No Success for Independent Public Schools

Independent public (IP) schools in Western Australia have failed to improve student results according to a new report by a bi-partisan WA parliamentary committee. It also found that the introduction of IP schools has increased inequalities and created a ‘two-tiered’ education system.

The findings are a major blow to Coalition governments around the country which have made increasing school autonomy a central policy plank. Several recent overseas studies have also found little impact from increasing school autonomy over budgets and staffing.

The report’s finding is damning:

In line with national and international research, there is no evidence that the Independent Public Schools initiative has had a positive effect on student outcomes. [Chairman’s Foreword]
The introduction of the IPS initiative has had no significant effect on the academic or non‐academic performance of students, including those with additional needs. [p. i]
The Independent Public School initiative has not had any discernible effect on the outcomes of students at Independent Public Schools, nor non‐Independent Public Schools, for both students with additional needs, and those without. [p. 27]

This finding is all the more stunning because the report was prepared by a bi-partisan committee of two Liberal MLAs, including the Chairman of the committee, two ALP members and an Independent Liberal member.

The report cites evidence provided by the Department of Education that shows:
• No substantial difference in the overall attendance data for schools which became IP schools;
• No major change in the attendance rate for the 2011 to 2014 intakes of schools since they became IP schools;
• NAPLAN reading results in years 3, 5 and 9 have improved for both IP and non‐IP schools, but where NAPLAN reading results decline in year 7, it is more evident in non‐IP schools;
• NAPLAN numeracy results indicate marginal improvement for IP schools; – In year 5 there is some improvement in the last two years evident for both IP and non‐IP schools; – In year 7 there is no evident difference between IP and non‐IP schools; – In year 9 the strong improvement trend is somewhat more evident in IP schools;
• NAPLAN reading results for Aboriginal students, ‘disadvantaged’ and country students show that similar patterns are generally evident in both IP and non‐IP schools;
• The percentage of students achieving the WA Certificate of Education in year 12 has been very stable for both IP and non‐IP schools;
• Attainment rates (the percentage of students achieving an ATAR or 55+ and/or a VET Certificate II or higher) have improved substantially and in a similar manner for both IP and non‐IP schools.

The first intake of IP schools was in 2010 so that these schools have had a longer period of time over which greater autonomy could impact on student outcomes. However, NAPLAN reading data provided to the committee by the Department of Education shows similar trends in Years 5, 7 and 9 for IP schools and non-IP schools. The report states that “this data is consistent with other data that autonomy has negligible effect on student outcomes” [p. 24].

It also noted that these findings are consistent with an earlier evaluation by the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne Evaluation which found that IP schools were generally high‐performing before transition and there had been no substantive increase in student achievement after becoming IP schools.

Incredibly, the report found that the Department of Education does not sufficiently monitor student outcomes to analyse the effect of IP schools, either to determine whether outcomes have improved for IP schools, or whether IP schools are improving more than non‐IP schools. Nor does the Department sufficiently monitor the outcomes of Aboriginal students, and students from low‐socioeconomic backgrounds. It said that the Department should be doing more to monitor the progress of these students.

The report considered the issue of whether it is still too early to tell whether the IP school initiative has created the conditions necessary to improve student outcomes in the future. It considered whether changes made under initiative offer support for several mediating factors that may link student autonomy to improved outcomes. It concluded that “it is unclear whether IPS creates the conditions needed to improve future student outcomes” [p. 36].

The report also found that the introduction of IP schools has exacerbated existing inequalities within the public school system in WA and reinforced a ‘two-tiered system’. It found that IP schools have been able to recruit the best teachers while non-IP schools are likely to be staffed with teachers who are less suitable for the school environment and have less experience.

Independent Public Schools are provided with the opportunity to recruit the best teachers for their circumstances, while non‐Independent Public Schools are not. [p. 41]

The report said that remote and hard‐to‐staff schools are particularly disadvantaged as a result. It said that harder‐to‐staff remote and regional schools will find it increasingly difficult to attract staff as incentives for working remotely become less effective due to the smaller number of schools where teachers returning from non‐metropolitan service can be placed.

State government promotion and marketing of IP schools has also created the public perception of a ‘two-tiered system’:

The State Government’s promotion and marketing of the Independent Public Schools initiative has led to the perception that Independent Public Schools have greater capacity to better educate students than non‐Independent Public Schools, reinforcing the two‐tiered public education system. [p.50]

Another key finding of the report is that autonomy has shifted a significant administrative burden to IP schools which they are not always prepared for or equipped to manage. IP school principals have less time to devote to educational leadership. Devolved authority has led to a reduction in the central support and accountability machinery that should be at the core of a public education system. All schools bear a greater administrative burden since the introduction of the Student‐Centred Funding Model in 2015, although IP schools are better placed to meet this by way of additional funding for IP school administration.

The report identifies a conceptual problem behind the failure of IP schools to improve results. The focus of IP schools is autonomy in budgeting and staffing. However, the report notes OECD evidence that staffing and budgetary autonomy has limited impact on student outcomes while more autonomy in curriculum and assessment can have a positive impact. The report concludes that:

The budgetary and staffing autonomy provided to schools as part of the Independent Public Schools initiative is unlikely to affect student outcomes. [p. 14]

The findings of the report are a major blow to the Federal Government, and several state governments, which have made autonomy in budgeting and staffing a central part of education policy. The Federal Government has devoted $70 million to the expansion of independent public schools. The WA report suggests it is unlikely to have any significant effect on student outcomes.

Trevor Cobbold

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