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Government, Policy, and the Role of the State in Secondary Education (Australia)

Government, Policy, and the Role of the State in Secondary Education (Australia)
by Emma E. Rowe

Emma E. Rowe is a lecturer in education at Deakin University, Australia. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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DOI: 10.5040/9781474209441.0055

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Research on government, policy, and the role of the state

In Australia, schooling is a residual power of the states and territories (rather than the Commonwealth), according to Section 51 and Section 96 of the Australian Constitution. This means that the state government is responsible for the day-to-day governance of public or state schools, which includes staffing, administration, testing, and curriculum.

It is important to understand that Australia is a federation, consisting of six states and two territories. There are three levels of government: federal (the Commonwealth), state or territory, and local. Research on government, policy, and the role of the state demonstrates a complex arrangement between these levels of government when it comes to schooling, particularly in regard to governance, policy directions, and funding arrangements (see, Angus 2007; Lingard 2000).

Historically, the federal government’s involvement in schooling was largely ad hoc and for specialized purposes (see, Lingard 2000), such as one-off initiatives to support different sectors of schooling. For example, the federal government provided one-off grants for Catholic private schools in the 1960s to fund science blocks, in the aftermath of the Second World War and struggling enrollments. However, this broadly distant relationship began shifting in the 1960s and 1970s, in alignment with a growing emphasis on school choice (see, Rowe 2017a; Windle 2015). It was in this period that recurrent funding for private schools was mandated by the federal government. This held clear implications for parental choice, but also the governance of private schools and the role of the government.

More recent policy reforms, such as Students First, which was introduced in 2013 by the federal government, and later followed by the Quality Schools Package in 2017, again by the federal government, demonstrates the overlapping and at times, competing interests and power relations between federal and state. The federal government increasingly lead policy interventions into schooling, and endeavor to “steer the ship” in terms of quality controls (see, Savage 2016).

Research on the role of the government tends to indicate an overly critical picture, in that the government has expanded marketization and privatization of schooling since the 1970s. This has led to growing enrollment in private secondary schools (see, Rowe 2017a; Windle 2015). There are concerns that this rising privatization of secondary schools has driven growing inequality, in terms of the relationship between a student’s socio-economic status and education outcomes (see, Perry and McConney 2010, 2013). Research suggests that inequality in education in Australia is exacerbated by segregated schooling cohorts and a secondary school system that tends to be patterned by family income and parental levels of education (see, Perry and Southwell 2014; Perry, Lubienski, and Ladwig 2016; Rowe and Lubienski 2017). Furthermore, gender-specific achievement gaps are larger in Australia, in comparison to other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries (see, OECD 2015). There are achievement gaps between girls in relation to mathematics and boys in relation to reading.

Secondary schooling is largely privatized in Australia (see, Lamb et al. 2015). Secondary schools are categorized as either: independent private schools; Catholic private schools; and government public schools. Independent private schools tend to be high-fee elite schools. A large proportion of government public schools are low-fee or free for parents, although there are many exceptions. The majority of students are schooled in public secondary schools (59 percent according to 2017 figures), although this is consistently decreasing (Rowe 2017a, 2017b). Specific policies have been either introduced or abolished to intensify competition between schools, such as the removal of the “New Schools Policy” in the 1990s—originally intended to shield government schools from direct competition with private schools.


Major policy reform in Australia, which has affected the governance of secondary schools, in addition to changing the role of the state, is the introduction of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in 2008 and the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) in 2010.

ACARA is responsible for the development of three significant planks: the development, design, and implementation of the Australian National Curriculum, mandated and standardized for all secondary schools; the introduction of the National Assessment Program (NAP); and the design and maintenance of the My School website, which publishes and compares all schools’ NAP results using value-added measurements. When the My School website was first introduced, the prime minister argued that it would improve transparency of outcomes, and enable parents to make better choices. Parents can review how a school compares in the NAP (students are assessed in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9, across five domains: reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and numeracy). These policies have increased the focus on nationwide testing and standardization, which links to the overarching Australian Education Act 2013. This Act emphasizes the main goals of achieving both equity and excellence, and the capacity to be internationally competitive.

This has modified the involvement of the state in secondary schooling, the state has taken a far more regulatory role in holding schools and teachers to account for standardized test results, and has penalized and withheld funding for schools on account of standardized test results. Schools are expected to compete with each other for customers and be accountable for standardized test outcomes, which maintains a run-on affect to the governance of schools as bureaucratized and market-orientated institutions.


The governance of secondary schools largely depends on how the school is categorized: as either a state (government) public school or a private school. A private school is theoretically autonomous and under its own schooling governance. However, although private schools are autonomous, all private schools receive substantial amounts of funding from the federal government and teach to the Australian Curriculum.

The governance of public schools widely differs across states and territories. Largely, public schools are under the governance and direction of the education department in its state or territory. However, there are considerable variations dependent upon particular legislation within each state or territory, and the type of public school—whether the school is a select-entry public school; a specialized public school (for example, a science school or a mathematics school); or an independent public school (IPS), which has a more formal arrangement with the state. The state of Victoria, for example, was the first state to legislate self-governing public schools (see, the Education (Self-Governing) School Act 1998, Parliament of Victoria) and led the way in decentralization reforms.

An overarching aim of Australian government policies is to strengthen autonomous schools, and give schools greater powers in terms of their own governance (Australian Government Department of Education and Training 2015a). There are differing views in regard to the success of school autonomy or school decentralization (see, Gobby 2013; Lubienski and Lubienski 2013). Some research argues that decentralization improves schooling efficiency and standardized test results (e.g., Schütz, West, and Wöbmann 2007), however, further research demonstrates little evidence of increased standardized test results when taking into account socio-economic status of the student cohort (e.g., Lubienski and Lubienski 2013). These authors argued that the governance of the school makes little difference to academic outcomes, and the more significant factors for academic outcomes are teaching quality and socio-economic status of the student cohort (see, Lubienski and Lubienski 2005, 2006). Evidently, countries with higher levels of schooling decentralization or privatization do not score higher on global testing rankings, such as Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (e.g., Chile).

Links with other organizations

The governance of secondary schools is influenced by relationships with commercialized entities, such as professional sport teams, for-profit and nonprofit businesses. For example, schools with relationships with professional sport teams will tend to promote the particular sporting team during school hours and encourage students to learn the particular sport (e.g., rowing or basketball). Schools may have relationships with commercial providers in regards to school uniforms and school bags. This is relatively common across the public and private secondary school sector, due to the emphasis on privatization and school choice.

Pearson Education Group is responsible for the major NAP in terms of assessing the results and distributing the standardized tests across Australia. The company has previously been accused of a conflict of interest, as Pearson also sell the preparatory textbooks for the standardized test. At the time of writing, the NAP is moving to an online platform, which will be delivered by Education Services Australia.


School autonomy is a central pillar of the Australian government’s ongoing reforms into secondary education, for example, in the Student First reforms and the Quality Schools Package. As written previously, the state of Victoria led the way in implementing decentralization reforms in the 1990s, granting public schools autonomy over their budget and employment decisions. Many public schools developed their own charter at that time, making them very similar to US charter schools.

Subsequent policy moves reflected this emphasis on decentralization. From 2009 onwards, Western Australia legislated IPSs (see, Gobby 2013) in which schools were selected, and in subsequent years schools could also apply. Independent public schools meant that leaders of the school were responsible for day-to-day decisions. However, there are a raft of policies that schools need to continue to comply with (e.g., School Education Act 1999, School Education Regulations 2000, School Curriculum and Standards Authority Act 1997, Public Sector Management Act 1994, Financial Management Act 2006). In 2014, the federal government legislated IPSs, with the stated goal to make one-quarter of all public schools in Australia autonomous and decentralized (Australian Government Department of Education and Training 2014, 2015b).


Globalization has led to increasing and ongoing pressure for Australia to be competitive within the global market, according to standardized tests. This is enshrined within the Australian Education Act 2013 (Australian Government Department of Education and Training 2015a). The very first objective within the Act is “for Australia to be placed, by 2025, in the top 5 highest performing countries” in terms of OECD PISA results (see, Gorur and Wu 2015).

This objective has led to a greater emphasis on accountability of teachers and schools, in addition to significant interventions into the content and delivery of initial teacher education programs, including the introduction of a standardized test for graduate teachers (Mockler 2017; Rowe and Skourdoumbis 2017).

Further reading and online resources

Australian Government Department of Education and Training. 2017. “Quality Schools Package.” Accessed March 5, 2016. .

Gorur, R. and M. Wu. 2015. “Leaning too far? PISA, Policy and Australia’s ‘Top Five’ Ambitions .” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 36 (5): 647–664 .

Lingard, B. 2000. “Federalism in Schooling since the Karmel Report (1973), Schools in Australia: From Modernist Hope to Postmodernist Performativity .” The Australian Educational Researcher 27 (2): 25–61 .

Perry, L. B. and L. Southwell 2014. “Access to Academic Curriculum in Australian Secondary Schools: A Case Study of a Highly Marketised Education System .” Journal of Education Policy 29 (4): 467–485 .

Rowe, E. E. 2017. “Country Case Study Prepared for the 2017/8 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report: Accountability in Education: Meeting our Commitments.” Paris: UNESCO. Accessed March 5, 2018. .

Rowe, E. E. and A. Skourdoumbis. 2017. “Calling for ‘Urgent National Action to Improve the Quality of Initial Teacher Education’: The Reification of Evidence and Accountability in Reform Agendas .” Journal of Education Policy : 1–17. doi: 10.1080/02680939.2017.1410577 .

Savage, G. C. 2016. “Who’s Steering the Ship? National Curriculum Reform and The Re-shaping of Australian Federalism .” Journal of Education Policy 31 (6): 833–850 .

Savage, G. C., and K. O’Connor 2015. “National Agendas in Global Times: Curriculum Reforms in Australia and the USA Since the 1980s .” Journal of Education Policy 30 (5): 609–630 .


Angus, M. 2007. “Commonwealth–state Relations and the Funding of Australia’s Schools .” In Making Federalism Work for Schools: Due Process, Transparency, Informed Consent , edited by L. Connors, 112–116. Sydney: NSW Public Education Alliance .

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 2012. “1301.0- Year Book Australia, 2012. Education and Training: Government Responsibilities in Education.” Accessed December 4, 2017. .

Australian Government Department of Education and Training. 2014. “Independent Public Schools.” Australian Government. Accessed July 16, 2014. .

Australian Government Department of Education and Training. 2015a. “Australian Education Act 2013.”

Australian Government Department of Education and Training. 2015b. “Students First: Independent Public Schools.” Accessed May 5, 2016. .

Australian Government Department of Education and Training. 2017. “Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education (Quality Schools Review).” Accessed December 5, 2017. .

Bunar, N. 2010. “Choosing for Quality or Inequality: Current Perspectives on the Implementation of School Choice Policy in Sweden .” Journal of Education Policy 25 (1): 1–18 .

Chubb, J. E. and T. M. Moe. 1990. Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools . Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Doherty, C., B. Rissman, and B. Browning. 2013. “Educational Markets in Space: Gamekeeping Professionals across Australian Communities .” Journal of Education Policy 28 (1): 121–152 .

Fitzgerald, S., M. Stacey, S. McGrath-Champ, K. Parding, and A. Rainnie. 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. doi: 10.1080/02680939.2017.1412502 .

Gobby, B. 2013. “Enacting the Independent Public Schools program in Western Australia .” Issues in Educational Research 23 (1): 19–34 .

Gorur, R. and M. Wu. 2015. “Leaning Too Far? PISA, Policy and Australia’s ‘top five’ Ambitions .” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 36 (5): 647–664 .

Lamb, S., J. Jackson, A. Walstab, and S. Huo. 2015. Educational opportunity in Australia 2015: Who Succeeds and Who Misses Out: Centre for International Research on Education Systems, Victoria University, for the Mitchell Institute . Melbourne: Mitchell Institute.

Lingard, B. 2000. “Federalism in schooling since the Karmel Report (1973), Schools in Australia: From Modernist Hope to Postmodernist Performativity .” The Australian Educational Researcher 27 (2): 25–61 .

Lubienski, C. A. and S. T. Lubienski. 2013. The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lubienski, S. T. and C. A. Lubienski. 2005. “A New Look at Public and Private Schools: Student Background and Mathematics Achievement .” The Phi Delta Kappan 86 (9): 696–699. doi:10.2307/20441883 .

Lubienski, S. T. and C. A. Lubienski. 2006. “School Sector and Academic Achievement: A Multilevel Analysis of NAEP Mathematics Data .” American Educational Research Journal 43 (4): 651–698. doi: 10.3102/00028312043004651 .

Maguire, M. 2014. “Reforming Teacher Education in England: ‘An Economy of Discourses of Truth’.” Journal of Education Policy 29 (6): 774 .

McLean, I. 2004. “Fiscal Federalism in Australia .” Public Administration 82 (1): 21–38 .

Mockler, N. 2017. “Early Career Teachers in Australia: A Critical Policy Historiography .” Journal of Education Policy 33 (2): 262–278. doi: 10.1080/02680939.2017.1332785 .

Moe, T. M. 2001. Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public . Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2015. The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence , PISA. OECD Publishing. doi: 10.1787/9789264229945-en.

Perry, L. B., C. Lubienski, and J. Ladwig. 2016, “How do Learning Environments Vary by School Sector and Socioeconomic Composition? Evidence from Australian Students .” Australian Journal of Education 60 (3): 175–190 .

Perry, L. B. and A. McConney. 2010. “School Socio-economic Composition and Student Outcomes in Australia: Implications for Education Policy .” Australian Journal of Education 54 (1): 72–85 .

Perry, L. B. and A. McConney. 2013. “School Socio-economic Status and Student Outcomes in Reading and Mathematics: A Comparison of Australia and Canada .” Australian Journal of Education 57 (2): 124–140 .

Perry, L. B. and L. Southwell. 2014. “Access to Academic Curriculum in Australian Secondary Schools: A Case Study of a Highly Marketised Education System .” Journal of Education Policy 29 (4): 467–485 .

Ravitch, D. 2011 The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education . New York: Basic Books.

Rowe, E. E. 2017a. Middle-class School Choice in Urban Spaces: The Economics of Public Schooling and Globalized Education Reform . New York: Routledge.

Rowe, E. E. 2017b. “A Penalizing System of Accountability in Australia Exacerbates Equity Gaps in Education.” UNESCO World Education Blog, December 5. Accessed December 5, 2017. .

Rowe, E. E. and C. Lubienski. 2017. “Shopping for Schools or Shopping for Peers: Public Schools and Catchment Area Segregation .” Journal of Education Policy 32 (3): 340–356 .

Rowe, E. E. and A. Skourdoumbis. 2017. “Calling for ‘Urgent National Action to Improve the Quality of Initial Teacher Education’: The Reification of Evidence and Accountability in Reform Agendas .” Journal of Education Policy : 1–17. doi: 10.1080/02680939.2017.1410577 .

Rowe, E. E. and J. Windle. 2012. “The Australian Middle Class and Education: A Small-Scale Study of the School Choice Experience as Framed by ‘My School’ Within Inner City Families .” Critical Studies in Education 53 (2): 137–151. doi: 10.1080/17508487.2012.672327

Savage, G. C. 2016. “Who’s Steering the Ship? National Curriculum Reform and The Re-shaping of Australian Federalism .” Journal of Education Policy 31 (6): 833–50 .

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The Australian government is also referred to as the Commonwealth government, or the federal government. Australia is a monarchy and representative democracy, with a constitution.