Report Reveals that School Autonomy is not Working in WA

School principals in Western Australia are overloaded, under-resourced and lacking in support systems under the new regime of increased autonomy in decision-making according to an independent report. The findings suggest that school autonomy is more about cutting costs than supporting principals and improving education outcomes.

The report shows that principals have not been given the resources to match their increased responsibilities while central and district office support services have been withdrawn. It concluded that the administrative burden on principals is excessive. It says the lack of support systems threatens the achievement of desired education outcomes.

…the biggest risk to the system is that students may fail to achieve desired educational outcomes. It appears that less emphasis is being given to managing risks relating to educational outcomes. The emphasis rather is on other compliance measures, not related to student outcomes, which take school leaders away from the key task of educational leadership. This means there is a risk that desired education outcomes for students may not be achieved. [pp.13-14]

The report shows that Western Australian principals have much more responsibility and administrative work than 20 years ago following successive waves of devolution of decision making and responsibilities to the school and increased public accountability mechanisms through standardised testing and the publication of school results on My School.

The relocation of responsibilities to schools has created a range of new and expanded responsibilities for principals and deputies. They now have specific ‘end of line’ responsibility for the operation of their schools in accordance with departmental policies. A range of administrative and human resource functions previously performed by the Department’s central, regional or district offices have become the responsibility of schools and of principals in particular. This includes the hiring of new teachers and the personnel functions associated with this.

In the past the Department also provided a range of services to schools, such as curriculum experts and experts in other fields, e.g. student attendance and engagement. The Department was responsible for the system-wide professional development of teachers in response to new programs and curriculum. These resources have been dispersed and individual schools and/or networks of schools now carry out these functions.

Many school leaders felt that all these, and other changes, have impacted on their ability to provide learning environments that facilitate good education outcomes for students.

The hiring of staff has become a particular issue of concern to principals. While many principals welcomed the opportunity to hire staff, the report found that it is not working efficiently and effectively.

School leaders constantly reported that the current system has dramatically increased the workloads of principals especially at the beginning of each school year. It was stated by many principals that they had spent considerable days over the summer vacation searching for new staff to ensure that the school could open the beginning of the school year.

The inquiry was also told by principals that they spent many hours performing human resource functions, including payroll and leave approval functions. Previously, this was not a part of their duties. These functions are demanding and persistent responsibilities that take time away from their key role of educational leadership.

All schools are now organised into networks. There are about 20 networks of 10 schools in each of the metropolitan regions with a smaller number of networks in the other regions and some special networks. Each network is headed by a network principal who also has responsibility for his/her own school.

Staff that were based in central or district offices have in many cases been relocated to networks. Since the networks do not have an office the staff are now based in schools and are subject to control by the principal. The report found that this has added a considerable layer of complexity and additional responsibility for the principal.

The Department says that the resources previously provided by central, regional or district offices are now embedded in schools, particularly in the networks. However, school leaders feel that these measures are not working, especially in the areas of staff selection, curriculum development and professional development of teaching staff. Principals told the inquiry that they found it difficult to access the same level of support through the networks. The conclusion amongst school leaders is that the real value of the available resources has declined, at a time when the demands on schools and their leaders are increasing.

The report concluded that school leaders are not being adequately supported to lead the changes that are being required of them in terms of delivery of quality student learning opportunities and educational outcomes. Its comment is damning:

The Panel is of the view that the support being offered to school leaders by the system is inadequate. The arrangements that the Department has put in place do not address the issues that school leaders are dealing with arising from the changed context of their work and the waves of devolution of responsibility and accountability to schools. [p.101]

The chairwoman of the inquiry, Fran Hinton, a former chief executive of the ACT Education Department, told the West Australian newspaper that “the systems of support and administration are simply inadequate.” She said that education in WA public schools was suffering and urgent action was needed to support and sustain principals.

The report states that “there is a need for support services of all types to be more adequately provided” [p.109]. It says that schools valued the support and expertise of teams of specialist staff based in district and central offices, but the school networks have not been successful in replicating these services. It concludes that principals need additional resources to manage their schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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