Independents Day? The report card on autonomous public schools

In Victoria and Western Australia, the evidence is mounting on the merits of more autonomy for public schools. But it has to be done right.

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.

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