The impact of devolutionary reform on teachers and principals

Scott Fitzgerald et al. reflect on the shift from centralised decision-making to increased school autonomy and the resultant impact on teachers and principals . . .

Over the last decade in Australia, devolution and school autonomy have affected teachers’ and principals’ roles, workloads and working relations within schools. The moves towards devolutionary reform in Australian education systems has a long history. The genealogy of these changes can be traced back to the 1970s (MacDonald et al., 2021) and reflects a significant shift from centralized decision-making to increased school autonomy. However, as education scholars have long noted (Lingard & Rizvi, 2006), the concept of devolution has been a fluid and contested one.

Devolution policy in Australia in an era of new public management

An important difference in understanding approaches to devolution is between the social democratic tradition of the 1970s (epitomised in the 1973 Karmel Report, ‘Schools in Australia’) and New Public Management (NPM) models. The Karmel Report argued for enhanced decision-making at a local level in a manner that more readily addressed the specific needs of students, the community and teachers. The NPM model suggested devolution could help drive greater efficiency and effectiveness in the school system by encouraging self-management of schools, controlled centrally by greater accountability requirements.

The latter view became ascendant in the 1980s and has remained dominant for the last 30 years. Greater school autonomy has been delivered to areas of budgeting and staffing (the organisation and management work) as opposed to decisions around curriculum and assessment (learning and teaching). This is despite evidence from the OECD (2013) showing that this particular form of self-management within schools is proven to have little to no effect on improved student outcomes.

The establishment of the National Education Agreement and Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in 2008, followed by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) in 2009, signalled that, rather than becoming more devolved, curriculum and assessment were in fact to become more centralised via national standards and accountability measures such as the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test  (Thompson, 2013). Here we have what Professors Bob Lingard and Fazal Rizvi have described as “the two arms of the same process of corporate managerialist reform”: devolution and centralisation (Lingard & Rizvi, 2006).

Devolution, principals and teachers

The effects of this policy ensemble have been investigated by a considerable body of research over an extended period of time. Looking at Australian states, we have seen the effects of increased teacher and principal workloads. In an article on this topic, we reported on teachers’ views of devolution-driven work changes associated with the Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) package of school autonomy reforms in New South Wales (Fitzgerald et al., 2019). While increased school autonomy was consistently associated with work intensification, primarily in relation to ‘paperwork’ requirements, respondents noted other variations in workload pressures arising from the increased school differentiation facilitated by devolutionary policies. Although the overall experiences of increased workload remained consistent, distinct patterns of work intensification were evident, reflecting the working environment of a school’s level (primary or secondary), location and relative socio-educational advantage.

In another article, we reported on research that examined how 30 principals in two devolved Australian state settings, NSW and Western Australia, responded to the workload pressures associated with school autonomy (McGrath-Champ et al., 2019). Despite new leadership profiles tied to the leadership standard for principals (AITSL, 2014), the findings suggest that these school leaders were ill-equipped to support the local, school-level working conditions of teachers. Moreover, while principals valued the greater discretionary powers that came with school autonomy, the associated workload burden further compromised their support of, and work with, teachers who also faced work intensification. Notwithstanding this overarching finding, once more there were locational differences (between metropolitan, regional and rural schools) in how principals understood and responded to teachers’ changing working conditions.

A greater differentiation in the experiences of teachers and principals, both across school systems and within schools, has been a concerning outcome of devolutionary policies. This issue was explored in detail in an article that examined the ways in which the Independent Public School (IPS) initiative in WA drove new market dynamics within the state’s public school sector (Fitzgerald et al., 2018). Drawing on extensive interview data from two schools – one IPS and one non-IPS – we found that competition and choice associated with the devolutionary IPS program reinforced mechanisms of residualisation, marked by increasingly complex and disadvantaged student cohorts, particularly in non-IP schools. Nonetheless, teachers in both schools reported new pressures such that all teaching staff described significant dissatisfaction in their work.

Teachers’ dissatisfaction emanated not only from workload pressures but also from the fracturing of school-level working relations in devolved, ‘autonomous’ schools. This process was evident in WA’s IPS and NSW’s LSLD initiatives. In an article based on 31 school leader and teacher interviews, we encountered consistent criticism of the negative workload implications of the increased responsibility and accountability associated with LSLD (Gavin & Stacey, 2023). Despite the lack of clarity they experienced around their decision-making and accountability, principals appreciated their elevated importance and enhanced discretionary power. In contrast, teachers raised concerns that ‘local decisions’ about resource management in schools had become more opaque. Teachers noted, for example, that principals used their increased staffing autonomy to create extra leadership, rather than classroom teaching, positions. Moreover, while principals pointed to the managerial burden associated with their expanded hiring discretion, teachers perceived that selection processes were now more often shaped by nepotism than merit. 

The real effects of devolution

There is no firm evidence that the way school autonomy has been implemented in Australia has improved student outcomes. Nor has it led to more equitable outcomes for students or staff – an issue we engaged with in an article collating contributions from school autonomy researchers around the world (Keddie et al., 2022). Instead, research, including our own, has raised real concerns that devolution and school autonomy has contributed to the inequities in our education systems. School autonomy in staffing and resource allocation poses risks for trust in the crucial working relations at a local school level and, as the level of bureaucracy and paperwork in schools has grown, has contributed to the unsustainable and increasingly complex workloads that teachers face. While LSLD may no longer be in place in NSW schools, revised structures of governance will require ongoing attention if they are to avoid the range of difficulties evident under previous autonomy models.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2014). Australian professional standards for teachers.  Retrieved from

Fitzgerald, S., McGrath-Champ, S., Stacey, M., Wilson, R., & Gavin, M. (2019). Intensification of teachers’ work under devolution: A ‘tsunami’ of paperwork. Journal of Industrial Relations, 61(5), 613-636. 

Fitzgerald, S., Stacey, M., McGrath-Champ, S., Parding, K., & Rainnie, A. (2018). Devolution, market dynamics and the Independent Public School initiative in Western Australia: ‘winning back’ what has been lost? Journal of Education Policy, 33(5), 662-681. 

Gavin, M., & Stacey, M. (2023). Enacting autonomy reform in schools: the re-shaping of roles and relationships under Local Schools, Local Decisions. Journal of Educational Change 24 (501-523).

Karmel, p., ( 1973) Schools in Australia: report of the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools

Commission. Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission

 Keddie, A., MacDonald, K., Blackmore, J., Boyask, R., Fitzgerald, S., Gavin, M., Heffernan, D., Hursh, C., McGrath-Champ, P., Møller, E., O’Neill, Parding, Salokangas, Skerritt, Stacey, Thomson, Wilkins, Wilson, Wylie, & Yoon. (2022). What needs to happen for school autonomy to be mobilised to create more equitable public schools and systems of education? Australian Educational Researcher, online first.

Lingard, B., & Rizvi, F. (2006). Theorising the ambiguities of devolution. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 13(1), 111-123.  

MacDonald, K., Keddie, A., Blackmore, J., Mahoney, C., Wilkinson, J., Gobby, B., Niesche, R., & Eacott, S. (2021). School autonomy reform and social justice: a policy overview of Australian public education (1970s to present). Australian Educational Researcher, 50, 307-327. 

McGrath-Champ, S., Stacey, M., Wilson, R., Fitzgerald, S., Rainnie, A., & Parding, K. (2019). Principals’ support for teachers’ working conditions in devolved school settings: Insights from two Australian States. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 47(4), 590-605. 

OECD. (2013). PISA 2012 Results: What Makes Schools Successful (Volume IV).

Thompson, G. (2013). NAPLAN, MySchool and Accountability: Teacher perceptions of the effects  of testing. The International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives, 12(2), 62-84.

Dr Scott Fitzgerald is an Associate Professor in the School of Management at Curtin Business School, Curtin University. His research interests are in the broad areas of industrial relations, human resource management, organisational behaviour and organisation studies. His research expertise also spans various disciplines: sociology, political economy and media and communication studies. A key focus of Scott’s recent research has been the changing nature of governance, professionalism and work in the education sector. 

Mihajla Gavin is a Senior Lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles. Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work.

Susan McGrath-Champ is Professor in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. She has a PhD from Macquarie University, Sydney and a Masters degree from the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management. Recent studies include those of schoolteachers’ work and working conditions.

Meghan Stacey is a former secondary school teacher and current Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s research interests are in the sociology of education and education policy, with a particular focus on the critical policy sociology of teachers’ work. Her first book, The business of teaching: Becoming a teacher in a market of schools, was published in 2020 with Palgrave Macmillan.

Rachel Wilson is Professor, Social Impact at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research takes a system perspective on design and management of education systems and their workforce. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms.