Bureaucrats in Nowhere Land on School Autonomy

Top Federal Education bureaucrats found themselves without a leg to stand on in Senate Estimates last week as Greens Senator, Penny Wright, thoroughly exposed their lack of evidence to support school autonomy. The Senator’s close questioning left them squirming and their only responses were to dissemble and resort to statements of faith.

Associate Secretary of the Department of Education, Tony Cook, asserted to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee that research shows that school autonomy increases student outcomes:

The World Bank has done research that would indicate that in those countries where there is greater autonomy in their schools, the performance of those countries in terms of international assessments is higher….
The OECD has also undertaken research in relation to this, particularly in relation to international assessments. So there is a range of research that does exist that would indicate that moving towards autonomy and independence in terms of decisions around budgets and things like that actually does make a difference in academic outcomes for students.
… what I am saying to you is that there is international evidence that would say an approach towards autonomy is actually making a difference in relation to the outcomes for students in those schools. [Hansard, 20 November 2013, p.23]

In support of Cook, Department Secretary, Lisa Paul, stated that an evaluation of independent public schools in Western Australia has shown that they have been successful.

Senator Wright questioned Cook about the evaluation of independent public schools in Western Australia carried out by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education which concluded that there has been no improvement in school outcomes. Cook dodged acknowledging this conclusion by saying that outcomes have improved in a broader way than literacy and numeracy and will continue to improve. He provided no evidence in support of his assertion, but repeated his claim that research by the OECD and the World Bank looking across a range of countries has found that countries that had moved towards school autonomy were performing better than countries that had not.

Senator Wright then cited conclusions from the OECD’s 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that greater school autonomy in curriculum and assessment tends to improve outcomes but that greater school autonomy in budgeting and staffing has had little to no effect. In particular, the OECD 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.

Further, it concluded:

… greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall student performance.

This had Cook squirming because he had earlier stated that “autonomy and independence in terms of decisions around budgets…does make a difference in academic outcomes for students” [p. 23] and he had agreed that school autonomy in Australia is focused on budgeting and staffing decisions [p. 25].

Moreover, as Senator Wright observed, curriculum (and assessment) in Australia is being increasingly centralised rather than decentralised. Thus, OECD research suggests that school autonomy is heading in the wrong direction in Australia – we are adopting school autonomy where it appears to have little or no effect on outcomes while reducing autonomy where it does have an impact.

Cook’s first line of defence for this contradictory approach was faith:

I find it difficult to understand, if a principal has the ability to hire a teacher around a specific area and greater flexibility in that area to do that, how that could not impact positively on student outcomes. [p. 29]

He then accused Senator Wright of picking particular aspects of independent public schools or school autonomy. Here his defence became disingenuous: “I do not think it is correct to identify each of these separately; these are linked” [p.29]. His boss, Lisa Paul, then chimed in:

…it is really important to look at the notion of autonomy in a holistic way. There are some risks in separating out bits of research which look at a part of it.

So, it seems that the Federal Department of Education considers that the OECD was incorrect to examine the separate effects of school autonomy in budgeting and staffing, on the one hand, and curriculum and assessment on the other. According to Cook and Paul, if more budgeting and staffing decisions are devolved to principals, this somehow allows greater autonomy in curriculum and assessment even when these are in the process of being more centralised by the Government they serve. Work that out!

The last line of official defence to being caught out on the evidence was that ‘everyone is doing it’:

Every state and territory is moving towards autonomy. There is no state or territory that is not moving towards autonomy.

Can there be a lamer or feebler response to being caught out than resorting to the classic child response?

Nevertheless, Senator Wright had the last word. She followed up by also demolishing Cook’s assertion that the World Bank has found that school autonomy leads to better student outcomes. She noted that the study actually says that there is no convincing evidence of the effects of school autonomy in Australia, New Zealand and the UK on student achievement. She also drew the attention of the officials to the fact that there is a Productivity Commission report that says that the evidence on school autonomy is mixed.

Senator Wright’s forensic questioning has exposed an embarrassing ignorance of the research evidence on school autonomy by Australia’s top education officials. It reveals how badly the previous education minister, Peter Garrett, was advised by these officials to give blanket support for school autonomy.

Clearly, the Federal Department of Education needs to lift its game. Too many of its top officials have blind faith in market-based policies in education. It is about time they did their job as public servants and do an objective review of the evidence.

Trevor Cobbold

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