Renewing federalism: school education within a federal system

The Commonwealth government is wielding increasingly more power over schools, but it’s better left to those closer to the action. AAP

The reform of Australia’s federation is under review. In this special series, we ask leading Australian academics to begin a debate on renewing federalism, from tax reform to the broader issues of democracy.

The Australian Catholic University’s Kevin Donnelly argues…


One of the unique characteristics of Australian schools is that they operate within a federal system. State and territory schools are answerable to their own jurisdictions as well as, increasingly, to the Commonwealth government.

This is unlike the majority of education systems overseas, especially many of the high performing countries as measured by various international tests. Under the Australian Constitution school education, unlike tertiary, is a responsibility of the states and not the Commonwealth government. This explains why the Commonwealth government does not manage any schools nor employ any staff.

The Commonwealth has the money, thus the power

The Commonwealth government has been increasing its influence over schools, with recurrent funding to Catholic and independent schools contributing approximately 74% of government expenditure (based on 2011/12 figures). They have also initiated specific programs such as Discovering Democracy, Values Education, Closing the Gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students, a National Literacy and Numeracy Plan and implementing the Digital Education Revolution.

Especially during the Rudd/Gillard years of government the Commonwealth was very involved in schools. Measures they supported included a national curriculum, national testing, national teacher standards and certification and the imposition of a range of performance indicators and benchmarks designed to hold schools and jurisdictions more accountable.

Brian Caldwell, in Realigning the Governance of Schools in Australia: Energising an Experimentalist Approach, describes increased Commonwealth involvement as a command-and-control model of public policy and governance, where

states must adhere to an array of terms and conditions in order to receive funds.

Given the reality of the vertical fiscal imbalance where the central government controls the purse strings, the fact is that jurisdictions and schools have little alternative but to do as they are told.

Schools and state and territory education authorities across Australia, with the occasional exception, have accepted increased Commonwealth involvement in education. They don’t have much choice given there is usually additional funding attached. However there are a number of concerns with leaving the feds in charge.

Those closer to the action generally know what’s best

As noted by Brian Caldwell in the paper previously referred to, one of the concerns relates to the contradiction involved when governments on one hand promote school autonomy while, at the same time, increase their control over schools:

There is a paradox in a situation in which federal governments have, as they have often done, adopted a ‘command-and-control’ approach to what should occur in schools and, at the same time, have advocated a higher level of school autonomy.

A second concern relates to the belief that school autonomy, known in the Catholic system as subsidiarity, is an inherent good. Allowing decisions to be made as far as practicable by those most affected empowers school communities and helps to engender a sense of collaboration and responsibility.

Best illustrated by the Building the Education Revolution Taskforce report, promoting school autonomy is more cost effective, transparent and efficient as proven by the fact that Catholic and independent schools, compared to government controlled state schools, were able to deliver more with less, and on time.

Commonwealth intervention in how schools are managed and held accountable not only increases red tape and compliance costs, it also weakens subsidiarity and the ability of school communities, including parents, to contribute and be involved.

In the light of the impending Commonwealth White Paper on federalism it is also useful to note what a number of recent official reports say about school autonomy. A 2012 Productivity Commission Report, while noting a number of caveats, concludes:

Increased school autonomy removes impediments that can prevent principals and other school leaders tailoring school operations to best meet the needs of the local communities they serve. It thus has the potential to improve student outcomes.

A 2013 report by the Victorian Competition & Efficiency Commission, while also noting a number of caveats, including the fact that evidence about the benefits of autonomy are mixed, is positive overall. It suggests:

the debate is not in fact about whether there should be devolved decision making. Rather it is about how far it should extend, through what means it should be given effect, and what accountabilities are required.

While not specifically referring to school autonomy, it is also relevant to note what the Victorian Secretary of the Department of Education and Early Childhood, Richard Bolt, said about the role of the Commonwealth in school education.

At the joint The Australian/Melbourne Institute Economic Social Outlook Conference held in Melbourne earlier this year, where federalism was a major topic, Bolt is reported as saying

Most of the leadership in school reform should come from the states and territories. Their [the Commonwealth’s] role should be largely non-directive.

Such a view would also appear to be in tune with what Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggests in his book Battlelines where he argues for greater community control over education and health. It seems many are in agreement that those closest to the daily happenings in schools know what is in their schools best interests.


Renewing Federalism is in partnership with the Australian National University’s Tax and Transfer Policy Institute at the Crawford School of Public Policy and with the University of Melbourne School of Government.

Our Renewing Federalism series will culminate in a symposium on October 2 at ANU. If you would like to attend the event, please see event details and RSVP here.

Read more in the series here.