SCHOOLS: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
'Historic leap forward' to shake up WA schools
, September 5, 2009
Western Australia's Liberal-National Government has moved to trim the powers of education department bureaucrats over the state's 770 primary and secondary schools.
The move was taken by Education Minister Dr Liz Constable who, until last September's state election, had been an independent Liberal lower house MP since entering parliament in 1993.
Despite this. Liberal Premier Colin Barnett persuaded her to join his Cabinet. They have long co-operated in and outside parliament, in part because they represent adjacent western metropolitan electorates.
Dr Constable has a doctorate from Harvard University, a master of education from the University of New England, and bachelor's and master's degrees from Sydney University.
Before entering parliament she lectured in special education at the University of Western Australia and was deputy principal at Perth's St Hilda's Anglican Girls School.
One of her key advisers is Tony Rutherford, an education public policy expert with long-standing links to the Melbourne-based free-market think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).
Liberals sources say Dr Constable is one of Premier Barnett's most trusted ministers. Mr Barnett himself was education minister in the Richard Court Government that held power between 1993 and 2001.
Dr Constable said the policy heralded a "new era in Western Australian education by empowering schools to make decisions that best suited the needs of their students and local communities".
She urged all state schools to apply for independent school status.
A spokesman said that nearly 200 schools had already indicated interest in gaining such status.
Although this historic change in education policy will inevitably be identified with Dr Constable, another and perhaps more important player in its development is Barnett Government Energy Minister Peter Collier, who was shadow education and training spokesman from April 2006 until last September's state election.
Like Dr Constable, he had also been a teacher before entering parliament. He taught at Perth's Scotch College and Presbyterian Ladies' College, and earlier at two major Perth high schools.
Dr Constable said up to 30 schools were expected to move out of the education department's orbit by the end of this year. They would be the first to acquire greater autonomy and flexibility to set their own direction over day-to-day management.
The Constable-Collier initiative is designed so that school principals make their own staffing and disciplinary decisions; it also paves the way for parents to have a greater say in the running of schools.
Premier Barnett said on August 12: "This initiative will enable school principals and senior staff to lead and make decisions to tailor their school for the best education outcomes for their students.
"It will also allow schools to better reflect their local communities and provide a real sense of shared ownership and responsibility. This marks an historic leap forward in WA public education and ushers in an exciting opportunity for schools and their communities to shape their future.
"One of the biggest criticisms of the public education sector is the highly centralised system of governance - the suffocating red tape that prevents imaginative leadership. No school will be forced to go down this path, but those school communities willing and able to manage their schools locally will be able to do so under a Liberal-National Government."
Dr Constable said schools opting for "Independent Public School" status would experience immediate benefits, including:
• Greater responsibility for principals to manage a school's assets and budget.
• Flexibility to adopt a range of curricula, for example, the prestigious International Baccalaureate up to Year 10.
• Ability for the principal to exclude a student from school without the need for centralised approval.
• Flexibility to recruit and select all teachers and other staff.
Independent Public Schools would thereby be freed of much of the centralised red tape, while retaining the benefits of the public school system.
She added: "Schools need the authority to make decisions that match the needs and aspirations of their students and staff as well as their local communities. But the benefits of being part of a larger system such as professional learning, employee support services, and access to behaviour centres, will still be available.
"There is no shortage of able, committed educators in our schools. It is through their enthusiasm and willingness to innovate that the challenges facing schools can be met."Independent entitites
The first intake of Independent Public Schools will be announced at the end of this year so that they can begin to operate as independent entities from the beginning of the 2010 academic year.
If the Constable-Collier Independent Public Schools program is as successful as anticipated, it stands a good chance of being adopted as official policy by the Coalition parties in other states where they are languishing in opposition.Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and freelance writer.