Background The National Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccination Program in Australia commenced in 2007 for females and in 2013 for males, using the quadrivalent HPV vaccine (HPV 6,11,16,18). Thus far, we have demonstrated very substantial reductions in genital warts and in the prevalence of HPV among young Australian women, providing early evidence for the success of this public health initiative. Australia has a long history of school-based vaccination programs for adolescents, with comparatively high coverage. However, it is not clear what factors promote success in a school vaccination program. The HPV.edu study aims to examine: 1) student knowledge about HPV vaccination; 2) psycho-social outcomes and 3) vaccination uptake. Methods/Design HPV.edu is a cluster randomised trial of a complex intervention in schools aiming to recruit 40 schools with year-8 enrolments above 100 students (approximately 4400 students). The schools will be stratified by Government, Catholic, and Independent sectors and geographical location, with up to 20 schools recruited in each of two states, Western Australia (WA) and South Australia (SA), and randomly allocated to intervention or control (usual practice). Intervention schools will receive the complex intervention which includes an adolescent intervention (education and distraction); a decisional support tool for parents and adolescents and logistical strategies (consent form returns strategies, in-school mop-up vaccination and vaccination-day guidelines). Careful process evaluation including an embedded qualitative evaluation will be undertaken to explore in depth possible mechanisms for any observed effect of the intervention on primary and secondary outcomes. Discussion This study is the first to evaluate the relative effectiveness of various strategies to promote best practice in school-based vaccination against HPV. The study aims to improve vaccination-related psychosocial outcomes, including adolescent knowledge and attitudes, decision-making involvement, self-efficacy, and to reduce fear and anxiety. The study also aims to improve school vaccination program logistics including reduction in time spent vaccinating adolescents and increased number of consent forms returned (regardless of decision). Less anxiety in adolescents will likely promote more efficient vaccination, which will be more acceptable to teachers, nurses and parents. Through these interventions, it is hoped that vaccination uptake will be increased. Trial registration Australian and New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry, ACTRN12614000404628, 14.04.2014. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12889-015-2168-5) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.