Pyne Misled Parliament on School Autonomy Evidence

Last Thursday, the Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, misled the Parliament about OECD research on school autonomy. He told the Parliament that OECD and domestic research “shows that school autonomy has a major impact on school outcomes for students” even though the OECD’s PISA 2012 report issued two days earlier clearly shows that the form of school autonomy Pyne is pushing has no impact on student outcomes.

The Coalition government supports the introduction of independent public schools (IPS) across Australia to give more autonomy to school principals over staffing and budgeting. The IPS model does not give more autonomy to principals in curriculum and assessment, if anything the trend is to more centralisation of these functions.

The OECD’s latest PISA report analysed the impact of the two different forms of school autonomy on student achievement across OECD and other countries participating in PISA. The analysis clearly shows that greater school autonomy in managing staffing and budgeting does not have any impact on student outcomes, but greater autonomy in designing curriculum and student assessment does. The report is unequivocal in its conclusion:

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 2009 Results: What Makes Schools Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices: 52]

Pyne ignored these findings (on which he would have received an advance briefing) in telling the Parliament that research supports the introduction of independent public schools:

I can point out that the government’s policy on implementing an independent public schools program across Australia will have a major impact on outcomes and results for students. [Hansard, 5 December 2013]

Instead of relying on the OECD’s own analysis of its latest PISA results, Pyne preferred to cite a highly selective and misleading article in The Australian to support his claim.

The PISA study also did a more in-depth investigation of the impact of the two forms of school autonomy in different governance contexts. One analysis examined the interaction between school autonomy and accountability arrangements (such as the publication of school results) on student achievement.

This analysis also showed that school autonomy in curricula and assessment has a significant effect but that school autonomy in managing resources has very little effect. It found that in school systems where all schools publish achievement data, a student who attends a school with greater autonomy in curricula and assessment 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 amounts to about 2 points and is not statistically significant. The OECD’s PISA report concludes that “the performance advantage for schools with greater autonomy in this regard is relatively small” [p. 53]. In other words, staffing and budgeting autonomy in the context of public posting of school results has very little impact on student performance.

Another area where school autonomy does appear to make a difference is where it is used to engage teachers in decision-making about resource management in schools. Engaging teachers in decision-making is what good principals do, irrespective of school sector, but it is discouraged by school autonomy arrangements that give all power to principals.

The 2012 PISA analysis shows that school autonomy has a positive effect on student performance when school principals and teachers collaborate in school management but has a negative impact where there is little collaboration. 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. 53]. However, where there is little teacher participation in resource management, students tend to do better in schools with less autonomy. The report found that 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.

It should be noted that the IPS model supported by Pyne is not about increasing teacher participation in decision-making in schools. It is designed to give more power to principals and make them accountable for their decisions and outcomes. The principal is the ‘boss’ in independent public schools.

In summary, the new PISA results show that greater school autonomy for curricula and assessment has a positive and significant effect on student performance, but greater school autonomy in staffing and budgeting has little to no effect. Greater autonomy in the management of school resources has a positive effect where there is collaboration between principals and teachers, but where there is little collaboration greater school autonomy has a significant negative impact on student performance.

These findings have significant implications. They suggest that the IPS model being promoted by Pyne is completely wrong-headed. It implements a form of school autonomy that will have, at best, minimal effect and may even lead to worse results, and ignores forms of autonomy that offer more potential for improvement.

These results are the latest in a long line of international and Australian studies showing school autonomy over staffing and budgets does not improve student results to any significant extent. For example, the 2009 PISA study came to a similar conclusion as the latest study. It found 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: 41, 86 (note 7)]. It also found that the interaction of accountability policies and school autonomy on staffing and budgets had a very small impact on student outcomes.

Pyne’s claim is also contradicted by domestic research. The only substantive research on the impact of IPS in Western Australia shows that they have not been the success that he claims. An evaluation by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne found no improvement in student outcomes in schools that joined the program. Its report states that “….there was no evidence of substantial differences in outcomes between schools that were selected into IPS and those that were not” [Evaluation of the Independent Public Schools Initiative: 9].

Many other overseas studies and Australian reports also acknowledge the lack of compelling evidence that school autonomy increases student outcomes. By ignoring all these studies, Pyne demonstrates a cavalier disregard of evidence.

Pyne is way out of step with the research evidence in claiming that greater powers for principals over staffing and budgets will improve student results. The Coalition is spending $70 million to support more independent public schools around Australia despite the evidence that it will have little effect on student achievement. Pyne is taking schools in the opposite direction to that suggested by the new PISA results. No wonder he ignored its findings and resorted to citing an article in The Australian to the Parliament to support his claims.

It seems that Pyne is a serial offender in misleading the public. He misled the Australian public about the Coalition’s election policy on the Gonski funding model. He has 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. Now, he has also misled the public and the Parliament about the research evidence on school autonomy.

The Parliament should hold him to account by conducting a parliamentary inquiry on school autonomy and student achievement to consider the likely success of the $70 million IPS program.

Trevor Cobbold

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