Pyne Misleads the Public on School Autonomy Yet Again

The Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, is misleading the public yet again about the facts on the effects of school autonomy. The evidence he cites in support of creating more independent public schools is highly selective and misleading and completely ignores the latest evidence from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The Government’s $70 million program for independent public schools is directed at giving principals more power over budgetary and staffing decisions, but not over curriculum and assessment. Indeed, the Government has asserted centralised control over curriculum with its recently announced review of the national curriculum.

Pyne’s approach is completely wrong-headed. Greater autonomy over budgeting and staffing has little to no effect on student achievement, but greater autonomy over curriculum and assessment has a significant effect. The evidence from the latest PISA results is unequivocal and compelling:

PISA shows 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….In contrast, greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall performance. [ PISA 2012 Results: What Makes Schools Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices (Vol. 4): 52 ]

The report found no statistically significant effect of greater principal autonomy over budgeting and staffing on student achievement.

Pyne has completely ignored the latest PISA study. It can only be because its conclusion contradicts his policy. Instead, he selectively cites results from the 2009 PISA study, but this study came to a similar conclusion as the latest study. It stated that “…greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall student performance” and that “…school autonomy in resource allocation is not related to performance at the system level” [ PISA 2009 Results: What Makes a School Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices (Volume IV): 41, 86 ].

Pyne also selectively and misleadingly cites other reports from the Productivity Commission, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, the Grattan Institute and the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission. These reports draw starkly different conclusions from what Pyne says about the evidence on the impact of greater school autonomy:

The Productivity Commission’s Schools Workforce report states that past studies “have found mixed impacts from delegating decision-making authority to schools…” [246], that “…allowing schools greater autonomy has the potential to exacerbate inequalities” [44] and that “increased autonomy could, in several respects, work against the interests of disadvantaged students” [277].

The Evaluation of the Independent Public Schools Initiative in Western Australia by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education found little evidence of any improvement in student outcomes.

“In this early phase of the IPS development there is little evidence of changes to student outcomes such as enrolment or student achievement.” [8]
“….there was no evidence of substantial differences in outcomes between schools that were selected into IPS and those that were not.” [9]
“ ….the secondary data shows no substantial change in staffing, student behaviour, attendance or performance between IPS and other public schools.” [56]

The Grattan Institute report on The Myth of Markets in School Education concluded as follows:

“On autonomy, Australia and other countries have the wrong strategy. The world’s best systems have varying levels of autonomy. But it is not central to their reforms. Instead, they articulate the best ways to teach and learn, then implement reform through high-quality systems of teacher development, appraisal and feedback, among other policies. Autonomous schools in Australia and other countries are no better at implementing these programs than are centralised schools.” [1]

The Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission’s report Making the Grade: Autonomy and Accountability in Victorian Schools says:

“The existing body of empirical evidence on the impacts of school autonomy is by no means definitive. The international evidence is mixed regarding its impacts on student achievement and educational opportunity. It is also not conclusive about which areas or domains might benefit from autonomy.” [47]

Many other overseas studies and Australian reports also acknowledge the lack of compelling evidence that school autonomy increases student outcomes. The overwhelming mass of research evidence on New Zealand’s decentralized schools, US charter schools, Sweden’s free schools, England’s academy schools shows that school autonomy has little to no effect on student achievement. By ignoring all these studies, Pyne demonstrates a cavalier disregard of evidence.

Pyne is even out of step with his some of his own Coalition colleagues who acknowledged the lack of evidence to support more independent public schools in a bi-partisan Senate Education Committee report on Teaching and Learning – Maximising Our Investment in Australian Schools. It concluded that “…it is unclear whether school autonomy ultimately improves student outcomes” [47]. It recommended that the COAG Standing Committee on School Education and Early Childhood conduct research into whether public school participating in school autonomy programs have improved student results [48].

Pyne is now totally exposed as a serial offender in misleading the public in order to pursue ideologically based policies. He misled the Australian public about the Coalition’s election policy on the Gonski funding model. He misled the public in insisting that Australia does not have an equity problem despite the evidence from PISA 2012 and earlier studies of a two to three-year achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students. He has misled the Parliament about the research evidence on school autonomy. Now he is misleading the public again.

Trevor Cobbold

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