Since the 1990s giving public schools more autonomy has often been put forward as a way of improving educational outcomes. What is the rationale for this, and how successful has it been?
Autonomy was a policy of the Kennett Government in Victoria in the 1990s, and an Independent Public Schools Initiative (IPS) was introduced in Western Australia in 2009. A similar program commenced in Queensland in 2013. The current Federal Coalition Government proposed extending the Western Australia model by creating a $70 million Independent Public Schools Fund which will provide grants directly to public schools to assist them in becoming more independent.
No school is fully autonomous. All schools - Public, Catholic or Independent - have to meet expectations about beliefs, values and student achievement from their respective communities as well as multiple requirements from the State including registration, following the Australian curriculum, and participating in external examinations. Increased autonomy is counter balanced by increased accountability, as is the case with the West Australian model (see below).
Uniformity in schools also results from a common use of teaching materials such as textbooks, and from the contributions of subject associations through conferences and publications. Across all schools and all systems what the majority of schools (apart from those that deliberately set themselves up as ‘alternative schools’) have in common and the ways in which they function is far greater than how they differ. One of the most significant differences between schools is not in how they are run, but in the availability of resources.
Whether a school is in the Independent, Catholic or Government system, a key factor in a school’s ability to create structures that best meet the educational needs of its students lies in the strength of its leadership team and the support they engender from their staff. A good public school principal knows the strength and weaknesses of the system and how to use this to her or his advantage. Less proficient principals will sometimes try to blame ‘the system’ for shortcomings in their own administration.
Autonomy can also mean separation and competition as opposed to co-operation, favouring some students and communities at the expense of others, and further heightening diversity and inequality. Professor Field Rickards, in his introduction to Maxine McKew’s book Class Act, states ‘Whereas the Finnish have created a system where the “best” school is the closest one, we are a long way from being able to say this in Australia.’ The correlation between increasing diversity in our school systems and declining performance on international comparisons is not coincidental. A Melbourne Graduate School of Education submission to Making the Grade; Autonomy and Accountability in Victorian Schools stated that:
Most systems that have increased devolution have led to more unequal schools. For New Zealand devolved much to schools as a consequence of the 1989 Tomorrow’s School mandates and since that time NZ has dramatically increased the inequalities in student outcomes.
Assumptions underlying autonomy
Underlying the Federal Coalition’s policy are two assumptions. In support of their policy they argued that the way Independent Public Schools would run would be in ways that ‘more closely resembles that of a non-government independent school’ – the obvious assumption being that such schools are inherently better and Government schools need to catch up.
The policy also argued that ‘senior members of a school community are far better equipped to know what is best for their school than government bureaucrats.’ ‘Bureaucracy’ is an emotively loaded word. There are enormous advantages, both educationally and financially, in being part of a system. This is clearly shown in the development of the Catholic school system since the introduction of Federal funding in the late 1960s. To efficiently direct and use the new funding, what had been individual parish schools became part of larger regions. By modelling the Government school system all Catholic schools gained in educational resources and management skills.
Similarly when you compare educational spending on a dollar per student basis, adding public and private expenditure (that is what parents pay in school fees on top of what the Government provides) and take into account the socioeconomic status of students’ families, the public school system provides similar results to the Independent system at a lower cost. The Australia Bureau of Statistics calculated that in 2004 that the average expenditure per student for Independent Schools was $12,100 compared with $10,000 per Government School Student nd $8,300 for Catholic schools.
No State educational bureaucracy is perfect, but the extent of the support a system provides to a large number of schools cannot be underestimated. Giving public schools more autonomy can also mean a reduction in Government support. The introduction of autonomy in public schools in Victoria in the 1990s was accompanied by a reduction in regional support.
Evaluating school autonomy
In a liberal democratic society the ultimate measure of success of any educational system is the extent to which it meets the educational needs of all students. While it is great when individual schools or systems celebrate their success, what we should be aiming for is for all students to succeed and especially those who begin with socioeconomic disadvantages
International comparisons are fraught with difficulty. As already pointed out autonomy is never absolute and there are multiple factors that limit it and these will vary from country to country. School leadership is a key factor for any form of transformation.
One must also distinguish between autonomy in curricula and assessment on the one hand, and autonomy in managing resources. The Western Australia model focuses on the latter. The PISA 2013 report concluded that while there are some benefits where schools are granted more autonomy in curriculum and assessment, ‘in contrast, greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall performance’ (PISA, 2013: p 52)
The Western Australia Independent Public School Initiative
The Western Australian Independent Public Schools Initiative has been in operation for four years. A study by the MGSE completed in May 2013 indicated, as would be expected from the relatively short time it had been in operation, that there was no evidence yet of improved student outcomes. Perceptions of Principals involved however were very positive, maintaining that the initiative
…has considerably enhanced the functioning of their school, created the opportunity to access more benefits, and that it will lead to increased outcomes for the whole school community.
However, one must take into account that these are in fact perceptions without solid evidence to back them up. These principals were most probably already innovators and were selected from a larger number of applicants.
One must also take into account that schools involved in trial were in fact given support not available to other schools through the School Innovation and Reform Unit, which included operational support through:
Coordination with other business areas in central office, problem solving, board training, professional learning, communication, policy review, advocacy and stakeholder management (p 13)
In terms of line management, unlike principals of other public schools who are accountable to Regional Directors, principals of Independent Public Schools are directly accountable to the Director-General and meet with the Director-General in small groups twice a year. All of this gives Principals direct contact with Central Office, a deeper understanding of how systems work and increased prestige.
Of course, there is a downside to this for schools that are not part of the trial and do not have these advantages. This was especially felt in schools that applied to be part of the trial but missed out. Some of these had perceptions that they were not considered ‘good enough’. (p. 57) But again these are perceptions; at this stage there is no evidence that educational outcomes for schools not in the trial suffered.
This does raise the question of what happens with any proposed reform that targets some schools over others – are there winners at the expense of losers? It is sensible for the West Australian Government to do a trial first but, if it is successful, will it be possible to give that same support to all the other schools?
Public School Independence in other States
The Queensland Coalition Government established 26 Independent Public Schools when it came to office, with another 54 schools beginning in 2014. Labor has now formed a minority government. In their pre-election policy they made an indirect reference to the IPS model by stressing the crucial role of the principal:
Labor will ensure a fair and transparent state-wide staffing system and a rigorous process for principal selection in light of the introduction of IPS (p22)
At the same time they promised to develop funding and school management models that ‘give individual schools the flexibility to access resources’ but the focus was on supporting students with challenging behaviours.
In NSW Adrian Piccoli rejected the idea of creating two types of public schools and in February this year signed an agreement with the Federal Government for $23 million which will be distributed to all schools to top up existing programs that connect schools with their local communities, which was an aim of the original coalition policy.
The Northern Territory is going ahead with funding to create six independent schools while Victoria is continuing with its present model. South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT have decided not to introduce separate state independent schools.
A tale of two systems
For over twenty years the NSW and Victorian education departments have taken pride in what they see as their different management of schools, with Victoria priding itself on autonomy, while NSW has claimed benefits of its more centralised system, to the extent of rewriting Australian Curriculum documents in its own style. However, from my experience in the secondary schools in the two states, there is little difference in practice.
Figure 1 breaks down the 2012 PISA results by state and territory, and shows a pattern that has been consistent over previous years. The differences between Victoria and NSW however are not statistically significant. While many factors need to be taken into account in comparisons, if autonomy has a stronger influence in what happens in schools in Victoria than in NSW (a position which I would reject anyway) it certainly does not provide evidence that autonomy in Victoria has made any significant difference.
In the case of Western Australia it is worth noting that, prior to the introduction of IPS, the educational performance of Western Australia, despite its particular geographical challenges with many schools being relatively isolated, was comparable with that of the ACT. The reasons for this deserve further investigation. Perhaps east coast researchers on the way to Finland could avoid jetlag and learn significant lessons by getting off at Perth! We must also be aware that if politicians try to use PISA results for 2015 as ‘evidence’ for success for the ISP we must go back to the historical record which reveals similar results for Western Australia in PISA 2009.
Public schools need to be free to respond to their local situation and under qualified executive there are gains from self-management. Public schools also gain significantly from external support; the special role of the central body is to ensure that all students, and particularly those who face disadvantages in a variety of forms, have an equal opportunity to succeed.
The success of moves towards greater autonomy must be measured by improved outcomes for all students and efforts put into its introduction must not be seen as a substitute for the implementation of the recommendations of the Gonski Review..
The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of Glenn Savage and Bronwyn Pike in responding to an earlier draft.