The Bureaucratisation of Public Education in Australia

Aug 7, 2020

Public school systems in Australia have seen an enormous increase in bureaucracy since the turn of the century. So-called school reforms promised less bureaucratic control but have instead intensified bureaucracy at all levels – central and regional offices, schools and for teachers.

Bloated bureaucracy is one manifestation of what world-renowned Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, currently professor of education at the Gonski Institute of Education in Sydney, coined as GERM (Global Education Reform Movement). It is characterised by corporate management policies, test-based accountability of schools and fostering competition between schools to drive improvement in education outcomes. The role of bureaucracy in GERM is to police compliance with regulations, collect and record information and monitor performance.

From 2002 to 2019, the increase in administrative staff at the system and school levels was far greater than the increase in teachers. Administrative and clerical staff increased by 90.2% in primary schools and 82.6% in secondary schools [Chart 1]. The increase in primary schools was 3½ times the increase in teachers and the increase in secondary schools nearly seven times the increase in teachers.

The increases in administrative staff also far exceeded the increase in enrolments – six times the increase in students in primary and secondary schools. Administrative staff now comprise 27% of school staff in primary schools compared to 20% in 2002. Administrative staff in secondary schools increased from 17% to 25% of all staff.


The increase in central and regional office staff of 56% was three times that for all teachers and four times that of students. Detailed figures for non-school staff are available only from 2015. The number of executive (management) staff increased by 70% in just four years to 2019. This was over ten times the increase in students and teachers for the period. Total non-school staff increased by nearly four times that of students and teachers.

As a result, there was a large reduction in the ratio of students to non-teaching staff in schools in contrast to little change in the student-teacher ratios. The student/non-teaching staff ratio in primary schools fell from 51.9 in 2002 to 33.2 in 2019 while the student/teacher ratio was reduced from 16.7 to 15.3. The student/administrative staff ratio in primary schools fell from 63.7 to 38.4.

The student/non-teaching staff ratio in secondary schools fell from 45 to 30.5 while the student/teacher ratio increased from 12.5 to 12.7. The student/administrative staff ratio fell from 58.2 to 36.2. There was also a large reduction in the student/non-school staff ratio from 282.1 in 2002 to 206.5 in 2019.

Increased government accountability requirements and regulations have driven the huge increase in administrative staff in central and regional offices and in schools as well as placing increased administrative workloads on principals and teachers. The promise of more school autonomy and less bureaucratic control has turned into a monster of more bureaucracy at both the central and school levels.

Public schools are subject to widespread accountability measures covering financial management, student well-being, behaviour management and safety, teacher appraisal, compliance training, school review processes, curriculum standards, student progress based on standardised test results, workplace health and safety, and auditing. This requires increased monitoring and administration by managers and staff in central and regional offices.

Of course, public schools must be accountable. but the huge growth of bureaucracy has been at the expense of direct support for teaching and learning in schools. It has strengthened central control over schools. As one principal told Save Our Schools, central office is “micro-managing schools” and that “more and more accountability and evaluation become counter-productive” for teaching and learning.

State education departments are focused primarily on administrative and compliance roles rather than curriculum, teaching and learning support. Very few branches of state departments of education are directly involved in supporting teaching and learning. The vast majority are devoted to administration of finance, policing compliance to regulations, performance monitoring, human resource management and other corporate functions.

For example, the NSW Department of Education has eight divisions with over 50 branches but only four branches could be considered as directly involved in supporting teaching and learning. A whole division with 13 branches is devoted to school performance and operations. The Victorian Education Department also has eight divisions with about 40 branches but only three appear to be directly involved in supporting teaching and learning.

Despite the increase in administrative staff in schools, the administrative load for principals and teachers has increased. Data from the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2018 show that principals and teachers are working longer hours on administration. Australian teachers spend the 3rd highest number of hours on management and administration in the OECD.

The bureaucratisation of public education has clearly failed. The large achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students have increased or remain virtually unchanged. For example, the results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that 15-year-old students from low socio-economic status (SES) families in Australia have remained about three years of learning behind their high SES peers since 2000. Similarly, the gaps between low and high SES Year 9 students in NAPLAN results remain at three to four years of learning since 2008 when NAPLAN was introduced.

Moreover, the huge increase in administrative staff in schools and in central and regional offices appears to have soaked up the very small increase in government funding allocated to public schools since 2002. Spending on bureaucracy has prevailed over spending on student learning.

Over the 16 years from 2001-02 to 2017-18, government funding of public schools, adjusted for inflation, increased by $1,450 per student or 12%. The increase averaged a miserly $90 per year. State governments as the primary funder of public schools are particularly at fault for not adequately supporting public schools. Their funding of public schools increased by only $4 per student since 2001-02 and has been falling since 2009-10.

Increasing bureaucratisation is not the way to improve school performance and student outcomes. Public schools continue to face large shortages in teachers in key subject areas with the result that many are teaching out-of-field. Australian governments must eradicate GERM and focus on providing the necessary high quality human and material resources for public schools to reduce the large achievement gaps.


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