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The governmentality of school autonomy and self-management: A Foucauldian analysis

Gobby, Brad (2011) The governmentality of school autonomy and self-management: A Foucauldian analysis. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Over the past four decades in Australia, many politicians, policy-makers, experts and social commentators have sought to increase the organisational autonomy of public schools and their principals. This trend of shifting the locus of educational decision-making and management away from bureaucratic centres to individual schools and parents continues, with the Western Australian state government recently introducing the Independent Public Schools policy. This policy devolves an increased range of organisational and curriculum responsibilities from the state education bureaucracy to selected public schools. This thesis examines what appears to be the enduring trend towards school autonomy and self-management.

The perspective of this thesis is informed by the theoretical, analytical and historical insights of Foucauldian studies of government, or governmentality. Foucault’s studies have increasingly influenced sociological and historical studies in education. His notions of power and discipline have been elaborated and applied in the study of the micro power relations of schooling. Unfortunately, while the study of schooling as a technology for disciplining the individual’s mind and body has received most attention, Foucault’s studies in government have been less widely understood, elaborated and used. This thesis explores Foucault’s genealogy of the formation of the modern liberal state (and governmentality) and the rich and subtle insights it provides into the complex relationship between the state, politics, society and the government of education.

I explore Foucauldian studies in government with the aim of teasing out their implication for our understanding of the relationship between selfmanaging school reforms and the state, politics and government. In particular, I argue that the trend in public schools towards school autonomy and self-management cannot be adequately understood without understanding the inherent dilemma embedded within the discourses of politics and government of modern liberal democracies. This problem can be described as an agonistic tension in liberal governmentality between political and governmental authorities enabling individual and economic freedom, whilst needing to secure the state and the welfare of its constituent elements under the condition of freedom.

This tension fuelled a ‘crisis of liberalism’ or a ‘crisis of liberal governmentality’ in the late twentieth century. This crisis involved vociferous critiques of the welfare state in conjunction with a cultural renewal of the discourses of individual freedom, emancipation, liberation and empowerment. According to Foucault, central to this crisis was concern about the costs of the perceived growth of excessive government of the post World War Two era, measured both economically and in terms of personal and political freedom. This thesis puts the case that the emergence of ‘self-managing school reforms’ is linked to this ‘crisis of liberalism’. The self-managing school constitutes both an instrument and object of government, re-regulating the domain of education according to an ethos of individual empowerment, activity, enterprise, autonomy and responsibility.

To illustrate some of the consequences of these reforms, two case studies are examined. The first explores the emergence at a national level of the devolution of responsibilities and authority to schools, particularly canvassed in the Schools In Australia report (1973) and by the Commonwealth Schools Commission (1973-1988). The second case study examines the use of self-management techniques and practices in schools. These reforms have sought to strengthen the capacity of those within schools to manage themselves and their schools as competitive enterprises with diminished reliance on central education bureaucracies. I argue that this development, like the case of devolution, is linked to the new ways of rationalising and enacting the care and government of the population and the state emerging from the crisis of liberalism. I conclude with a discussion of the implication of this trend towards self-management, specifically in terms of what is at stake for the liberal state from a mode of government that seeks to govern for its citizens’ freedom and also, often antagonistically, for the state’s security.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Education
Supervisor(s): Down, Barry and Pearce, Jane
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