School autonomy reform and social justice: a study of public education in Australia

The challenge

There is strong political consensus in Australia and internationally that greater school autonomy and localised decision making will drive up academic standards and improve public education. However, there is little empirical evidence for this consensus. Existing evidence indicates greater autonomy has increased inequalities at system and school levels.

Project overview

This project aimed to redress the inadequate conceptualisation of school autonomy and lack of empirical evidence of the social justice implications of this reform within Australian public education. It responded to the following questions:

  • How is school autonomy understood by key education stakeholders in Australia (i.e. policy makers; school leaders; teachers; teacher, parent and community organisations and private providers)?
  • How is autonomy being enacted in Australian public schools (i.e. in relation to school funding, student engagement and support, curriculum and pedagogy, teacher identity and professional learning, leadership and management, community/school relations, system/school policies and relations)?
  • What are the implications of school autonomy reform for equity (i.e. economic, cultural and political justice for students, parents, educators and communities)?
  • What can we learn about equity from different systems of school autonomy governance within Australia and internationally that can inform policy regarding future school provision?

The methods deployed to examine understandings and enactments of ‘autonomy’ were:

  • an audit of policies about funding, staffing, curriculum, professional development and accountability
  • interviews with relevant education stakeholders (policymakers, principals, teachers, parents)
  • case studies in schools including interviews with relevant participants (e.g. school leadership team, business managers, staff responsible for equity, a sample of experienced and novice teachers, parent representatives, school council)
  • conceptual clarification
  • social justice dilemma exemplars
  • consultations with an International Expert Reference Group (IERG) from England, the US, Norway and Sweden
  • writing position papers
  • workshops with education stakeholders
  • a symposium for policy and education personnel.


Through broad and in-depth methods of research across four Australian states (Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland) the study generated an evidence base and new knowledge in the form of dilemma cases, position papers and a practice framework to support social justice through school autonomy reform.


Progress reports

Progress Report 1

Progress Report 2, 2021

Progress Report 3 – key issues, findings and dilemmas

Final report

Project team

International expert reference group 

  • Professor Pat Thomson (University of Nottingham, UK) 
  • Professor Pauline Lipman (University of Illinois, Chicago, US) 
  • Professor Jorunn Møller (University of Oslo, Norway) 
  • Professor Lisbeth Lundhahl (Umeå University, Sweden) 


05 June 2019 – 31 December 2023


Australian Research Council Discovery Project


More information


inclusive education, school autonomy, social justice