Garrett Admits There is Little Evidence to Support School Autonomy

The Federal Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, yesterday completely undermined his own $500 million school autonomy program with a stunning admission in a letter published in the Australian Financial Review. He said:

“…there is little, if any, evidence to suggest overseas experiments like charter schools or student vouchers would lead to better education results.”

Charter schools are independent public schools in the United States. They are the archetype of school autonomy. They are able to hire and dismiss staff, determine staff working conditions, the school schedule, determine their own curriculum and teaching methods, and to decide how to allocate their budgets.

Charter schools are the US equivalent of independent public schools being introduced across Australia with the support of the Federal Government’s Empowering Local Schools program The Government has committed nearly $500 million over the next seven years to increase school autonomy. About 1000 government and private schools across Australia are participating in the program over the next two years. Principals will have greater control over their school budgets, staffing mix and the hiring of staff to a much greater extent than at present.

Many charter schools have more extensive decision making powers than the new model of independent public schools in Australia. So, they are a good test of whether school autonomy is likely to work in Australia.

Until yesterday, the Minister claimed that greater school autonomy over budgeting and staffing will increase student results. He has only ever cited very weak and selective evidence in support of his claim. Save Our Schools has long criticised the failure of the Minister to back his claims with solid evidence. In particular, we cited the weight of evidence from research studies in the US that charter schools do not deliver better results than traditional public schools.

There is also extensive evidence from New Zealand’s 20-year experiment with decentralized schools, ‘free’ schools in Sweden, academies in England, and analysis of the results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that school autonomy has little impact on student results. The Deputy-Director of Education at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher, says that collaboration between schools is more important than school autonomy for system success and that school autonomy can “work against” collaboration.

In Australia, a report by the Productivity Commission last year 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”.

The one bit of evidence that the Federal Minister has cited in support of school autonomy in the past is very weak. This is a cross-country analysis of the PISA results which shows that the combination of greater school autonomy and the publication of individual school results led to higher student achievement. However, the impact is trivial; amounting to only 2.6 points on the PISA scale where one year’s learning is equivalent to 35-40 points.

It seems now that the Minister has finally done some more reading. His admission yesterday is a complete about-face. He now has no alternative but to terminate the Empowering Local Schools program. Otherwise it promises to be a waste of another $500 million of taxpayer funds.

The $500 million should be immediately re-allocated to the Gonski funding pool for disadvantaged schools and students. Improving the results of disadvantaged students and reducing the massive achievement gap between rich and poor is the biggest challenge facing Australian education. Increasing school autonomy was never going to have any impact on this. The money allocated to the program can now be put to better use following the Minister’s admission.

Trevor Cobbold

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