Election and/or selection? School autonomy reform, governance and the politics

Year: 2021

Author: Blackmore, Jill, MacDonald, Katrina

Type of paper: Symposium

Neoliberal policies promoting school autonomy reform in Australia and internationally have, over three decades, appropriated earlier social democratic discourses of parental participation and partnership in school governance. Earlier discourses such as the Karmel 1974 report and systemic moves towards greater  decentralisation in the 1980s linked school based decision-making to expanding the  membership and role of school council/boards. These discourses positioned parents as partners with teachers while raising issues as to the public purpose of education.  Later school autonomy reforms towards self-managing schools operating in marketized systems of education have focused on school council/boards within a narrow frame of accountability, business management and less about the benefits of parental participation or stakeholder representation. This paper undertook a thematic analysis of interviews with 42 public education stakeholders across four Australian states (WA, NSW, Victoria and Queensland) as outlined in the School Autonomy Reform project with a focus on the more recent Independent Public Schools policy. A key theme was how School council/boards have been positioned differently within the various public school governance arrangements of the Australian federation. We sought to explore these differences through a small but representative sample of these 42 stakeholder voices across the four states. We argue that due to difficulties in some schools to recruit parents together with corporatization of education and the seeming depoliticization of school governance there has been a further shift from representative to expert stakeholder with principals playing a strategic role in selecting board members. While parental involvement in school decision-making has always been about parents getting the best education for their children, it has often been political in terms of defending public education particularly through peak parent bodies and often in alliance with teacher unions.  This paper argues that the involvement of more self-interested and politically influential actors with the most recent articulation of school autonomy reform, Independent Public Schools, that school council/boards potentially are being politicised in less democratic ways. We consider the social justice implications of policies re/positioning parents informed by Nancy Fraser’s principles of social justice with a focus on participatory parity to provide new theoretical insights into studies of school governance which consider the nature of parent, expert and political representation on school councils.