EDUCATION by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
The case for granting schools more autonomy
, September 13, 2014
The desire to give government schools increased autonomy and flexibility has enjoyed the support of both major political parties.
Julia Gillard, when Prime Minister, championed the then ALP Commonwealth government’s Empowering Local Schools reform, and in a 2010 speech she argued: “A key element of this reform is empowering local school communities to make decisions about what is best for their schools and their students rather than a centralised system run by state bureaucracies dictating staffing mix and resource allocations.”
The then PM went on to argue that the purpose of the reform was “to ensure the core decisions that make the most difference to student outcomes are devolved to schools”.
While recent initiatives like the Western Australian government’s independent public schools (IPS) are in the news, it is also important to understand that school autonomy has a relatively long history in Australia.
In the ’60s and ’70s, many government schools in and around Melbourne chose their own staff, developed their own curriculum and were free from centralised management and control.
Such schools were supported by the left-of-centre teacher union, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA), and were considered at the “leading edge” of educational reform.
Innovations included alternative year 12 pathways and school-based certificates, general studies, non-competitive assessment and a curriculum based on local needs. The pedagogical and curriculum approaches, at a time when the traditional, competitive, academic curriculum reigned supreme, drew on radical educators like Neil Postman, Paulo Freire and the de-schooling movement.
The Victorian government’s decision, during the mid-80s, to open a new style of government secondary school, blending the technical and the high school traditions, provides a second example of school autonomy predating independent public schools.
These government post-primary schools, such as St Helena Secondary College, were given the power to appoint their own staff, design their own buildings and determine their own curriculum. As one of the first group of teachers appointed to the St Helena, I can attest to the excitement, motivation and sense of collegiality that developed as we were freed from external constraints.
I should also like to point out that Australia is not alone in giving government schools increased autonomy, and around the world other examples include:
• Charter schools in 42 U.S. states, including Florida, Milwaukee and Washington State.
• City Academies and Free Schools in England — supported by both the Tony Blair Labour government and the current Conservative government led by Prime Minister David Cameron.
• Privately-managed schools in disadvantaged slum areas in Indian cities like Calcutta and Bombay. See James Tooley’s book, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World’s Poorest People are Educating Themselves (Cato Institute/Penguin, 2009).
Before addressing the question of whether giving government schools increased autonomy will raise standards, I’d like to make a few observations.
First, and as noted by a report by the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission, titled Making the Grade: Autonomy and Accountability in Victorian Schools, autonomy has a range of benefits in addition to whether standards, as measured by tests such as NAPLAN, improve or not.
Possible benefits include: strengthening the ability of principals and school leaders to better manage their schools, thus, improving teacher quality and effectiveness; promoting increased transparency and innovation and using resources more efficiently.
Secondly, giving schools and their communities greater control and reducing the power of governments and their bureaucracies based on the concept of subsidiarity — a principle whereby “decisions are far as practicable are made by those most affected” — is empowering, as it acknowledges that teachers, students, school leaders and parents, generally speaking, have a far more realistic and credible understanding of what it is that makes their school unique.
Providing greater flexibility and control at the local level is also more efficient.
And, thirdly, based on the example of Catholic and other independent schools, that are able to achieve stronger educational outcomes compared to many government schools even after adjusting for students’ socioeconomic background, it is possible to argue that autonomy is beneficial.
Non-government schools, by their very nature, are able to select staff, manage their own budgets and set their own curriculum focus — within general guidelines.
While not all agree that autonomy will lead to stronger outcomes, there is increasing evidence, if done properly and recognising that not all schools or schools systems both here and overseas have the same potential to benefit, that autonomy raises standards.
At a time when many teachers feel devalued and beginning teachers, in particular, express concerns about teaching as a career anything that can be done, such as increasing school autonomy, that is considered positively should be welcomed.
Kevin Donnelly, PhD, is director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University. He taught for 18 years in government and non-government schools. The above article is a shortened version of Dr Donnelly’s presentation at a recent debate sponsored by the Australian Catholic Student Association (ACSA).