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Research Article

Managerial, professional and collective school autonomies: using material semiotics to examine the multiple realities of school autonomy

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Published online: 05 Aug 2022


In response to the diverse deployments of ‘school autonomy’ in interviews with education stakeholders, we use material semiotics and the concept of ontological politics to theorize school autonomy as ontologically multiple. We analyze interviews conducted in Australia with forty-two school education stakeholders drawn from principal, parent and teacher associations as well as policymakers at federal and state government levels, to better understand the diverse deployments of public school autonomy and their political implications. We theorize managerial autonomy, professional autonomy and collective autonomy as three coexisting realities of school autonomy spoken about in the interviews. We examine their differences, the tensions in navigating these realities, and what is at stake in how school autonomy is known and enacted. The analysis suggests a concern among many stakeholders for school autonomy to be known and done differently from the dominant managerial autonomy, which we understand as a call to practise alternatives into existence.


This paper was written as part of the School Autonomy Reform and Social Justice in Australian Public Education research project.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).


1. The larger project from which these interviews derive was limited to studies of Australian mainstream state education systems. This means that examples which conceive of autonomy in more radical ways have been excluded, particularly those in the global south, such as the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement. This is a limitation of the study. We are appreciative of the anonymous reviewer who made this point.

Additional information


The project was funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council [Discovery Project: DP190100190].

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