Another Faith-Based Statement by Garrett on School Autonomy

The Federal Education Minister, Peter Garrett, has once again failed to provide convincing evidence that greater school autonomy will improve student outcomes. Lacking any compelling evidence for the program, the Minister can only resort to faith that it will make a difference to student results.

In an opinion piece published in The Australian, Garrett claims that there is evidence from Australia and overseas that greater school autonomy will increase student results. The evidence he cites is very weak and it is highly selective because he ignores overwhelming national and international evidence that it has little to no impact.

For Australia, he cites the NSW Department of Education evaluation report on the school autonomy pilot project in NSW in 2010 and 2011. However, the report does not provide any statistical evidence of increased student results and it makes it clear that no such evidence exists:

The issue of the impact of pilot initiatives on student results is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify in so short a timeframe…..The period of the pilot (2010 and 2011) is too short to draw clear robust links between greater local decision making and widespread improved student outcomes. [NSW Department of Education and Communities, Final Report of the Evaluation of the School-Based Management Pilot, January 2012: 8, 10]

In the face of this, all the Minister can do is rely on anecdotal statements by principals without any statistical backing.

There can be little wonder than many principals in the pilot project were supportive. The 47 schools received $20 million in additional funding to participate in the project over the two years, that is, an average of $425,000 per school. A further $3.4 million was provided in central office support for the project. The $20 million enabled the appointment of 289 additional part- and full-time staff (principals, deputy-principals, teachers, support and administrative staff) in the 47 schools, an average of over 6 additional staff per school.

The evaluation report observed: “It appears unlikely that this level of additional funding is sustainable in any expansion of school-based management” [77]. Another review of the pilot project stated:

‘Top-up’ funding had the potential to ‘muddy the waters’ in relation to the outcomes of the pilot as it is obvious that more money equals more initiatives and potential for greater benefits. [ARTD Consultants, Independent Review of the School Based Management Pilot, October 2011: 16]

Indeed, many principals said that that their school would be negatively affected when this ‘top-up’ funding was withdrawn at the end of the project [16].

It should be noted also that funding for the pilot project was far higher than what is being provided through the Federal Government’s Empowering Local Schools program. About 1000 schools will get start up grants of $45,000-$50,000 to participate.

For international evidence, Garrett cites the director of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) as saying that Finland, the world’s top performing school system, has devolved greater responsibilities to the school level. However, the OECD’s own analysis of the 2009 PISA results shows that Finnish schools have amongst the least school autonomy in recruiting teachers and formulating the school budget of all OECD countries, including Australia [OECD, PISA 2009 Results: What Makes a School Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices, Figure IV.3.3a, p.70; Table IV.3.5, p.214]. The analysis also shows that school autonomy for staffing and school budgets in Finland did not have any statistically significant impact on student results before or after schools’ and students’ socio-economic backgrounds are taken into account [Table IV.2.4b, p. 168; Table IV.2.4c, p.169].

Thus, yet again, Garrett has failed to sustain his case that greater school autonomy will improve student results. There is far more extensive evidence that greater school autonomy has little to no impact on student results which he ignores.

New Zealand has the most decentralized school system in the OECD with schools exercising full control over budgets and staffing. The head of research at the NZ Council for Educational Research says that there has not been any significant gains in overall student achievement, new approaches to learning, or greater equality of educational opportunity since this radical path was taken in 1989. Nor has there been any progress in reducing the number of low achievers or closing the gaps between students from rich and poor families.

Charter schools in the United States are independent schools with public funding and have operated for over 20 years. The most sophisticated studies of charter schools show that some do better than traditional public schools, some do no better and some do worse. The major national studies show that charter schools do no better than traditional schools.

The evidence on the impact of free schools in Sweden is mixed. Foundation schools in England have not improved student achievement while the evidence on academies is mixed.

OECD research has found that in the vast majority of 64 countries participating in PISA 2009, including in Australia, there was no relationship between student achievement in schools and the degree of autonomy in hiring teachers and over the school budget. There was a positive effect in only four countries. The OECD concluded emphatically that “…greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall student performance” and that “…school autonomy in resource allocation is not related to performance at the system level” [PISA 2009 Results: What Makes a School Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices: 41, 86 (note 7)].

The national report on Australia’s PISA 2009 results also shows virtually no difference in the correlation between school autonomy and student achievement in NSW, with the lowest degree of autonomy of any jurisdiction, and Victoria which has a high degree of autonomy [Australian Council for Educational Research, Challenges for Australian Education: Results from PISA 2009: 274]. Moreover, it found no significant relationship between student performance and school autonomy in budgeting and staffing in any school sector – government, Catholic or Independent.

The recent Productivity Commission report on the schools workforce concluded that the evidence on school autonomy is mixed. It noted that past studies “have found mixed impacts from delegating decision-making to schools” [Productivity Commission, Schools Workforce, 2012: 246].

The Minister’s ongoing inability to provide compelling evidence to sustain his case for greater school autonomy while ignoring the mountain of evidence that it has little to no impact on student achievement, gives lie to his denial of an ideological conviction to school autonomy. The only thing sustaining his case is faith that it will work.

Faith alone is not a sound basis for any public policy. The $475 million to be spent on Empowering Local Schools will be a waste in terms of improving student outcomes. It would be far better spent on directly targeting disadvantage in education. This is the major priority for school funding as identified in the recent Gonski report on school funding which recommended an increase of $5 billion to address disadvantage in education.

Trevor Cobbold

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