OECD Contradicts Pyne’s Claim on School Autonomy Success

Once again the Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, has been severely embarrassed by the OECD. This week in Federal Parliament, Pyne repeated his claim that more school autonomy delivers better student results only to be contradicted by another OECD report.

In a speech to the Parliament, Pyne said:

We are expanding independent public schools across Australia…..Everyone knows in education and all the research indicates that, the more autonomy in a school, the higher the expectations put on students by their parents, by teachers and by the principals. The more autonomy in a school, the better are the outcomes for students.

Now the thing to remember about this claim is that it refers to greater decision-making powers for principles over school budgets and hiring staff. Pyne is not proposing schools to have greater control over curriculum or assessment. His model for greater school autonomy is the Western Australian program of “independent public schools” which gives greater powers to principals over budgeting and staffing.

Pyne’s claim in the Parliament was contradicted by a new report by the OECD’s Deputy Director of Education, Andreas Schleicher, published just few days earlier. It said that a cross-country study of results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that greater responsibility for managing school resources is “unrelated to a school system’s overall performance” [p. 48]. In contrast, it said that the new PISA results show that school systems that grant more autonomy to schools to define and elaborate their curricula and assessments tend to perform better than systems that don’t grant such autonomy.

Further, the results also show that school systems that provide schools with greater discretion in deciding student-assessment policies, the courses offered, the content of those courses and the textbooks used are also school systems that perform at higher levels in mathematics, reading and science.

The report also said that data from PISA 2012 show that in school systems where all schools publish their results, a student who attends a school with greater autonomy scores seven points higher in mathematics than a student who attends a school with less autonomy. To put this into perspective, one school year is equivalent to 41 points across OECD countries on the PISA mathematics scale.

In contrast, the gain for school autonomy in staffing and budgeting in systems that publish school results amounts to about 2 points and is not statistically significant. The report states that “the performance advantage for schools with greater autonomy in this regard is relatively small” [p. 48]. In other words, staffing and budgeting autonomy in the context of public posting of school results has very little impact on student performance.

The OECD’s research also shows that devolving greater powers to principals for budgeting and staffing could even reduce student outcomes. The 2012 PISA study shows that in systems where there is little teacher participation in resource management, students tend to do better in schools with less autonomy. In such systems, a student who attends a school with greater school autonomy in allocating resources tends to score 17 points lower in mathematics than a student who attends a school with less school autonomy [p. 52]. This is equivalent to almost half a school year in learning.

In contrast, in school systems where there is strong teacher participation in decisions about allocating resources in their school, students in schools with greater staffing and budgetary autonomy score nine points higher in mathematics than in schools where there is less autonomy [p. 52].

However, the school autonomy model supported by Pyne is not about increasing teacher participation in decision-making in schools. Indeed, it is designed to give more power to principals and make them accountable for their decisions and outcomes. The principal is the ‘boss’ in Pyne’s model.

The OECD research shows that the Federal Government has got it badly wrong on school autonomy. It is increasing autonomy in budgeting and staffing which, at best, will have very little effect or, at worst, could lead to lower student outcomes. At the same time, the Government is ignoring the potential benefits of greater autonomy in curriculum by a review that appears set to strengthen the national curriculum.

Trevor Cobbold

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