What's Not To Like About School Autonomy?


The O’Farrell Government’s proposal to turn the management of public education on its head, giving greater autonomy to schools, has won wide acclaim. So why am I feeling uneasy? After all, in a previous life I argued for greater authority for school principals and the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council took it on as a cause célèbre — although being careful to talk about greater local authority and not autonomy.

And it will go ahead: it is pitched as reform and it is about autonomy. These two magic words are chosen to cast any cautions aside. Apparently we’ll see our schools moving from being the nation’s most centralised and bureaucratic to the most progressive and innovative. Surely it doesn’t get any better than that?

On the information available there is much to like in the proposals, especially when you look behind the headlines. Linking teachers’ pay to professional standards is a sensible way through the performance pay nonsense. Simplifying school income streams will be welcome, along with a greater needs component in funding. More incentives to teach in disadvantaged areas are always needed.

Why would anyone want to rain on Barry O’Farrell and Adrian Piccoli’s parade? Parents won’t; they will support local management, especially over teacher hire and fire. They believe this will get the best teachers in front of their own kids. Principals who have worked in both systems also generally prefer local management. Why should principals be accountable, they argue, for student outcomes if they have less say in decisions made about their schools?

At the risk of sounding boring the problem is that local management really doesn’t make much difference to the school bottom line — the achievement of students. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development does say that local management of schools "tends to" be associated with high school-system performance — but this falls short of being a ringing endorsement.

The OECD has not discovered any significant link between autonomy and student achievement in Australia. And no matter how you read our Australian student outcomes data, state-by-state, there are few differences that can be pinned down to whether schools are locally or more centrally managed. Even Ben Jensen from the Grattan Institute has struggled to find a link. We do know that principals of independent schools wax lyrical about autonomy, and that has driven some of the interest — but again the evidence is light.

Good teaching and learning is what matters — and it can be found and improved in schools of any type in any system.

In the light of this why are we pouring so much energy and excitement into something that isn’t significant — especially when we could implement much of the new NSW package right now without making schools autonomous? One answer stands out: it ticks many boxes for governments which like to pull the macro policy levers, regardless of how effective they are. There are many trumpeted school reforms in this category: testing, ranking, performance pay, perhaps even the national curriculum.

All the better if it looks and sounds good — and especially if any downsides are well down the track, at least one or two elections distant. On top of that, education is often high-stakes politics: governments can never lose by creating more distance between themselves and the inevitable crises which will emerge in a school or schools in general. When you outsource the management you also outsource the blame — while still being able to centralise much of the credit.

What about funding? The trial schools for local management in NSW were given more money to help make it work (does anyone know of a well-funded pilot that doesn’t succeed?). And in the short term costs to government may rise as they provide more initial funding to sell the system to schools.

But the longer term picture may be very different. The education budget will be under greater pressure as the portfolio loses the economies of scale which central management usually delivers. Over the last few years NSW Education has handed these savings back to Treasury. The impact of inevitable future reductions in real funding will be mainly felt in schools — where it will be principals who will make the decisions about which cuts and where.

How do we know this? Just ask the Kiwis. In the late 1980s New Zealand abolished its education bureaucracy almost overnight. Principals were attracted by the cash going straight to schools, but this didn’t last and eventually some had to make savings by hiring cheaper teachers. Sure, they found they could do more and more — but with less and less. And in an ultimate irony they also found that the bureaucracy grew back again in many different shapes and forms.

But the bigger danger is that we risk losing the equity safeguards which our public school system, with all its claimed faults, currently provides. If every school in NSW chooses its own teachers the best will gravitate to the schools with the more valued location, easier to teach students and money. Large numbers of parents who will expect to have the best teachers in front of their own kids are in for a disappointment. If the proposed financial support for disadvantaged schools doesn’t go the distance (literally, in many cases) there are no prizes for guessing which schools and communities will miss out.

There are other hidden stings. Unless closely monitored, increasingly autonomous public schools will seek and gain greater control over student enrolments. I love them dearly but already there are few rules which get between many of our enterprising school principals and a desirable enrolment. The better placed autonomous public schools will join their private counterparts in applying both overt and covert enrolment discriminators, worsening the complex equity problems revealed by the Gonski review.

It may well be that the O’Farrell government is across such complexities. The education minister has many vulnerable remote and disadvantaged schools in his electorate — I spent four rewarding years in one. But the government needs to give a number of iron-clad guarantees and define the limits to autonomy to ensure that it doesn’t create new layers of winners and losers, especially among our kids, in a system which is already divided in all the wrong ways.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.