
time, they disappear.
…if I went to [the Department of Education] and talked about this [the school’s holistic vision
and practices], they would give me every reason not to do [it]; every reason and they would
start with the deficit model; that's what they start with all the time and basically, we have
started with the opposite approach which is an asset kind of rich model of saying, "Okay,
what do we need to do to ensure this would work?", as distinct from, "Why can't it work?" I
think that is the problem with the bureaucracy; they find every reason not to have
In contrast, Grant characterized the philanthropic involvement at Brookvale as being supportive of
his leadership with ‘no strings attached’. He did, however, mention matters of accountability in
dealing with his philanthropic donor, an ‘ex-lawyer’ and ‘businessman’. Grant spoke of having to
temper some of the enthusiasm of his donor:
…he's looking for a student-based, data-driven outcome. He wants our results to improve.
So, from the level of attendance to participation in programs, to our NAPLAN program, to
our engagement outcomes, all those; he wants to see those figures improved … he thinks
things can turn around in five minutes, like all business people and I have to tell him that
cohorts of kids take basically five, six, seven years to come through a system so we have to
kind of slow him down occasionally.
The focus in this story is similar to Kevin’s in relation to Grant’s desire to free his school from what
he views as excessive forms of departmental compliance. Like Kevin, Grant is critical of the
compliance discourses within his department of education that restrict what he is able to do.
Although initially receiving generous government funding for creating Brookvale, Grant views
departmental regulations as curtailing his innovation in what he views as a deficit approach to what
is possible in his community. Indeed, Grant contrasts his positive, efficient and productive CEO type
leadership with the cumbersome and restrictive mode of working of the Department (see Ball and
Junemann 2012; Wilkins 2015; Holloway and Keddie, 2019). Like Kevin, he seeks to liberate his
school from what he views as oppressive department regulations that tie him down and compromise
his ‘asset rich’ view of his school. He creatively by-passes these regulations, ‘bordering on the edge
of what’s allowed’. Such by-passing or bordering can be seen as producing ambivalences for
redistributive justice. For Grant it enables him to sustain the holistic focus at Brookvale and the
education, health and social needs of its refugee and migrant community – a focus that reflects
positive material impacts for this community.
Grant’s actions, however, as in Kevin’s story, may also be seen as leading to a compromising of
redistributive justice. This is perhaps most apparent when considering his relationship to his
philanthropic sponsor. As noted earlier, there are concerns about the non-educative agenda of the
various new stakeholders responsible for schooling in Australia, especially new philanthropies (see
Lingard et al. 2017). A key part of this concern relates to the business or market priorities guiding
philanthropic involvement where contribution is conditional on level of productivity and output (i.e.
generally test score attainment). Other concerns are that such involvement may not reflect inclusive
and democratic forms of governance and may be eroding some of the social protections embedded
in traditional school governance including those associated with equity provision and support for
marginalised groups (see also Ball and Junemann, 2012; Blackmore, 2016).
While Grant speaks of his relationship with his philanthropic sponsor in positive ways – as allowing
him the funding to run his school autonomously – it is important to consider the potential vested
interests of the philanthropy supporting Brookvale that may reflect a non-educative agenda or lead
to non-inclusive forms of governance. While Grant states that there are ‘no strings attached’ in the
philanthropy’s involvement in his school, there clearly are – reflected in his statement about the
enthusiasm his donor expresses for student-based, data-driven outcomes and raising performance
on external tests such as NAPLAN and his keenness for ‘things to turn around’ quickly. While these
are reasonable expectations, their focus is narrow. Such a focus detracts from social outcomes and
the public purposes of schooling (see Ball and Junemann 2012; Blackmore 2016) upon which
Brookvale’s holistic approach is based. Should the philanthropic support of Brookvale be conditional
upon only narrow, test-based markers of success, then the future of the school is arguably
Grant’s story illustrates ambivalences for social justice arising from tensions between autonomy and
compliance. On the one hand, freedom from departmental compliance enables Grant to develop the
holistic focus of his school towards greater material and human resourcing (and a quality and
inclusive education) for his marginalised refugee and migrant community. This focus clearly supports
a dismantling of some of the economic obstacles impeding parity of participation for this
community. Such freedom enables him to direct resources in localised and nuanced ways to support
disadvantaged students. On the other hand, partnering with a philanthropy in doing so potentially
leads to new forms of oppression. While this partnering brings new opportunities that would not
have been possible if the school remained under the auspices of the department, this partnership
may end up eroding redistributive justice given the philanthropy’s data-driven and quick results
School leaders in Australia are navigating a complex and contradictory policy mix of school
autonomy reform, on the one hand, and heightened external accountability, on the other hand. As
they are ‘empowered’ to self-govern and encouraged to pursue opportunities and innovate, they are
also compelled to adhere to a myriad of centralised forms of compliance. These policy imperatives
are producing mixed effects for social justice. As the stories in this paper have illustrated, efforts to
pursue redistributive justice at the school level may better respond to the needs of students at this
localised level – whether in the form of an extra building to adequately provide for students (as in
Kevin’s story) or in the form of a holistic education and the provision of health, early childhood and
adult learning services for refugee and migrant students (as in Grant’s story). However, as these
stories also illustrated, such efforts can undermine redistributive justice at the broader systems level
when they erode the social protections within departmental regulations that oversee equity across
the system (as in Kevin’s story) or when they open up spaces for new forms of governance that
prioritise enterprise and business imperatives (as in Grant’s story).
These issues highlight the ongoing significance of examining how principals are framing their
decision-making in relation to social justice within the freedoms and compliance of the present
climate. For the principals in this paper, as with most school leaders, there is an active embrace of
school (or principal) autonomy. They clearly value the autonomy to innovate and create in ways that
make a positive difference to their schools and they resist forms of compliance that disable such
innovation and creativity (Thomson 2010). They frame their decision-making in relation to their own
school contexts. Who and what counts in their efforts for social justice remain bounded in this
space. Such framing ‘furnishes the stage’ upon which struggles for justice play out (Fraser 2008). For
Kevin such struggles are associated with creatively avoiding ‘red tape’ compliances so that he can
build his extra classroom and draw on departmental funds to maintain it. What and who counts in
Kevin’s framing of justice issues is reflected in his efforts to materially provide for the students at his
school. For Grant such struggles are associated similarly with avoiding the compliances of the
department by partnering with a philanthropic sponsor. What and who counts in Grant’s framing of
justice reflects, as with Kevin, materially providing for the needs of his students. Such prioritising is
not surprising given these schools are operating within a highly competitive and punitive
environment. School leaders must invest in their own schools to thrive and survive within this space.
Conversely, the framing of the centralised compliance mechanisms that Kevin and Grant avoid and
resist reflect much broader boundaries – all schools and students within the public education
system. While many of these mechanisms, as noted early in this paper, have led to perverse effects
in the context of school autonomy reform, some are designed to protect equity within this system.
The significance of these mechanisms are illustrated in the stories of Kevin and Grant. While Kevin
works around it, his story illustrates the significance of a centrally imposed funding formula designed
to ensure equitable resourcing across the system potentially leading to a less hierarchical and
residualised system. Grant’s story illustrates the significance of compliance mechanisms in relation
to school-philanthropy partnerships that, for example, temper the ways in which the business
imperatives characterising such partnerships may over-ride educative and social imperatives. As we
noted earlier, these sorts of protective mechanisms exist in current policy that restricts the
encroachment of for-profit enterprise in public schools and ensures all public schools receive the
Within the context of an increasingly devolved Australian education system market imperatives of
economic efficiency, competition and external auditing are forcing school leaders to invest in their
own schools at the expense of other schools. Coupled with the growing involvement of the
philanthropic and corporate sector in the governance of public schools, centralised equity-focused
compliance mechanisms remain imperative. These mechanisms may be seen, as in Kevin’s story, as
negative in their compromising of the freedoms of school autonomy reform. They may also be seen
as negative given their association with audit requirements. The renewed emphasis and resourcing
for school autonomy reform in Australia is further dismantling the power of overarching bodies to
protect equity across the system. Countering the perverse effects that many of the market-oriented
accountabilities in this climate are creating that narrow efforts for redistributive justice to the school
level will be equity-oriented accountabilities designed to support redistributive justice for all.
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