Mapping School Autonomy in Australia: Part 1

This article is the first in a series on mapping the extent and differences in school autonomy across jurisdictions and school sectors in Australia. The aim is to provide an up to date information base for further discussion of issues around school autonomy.

The information provided below and in forthcoming articles is a first go at developing a comprehensive overview of school autonomy in Australia. Comment is invited with a view to correcting mistakes and omissions.

School autonomy is generally referred to as the extent of school-based decision making. Increasing school autonomy is a major policy priority of all Australian governments. The goals of greater school autonomy are to:
• Increase student outcomes;
• Make efficient use of funds;
• Support teacher and parent involvement in decision-making.

School autonomy can be considered under four main headings:
• Staff recruitment;
• School budget/finance;
• Curriculum and teaching;
• Governance/local participation in decision-making.

Varying degrees of authority are afforded to principals, business managers, teachers, parents and sometimes students. Some models transfer authority to principals and the executive while others encourage or mandate parental or community involvement, often through a committee, council or school board. While decision making power over operational functions may be devolved to the school level, these decision makers must continue to operate within a set of centrally determined educational policies and practices that include compliance and performance reporting.

Historically, the ACT had the most decentralized model until Victoria gave full autonomy to principals over school budgets and hiring staff in 1994. This has also been followed in the Western Australian program of Independent public schools.

In the ACT, there is a centralized staffing formula which determines the number of teaching points per school. It consists of a site component, a per capita component and a specific purpose component. Staff salaries are not a factor in the formula.

Staff are recruited by central office, but principals have a say in who is appointed to their school through their participation (or by their delegate) on selection panels. Transfers are also managed centrally. Principals and school boards can determine the staffing profile (that is, qualifications, experience, skills, etc.) within the limits of the points allocated to the school. They do not have responsibility for the actual dollar cost of staffing. There is no staffing budget for each school.

ACT government schools have a school-based management budget for operational expenses – school equipment and books, utilities (water, electricity, telephone), cleaning, minor maintenance, janitors, etc. – which is determined by central office. It amounts to about 10% or less of total expenditure for each school. School boards and principals determine how this budget is allocated. Staff are paid by central office.

Principals and school boards are responsible for minor procurement expenses (up to $20,000). Central office has responsibility for major procurement and maintenance expenditure.

The Australian Curriculum for English, mathematics, science and history is being implemented in years K-10 in schools and the phase in is due to be completed in 2013. System-wide curriculum frameworks for Years K-10 govern other learning areas. Schools can develop their own curriculum content and sequencing within these central guidelines.

Year 11 & 12 course frameworks are developed by the Board of Senior Secondary Studies (BSSS) which schools use to develop their courses which are subject to approval by BSSS.

School boards have a governance/decision-making role in government schools under legislation. They consist of the school principal, parents, teachers and, in secondary schools, students. The role of school boards is to establish the strategic direction and priorities for the school.

School boards monitor and review school performance; develop, maintain and review the school curriculum; develop and review school policies; establish budgetary policies for the school and approve the school budget; and several other functions.

Increase in school autonomy
Greater school autonomy was introduced for eight government schools in 2011 and a further eight will participate in the Federal Government’s Empowering Local Schools trial in 2012 together with four private schools.

The government schools will have a one-line staffing budget. Principals have greater autonomy in the recruitment of classroom teachers. Each school can advertise independently for vacancies. Selection is done independently at the school level.

The ACT is moving towards school autonomy in all schools from the commencement of the 2013 school year. Staff selection, both recruitment and transfer, will move from a centrally managed process to a school-based process. However, capacity for a limited number of system placement of staff, in consultation with the principal, will be retained. Major procurement decisions will continue to be made by central office.

Current governance/school board arrangements will be strengthened to ensure greater consistency in the operation of the school board and a better understanding of the scope of the board’s operations. School board guidelines will be reviewed to incorporate the changes in local decision-making in financial and staff management.

NSW has one of the most centralized schools systems in Australia.

In NSW, staffing of schools is centrally determined according to a staffing formula and the mix of staff is also largely determined centrally. It is a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Under current staffing procedures, many teachers are placed in schools through a centralised staffing process. Staff are given codes, which indicate their experience and areas of training, and these are matched to the requirements provided by schools with vacancies to be filled. School selection panels are provided with the top five teachers who have been matched to the school requirements by the Department of Education. Incentive and priority transfers for staff and staff who are resuming duty must be given priority in the selection of staff.

If this process is unsuccessful in filling a vacancy, schools may select from the graduate recruitment program. Schools can also reject the staff put forward to them by the Department and then advertise the position.

Thus, schools can select from lists of employment applicants, graduates or service transfer applicants or then go to advertising positions. It is estimated that about 63% of classroom teachers and 82% of executive teacher positions are filled by principals advertising the positions [SMH, 11 June 2012].

The majority of funding to and spending on schools is controlled centrally under current arrangements, including salaries for school-based staff (teachers, administration and support staff), capital works, maintenance and cleaning. At present, schools manage about 10% of their total budget.

Schools currently have limited control over minor capital works, with most management of major and minor capital works occurring at regional level. Where a state-wide contract has been arranged for the supply of goods or services, that contract must be used by schools

The NSW Board of Studies determines a syllabus for each learning area at each stage of schooling to be followed by schools together with minimum time to be allocated to the area. Along with a defined aim, each syllabus has a set of objectives and outcomes, expressed in terms of knowledge and understandings, skills, values and attitudes. The Board is developing new syllabuses for NSW schools as part of the national implementation of the national curriculum.

Schools have high levels of flexibility in the selection of texts, as long as they support curriculum requirements for K-10. Texts for upper secondary school are prescribed by the Board of Studies.

In NSW, the school principal plays a central leadership and management role in school governance. School councils operate in some schools as advisory bodies consisting of parents, staff, students (in secondary schools) and community members.

Increase in school autonomy
A pilot project on school autonomy was trialled in 2010 and 2011 involving 47 government schools. Under the Local Schools, Local Decisions initiative of the NSW Government and with support through the Federal Government’s Empowering Local Schools program, greater school autonomy is being implemented in 229 government schools.

Under the initiative, principals will determine the number of staff and the mix of staff within their budget and they will have a greater say in the selection of staff. They will be able to vary the mix of permanent and temporary staff in the school as vacancies arise and choose the number and roles of staff. Schools will also be able to offer local incentives within their budgets to attract and/or retain quality teachers. Principals will have the option to choose how they will fill at least every second vacancy once incentive transfers and Aboriginal employment applicants are placed. The state-wide transfer system will be retained for nominated, incentive, compassionate and service transfers.

Principals will have control of an increased percentage of the total education budget, increasing from 10% to approximately 70%, which will include teaching and learning resources, school-based teaching and non-teaching staff and planned maintenance. The budget will have separate staffing and non-staffing streams.

Principals will have more discretion to approve funding for purchases up to $5,000 but purchases involving larger amounts must still be done through state contracts.

There is no change to the state-wide curriculum and mandatory hours of curriculum delivery.

There is no increase in the role of school councils under the Local Schools, Local Decisions initiative. However, principals are required to undertake more community consultation through P&C associations and school councils.

Northern Territory
The Government operates a single employer model which limits schools’ local decision-making capacity on staffing. The recruitment and allocation of staff is centrally determined although schools are able to negotiate the specific composition of school staffing structures. However, school councils directly employ non-teaching staff, including non-teaching classroom support staff.

Decisions relating to the amount of funds allocated to schools, allocation of funds for capital works and maintenance, and design of school facilities are the prerogative of the Department of Education. The Department uses a staffing entitlement formula to determine the minimum staffing structures of schools based on student enrolment numbers.

Schools are responsible for maintenance of facilities, including unscheduled maintenance. Minor schools works are a central responsibility.

Centrally determined contract and procurement policies and principles exist to provide an overarching framework within which schools may operate. Responsibility for contract management and procurement is largely devolved to the school level.

Responsibility for the curriculum lies with the Department of Education. There is a mandated curriculum framework from Transition to Year 10. The framework enables schools and teachers to select content and teaching methods consistent with local contexts and priorities. The Australian Curriculum for English, maths, science and history is being phased in over 2012 and 2013.

A majority of schools have a school council comprising elected members of the school community including parents, teachers, students (in secondary schools) and invited members. School councils have responsibility for financial management, infrastructure management and maintenance, and some school work force matters including. Councils decide the allocation of the school operating budget provided by the Department of Education.

Increase in school autonomy
Sixteen government schools are participating in the Empowering Local Schools initiative. The focus is on increasing local decision-making capacity of school communities to support increased operational effectiveness and responsiveness. It includes provision of training, professional development and site-based mentoring to up-skill school staff and school councils in areas such as strategic planning, school operations, decision making structures and processes, financial literacy, budgeting and reporting. It will also review governance models in remote and very remote schools, to evaluate their effectiveness in supporting local decision-making and to inform ways in which these models can be better supported at the system level.

Trevor Cobbold

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