School Autonomy Fails to Increase Student Achievement and Undermines Collaboration between Schools

This is a slightly abridged version of a submission by Save Our Schools to the Senate Education Committee Inquiry on Teaching and Learning. References are available in the submission.

Save Our Schools believes that the claims made about positive effects of greater school autonomy on student achievement are greatly exaggerated and ignore the weight of evidence from research studies that it has little to no effect on student results and can lead to greater inequality and social segregation.

A particular concern is that greater school autonomy, together with other factors such as the publication of school results and school league tables, undermines collaboration between schools and the spread of best practice in teaching and learning. The incentives created by greater school autonomy for schools to look to themselves tend to inhibit the achievement of the stated goals of the program.

Increasing school autonomy is a major policy priority of all Australian governments. Recent policy initiatives focus mainly on increased power for principals in the recruitment of staff and in budgetary decisions about centrally provided funding. There is very little focus on greater school autonomy in relation to curriculum; indeed, it could be said that the introduction of the national curriculum is a move to greater centralisation. Similarly, little attention is being given to increasing parent and teacher participation in decision-making at the school level. The move to greater school autonomy is essentially about more principal autonomy in decision-making, rather than increased community participation in policy decision-making at the school level.

It is claimed by the Federal and other Australian governments that greater school (principal) autonomy in budgeting and staffing will increase student achievement. However, the evidence presented by governments in support of this claim is generally very weak, highly selective and misleading. In particular, government ministers and officials frequently resort to citing one or two studies supporting their case and fail to take account of the overall research evidence.

The most recent research evidence on the success of school autonomy in budgeting and staffing in improving student achievement is far from compelling. Some studies show positive effects, but the mass of evidence from the major research studies is that it has little impact on student achievement.

New Zealand, for example, has the most decentralized school system in the western world. It is unique in that government schools are stand-alone schools with control over budgets and staffing. Yet, the head of research at the NZ Council for Educational Research, Dr. Cathy Wylie, says that there has not been any significant gains in student achievement, new approaches to learning, or greater equality of educational opportunity since this radical path was taken in 1989.

In a new book called Vital Connections published in November last year, Dr. Wylie says that the past 23 years have demonstrated the limitations of making each school a separate island. New Zealand created a system of fragmented schools which emphasised the “self” part of self-management, of putting one’s own school first and not being part of an overall national system. Dr. Wylie says that this competition often diverted school leaders and trustees from a focus on learning, and added obstacles to improvement for schools that found themselves at the bottom of the local competition market.

She says that managing property and finance were the central focus of principals and boards of trustees under self-management and dominated school life. The primary role of the principal became a business manager rather than an education leader.

There has been no improvement in overall education outcomes as a result of the introduction of school autonomy. Large gaps in student achievement between rich and poor remain. In low income schools, secondary qualifications rates actually fell. Dr. Wylie concludes that New Zealand now has a substantial body of robust analysis that shows that it needs to rethink the self-managing model in order to create a more dynamic learning system.

Charter schools in the United States are another form of school autonomy. They are independent public schools. The weight of evidence from the most sophisticated studies of charter schools is that there is no difference in results between charter schools and traditional public schools. Indeed, some studies show that charter schools do worse. Nor is there any evidence of more teaching or curriculum innovation in charter schools.

Then there are “free schools” in Sweden which are privately-operated schools that receive the same level of government funding as municipal schools. They have been operating since 1992 and many are run by for-profit companies. The research evidence on these schools is mixed – some showing better performance by free schools and some showing better performance by municipal public schools.

Academies and foundation schools in England are publicly-funded schools that have greater freedom over how to allocate their budgets and over staffing than more traditionally-governed state schools. The expectation is that these schools will use their greater freedom and independence to lead and manage more effectively and more innovatively so that student outcomes improve.

Research evidence on foundation schools shows no increase in student achievement while some studies of academies show improvement and others no improvement. A major review of academies published in January 2013 by the Academies Commission made the following observation about the impact of academies on student results:

…the evidence considered by the Commission does not suggest that improvement across all academies has been strong enough to transform the life chances of children from the poorest families. There have been some stunning successes among individual sponsored academies and academy chains, and these have raised expectations of what can be achieved even in the most deprived areas. But it is increasingly clear that academy status alone is not a panacea for improvement.

It concluded that “greater independence and freedom are not sufficient in themselves to secure improvement”.

Another source of evidence on school autonomy is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 15 year-old students. The OECD’s own analysis of the results from PISA 2009 found that in the vast majority of participating countries, including Australia, there was no significant difference in student achievement between schools with a high degree of autonomy in hiring teachers and over the school budget and schools with lower autonomy.

The OECD study concluded emphatically 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”.

The national report on Australia’s PISA results also shows virtually no statistical difference in student results between NSW, with lower autonomy for government schools, and Victoria which has a higher degree of autonomy. Moreover, achievement by 15 year-olds in private schools in Australia, which generally have a higher degree of school autonomy than government schools, is no higher than in the more centralized government school system when the different socio-economic composition of the sectors is taken into account. In particular, exclusive private schools, which are largely autonomous, do no better than their high socio-economic status government school counterparts which have considerably less autonomy.

The only evidence that the Federal Minister cites is cross-country evidence from PISA that the combination of greater school autonomy and the publication of individual school results leads to higher student achievement. However, the impact is trivial, amounting to only 2.6 points on the PISA scale where one year’s learning is equivalent to 35-40 points. That is, it amounts to less than 10 per cent of the average increase in student achievement over one year.

Some cross-country studies of earlier PISA results show a positive impact on student achievement. However, there are potential pitfalls associated with these studies because it is extremely difficult to disentangle various national policy, institutional and cultural factors influencing education outcomes from the impact of school autonomy. For these reasons, many researchers prefer to focus on longitudinal analysis of specific countries or regions and these studies tend to show that greater school autonomy has little to no effect on student results.

The Federal Department of Education recently published the first report in its so-called independent evaluation of the Government’s school autonomy program. The report purports to be a literature review of academic research on school autonomy. However, it relies heavily on dated research, much of which is also ambiguous about the impact of school autonomy. It ignores the latest PISA study on school autonomy as well as a large number of recent studies from several countries which show little impact on student achievement.

The Federal Minister for Education also claims that a school autonomy pilot project in NSW schools showed improvements in school results. In making this claim, the Minister relies on anecdotal statements by principals without any statistical backing. The evaluation report on the project clearly states that no statistical evidence of increased student results exists.

Thus, the evidence that school autonomy leads to increased student achievement is nowhere near as compelling as the Federal Government and other Australian governments claim. The weight of evidence from around the world and in Australia suggests that school autonomy does not lead to better school results. At best, the evidence is mixed as the Productivity Commission concluded in its recent report on the schools workforce.

Apart from the lack of compelling evidence that increased school autonomy leads to increased student achievement, there is also little evidence that it leads to more innovation in teaching and curriculum. Certainly, the long experience with school autonomy in New Zealand and with charter schools in the United States shows no increase in innovation in teaching and learning. The recent report of the Academies Commission found that academy schools have brought little innovation in curriculum and teaching

However, there is extensive research evidence that increased school autonomy leads to greater social segregation between schools. Studies show that this has occurred in New Zealand, the United States, Sweden and England. In some cases, it has also led greater inequality in resourcing and school outcomes.

For example, the recent report on academy schools in England received substantial evidence that many academies use their increased freedom to engage in selective admissions – that is, selecting students deemed to have abilities and/or with dispositions beneficial to the school and excluding those deemed not to have them. It said that such practices “may entrench rather than mitigate social inequalities”. It found evidence of significantly higher rates of exclusion within academies than in traditional state schools of students with special needs, students eligible for free meals and students from some Black and ethnic minority groups.

The widespread failure of school autonomy to deliver better student outcomes and reduce learning gaps reflects a failure of ideology. Greater school autonomy is designed to extend the role of the market in education. The idea is that giving schools greater powers of budgeting and staffing will enable them to compete more effectively and that competition will drive improvements in student results. However, numerous studies in many countries show that it has failed in this project and, instead, has exacerbated social segregation and inequality in school outcomes.

School autonomy, together with other so-called reforms such as the publication of school results and school league tables, encourages schools to see themselves as isolated silos rather than as part of a system working together to achieve particular education goals. It undermines collaboration between schools.

This is the strong conclusion of recent analyses of the experience with school autonomy in New Zealand and England.

In her book on the New Zealand experience, Dr. Wylie says that the lack of connections between schools under school autonomy “made and still makes it difficult to harness and use all the knowledge and actions needed to keep developing the quality of New Zealand education. She recommends fundamental changes to the system to build greater collaboration.

She recommends a return to more central and regional support for schools. Her proposals include a national network of 20 education authorities throughout the country, with responsibility for schools in their region and charged with ensuring schools and teachers are supported and challenged and can learn from each other.

Increasing collaboration between schools is also a key recommendation of the recent Academies Commission report. It called for a better balance between independence and inter-dependence:

The Commission believes that a fully academised system is best seen as a community of schools, each independent but working best if connected to the rest of the system. These schools would work with one another to accelerate school improvement, in particular the quality of teaching and its impact on learning and the achievements of children and young people. Collaboration across this national community of schools should enable a balance to be struck between independence and interdependence, with the clear aim of serving children and young people well.

The report said that a more systematic approach to supporting collaboration between schools is needed. It recommended a more intensive drive to develop professional connections, collaborative activity and learning, both within and across schools, to generate fundamental change across the school system.

It is unlikely that Australian governments will step back from their programs to increase greater school autonomy, despite the lack of evidence to support them. However, they should acknowledge the threat that these programs pose to continuing collaboration between schools and the sharing of good practice in teaching and learning. At the very least, governments should also introduce programs that support greater collaboration and build networks between schools to counter the incentives created by school autonomy for schools to see themselves, and operate, in isolation from other schools.

Save Our Schools recommends that the Federal Government should negotiate a new partnership agreement with state and territory governments to provide funding to support greater collaboration between schools to share best practice in teaching and learning. The National Partnership on Empowering Local Schools should be complemented by a National Partnership on Supporting Collaboration between Schools.

Download the SOS submission

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.