The contested role of the Australian federal government in national schooling reform: Boundary imagining, crossing and blurring

Year: 2019

Author: Savage, Glenn, Di, Gregorio, Elisa, Lingard, Bob

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Since the federal Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) ‘education revolution’ reforms of the late 2000s, the Australian federation has witnessed a broad suite of new national reforms in schooling policy. These reforms have been underpinned by arguments that better aligning the policies and processes of subnational (state and territory) schooling systems will help tackle an array of apparent problems in Australian schooling, including concerns about ‘teacher quality’, lagging student achievement on international assessments, a lack of comparable data between jurisdictions, and inequalities of provision between schools and systems. Policy alignment has also been promoted as a fix to perennial issues in the federation such as overlap, duplication, fragmentation and inconsistencies between states and territories (Savage and O’Connor 2018).

Given the realpolitik of Australian federalism, national reforms have emerged through complex processes of intergovernmental collaboration and contestation facilitated by the Education Council, which forms part of the Council of Australian Governments(COAG). These processes have brought federal, state and territory governments together across previously more insulated political, system and organisational boundaries to forge shared goals and agendas.

The combined forces of national reform, intensified intergovernmental collaboration and federal intervention are radically reshaping how schooling policies are made and enacted in Australia’s federal system. Indeed, the past decade of reform has seen the emergence of a new ‘national policy assemblage’ (Savage and Lingard 2018; Lingard 2018; Savage and Lewis 2018) that is generating vastly different conditions of possibility for the making and doing of schooling policy when compared with previous decades.

In this paper, we combine the concepts of ‘policy assemblage’ and ‘scalecraft’ to examine how boundaries between governments in the Australian federation are being reimagined and remade in contemporary schooling policy. Our central argument is that the national policy assemblage that now defines Australian schooling rests on and produces new forms of boundary imagining, crossingand blurring, which are generating complex tensions and issues for policy actors, central to which is contestation about growing federal involvement in steering national reform.

Drawing upon insights generated from in-depth semi-structured interviews with senior bureaucrats in federal, state and national policy organisations, we argue that new ways of imagining and seeking to govern schooling, as a national system, grate uncomfortably against the principles underpinning the design of federal systems and how policy actors perceive the ‘ideal’ division of roles and responsibilities in the federation.