Independents Day? The report card on autonomous public schools

By David Donaldson

August 5, 2014

Education Minister Christopher Pyne says “all international evidence points to the fact that the more autonomous a school, the better the outcomes for students”. Experts warn much of that evidence is ambiguous. And critics fear greater privatisation of the education sector and a two-tier public school system.

The drive for autonomy in public schools is a political football. But in Victoria and Western Australia, the work is well advanced.

Western Australia began its so-called Independent Public Schools model in 2010, giving a greater degree of autonomy to the 264 public schools already operating under the system. The IPS model makes principals accountable directly to the director-general (rather than the Department of Education), and gives them a much larger discretionary budget and the ability to hire and fire to their own needs. This autonomy does not extend to choosing what is on the curriculum; IP schools must teach the same content as everyone else — they are just given more freedom in how they teach the curriculum.

It’s hoped giving principals — those most familiar with each community’s potentially very different educational needs — greater control over staffing will lead to stronger results in the long run. According to the WA Education Department, public school market share increased for the first time in 30 years in 2012 and 2013, driven largely by enrolment growth in IPS (4.46% compared with 1.95% in non-IPS). There are reports the IPS system has allowed public schools in wealthier areas to compete with private schools more effectively.

Victoria’s public schools, meanwhile, have been among the most autonomous in the world since Kennett government reforms in the early 1990s.

While Pyne was overegging the pudding with his suggestion that the evidence is unequivocally positive — international programs have sometimes shown poor student learning outcomes as well as improvements — the experience of Victoria and Western Australia has not borne out expectations of a widening gap between middle class and poorer students.

Although the complexity of learning means it is difficult to determine what effect such a broad reform is having, most measures show Victoria has slightly better educational outcomes than the more centralised New South Wales system, for example. Notably, Victoria also achieves this more cheaply than anywhere else in the country: whereas NSW spent $15,718 per full-time equivalent public school student in 2011-12, Victoria only spent $13,801. Victoria also has higher attendance and retention rates than NSW, and a better ratio of students to teachers.

The University of Melbourne’s 2013 evaluation report on WA’s IPS system argued that although IPS educational outcomes are, as yet, no different to other public schools, this is to be expected after only three years. The reforms have been well received, however:

“IPS principals overwhelmingly maintain that even in this early phase of the implementation, 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.”

One potential pitfall of greater autonomy, however, is the damage that poor leadership can do. University of Melbourne researcher and Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy fellow Bronwyn Hinz told Radio National last year:

“[Autonomy] can be brilliant for some schools. If they have a wonderful school leader with a great capacity, a good leadership team and the support of the community, including teachers and parents, these schools can flourish. But in the absence of this leadership capacity or absence of community support and engagement, absence of adequate support from the system — whether it be financial or training or administrative support — you can get the opposite result.”

The ‘balancing act’ on inequality

WA education officials were aware of this problem while drafting the policy and made a conscious effort to account for it, says Dr Brad Gobby, an education lecturer at Curtin University. Gobby, whose paper examining the creation of the IPS system will be released in August, says policymakers are aware of concerns that remote and lower socio-economic status areas may struggle to attract good teachers. According to one department official, it is a constant “balancing act” to boost school autonomy without increasing inequality.

One strategy for overcoming some of the known issues was to make IPS voluntary. “The voluntary nature of the program helps ‘sell’ the program politically to the community and stakeholders, but it also offers schools in difficult-to-staff areas continued department support and resources,” said Gobby.

In his journal article Enacting the Independent Public School Program in Western Australia, Gobby told the story of one IPS principal who enjoyed the increased independence:

“She recalled how she had struggled unsuccessfully for years to convince the department to replace a damaged water pump, who instead chose to spend money fixing it numerous times. But being an IPS school enabled her to finally find a solution to the problem. She was able to consult directly with the executive directors responsible for the IPS program and they supported her decision to buy a new water pump.”

At the moment, argues Mitchell Institute’s director of education policy Dr Sara Glover, “we have considerable issues with where Australia is tracking with educational outcomes”. In particular, “if you look at disadvantaged communities, we have some incredibly poor outcomes in the most disadvantaged parts of the country”.

She believes “it’s very important decisions can be made locally”, but Glover says there are three key areas that need to be developed to ensure Australian educational outcomes improve.

“First, school leaders and communities must have access to good data about what works, they’ve got to have good information about what students need, what programs are effective, what they cost — we need a ‘what works’ platform across Australia, and we don’t have that,” he told The Mandarin.

“Second, we need to create incentives for schools to work with other schools to create ‘learning networks’. We want to make sure schools connect with other services such as family services. The most important thing is to keep young people connected to high-quality education. Smith Family have done some good work on creating community hubs to connect kids to the right services. And that needs to be resourced.

“Third, to enable school autonomy to be successful, you have to invest in leadership development and governance. We need to see a much better, preferably national, scheme. We need to think about how we’re supporting the current school leadership and preparing the next generation, so they don’t land in the job unprepared for what it requires. Victoria does this really well through the Bastow Institute. I think we need to up the ante on this.

“It’s not just about having been a good teacher and becoming a leader, it’s about management, using evidence well, and stakeholder management.”

Recently announced changes to public education funding in WA mean that even non-IP schools will soon have a significant measure of freedom in budgeting. WA is also extending employment flexibilities to non-IP schools to address concerns that currently IP schools can access graduates before non-IP schools, and can recruit at any time of the year, and is developing incentives for capable staff to work in difficult communities.

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