The Evidence for School Autonomy is Far From Compelling

The Federal Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, claims that greater school autonomy over budgeting and staffing will increase student results. The government has committed nearly $500 million over the next seven years to increase school autonomy in schools around Australia. About 1000 government and private schools will participate in the program over the next two years.

Principals will have greater control over their school budgets, staffing mix and the hiring of staff to a much greater extent than at present. Schools will receive start-up grants of $40,000 to $50,000 to assist in managing their increased responsibilities. There is no provision for greater school control over curriculum or capital expenditure.

Agreements have been negotiated with the ACT, NSW, South Australian and Tasmanian governments for government, Catholic and Independent schools and with Catholic and Independent school authorities in Queensland and Western Australia. An agreement has also been struck with the Victorian Government which already has the most devolved school management system in Australia. The Western Australian Government has recently established its own program of independent public schools.

The extent of increased school autonomy under these agreements varies between jurisdictions. For example, in NSW principals will have control over 70 per cent of their budgets while in the ACT principals will have full control over their staffing budget. NSW principals will have greater decision-making responsibilities for purchasing and maintenance which principals in several other states already have.

Despite the Minister’s claims, 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 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.

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. Research evidence on foundation schools shows no increase in student achievement while some studies of academies show improvement and others no 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.

Some other cross-country studies of PISA results show a positive impact on student achievement. However, the findings of these types of studies are likely to be affected by a host of unmeasured country-specific educational, institutional and cultural factors which also influence student results.

Other evidence for school autonomy is even less compelling. A McKinsey Corporation report cited by education officials is little more than a collection of opinions and anecdotes. Although the Federal Minister for Education claims that a school autonomy pilot project in NSW schools showed improvements in school results, the evaluation report 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.

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.

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.

The essence of this failure lies in seeing competition as the (cheap) alternative to devoting adequate resources – funding, teachers and facilities – to lifting the performance of low achieving students. It also reflects a failure to understand the importance of partnerships and collaboration in education between system and schools, and between schools, to improving teaching and learning.

The strong conclusion, therefore, is that the Federal Government’s initiative is ill-conceived. The $500 million allocated to it would be better spent on implementing the recommendations of the Gonski review to directly target increased funding to reducing the massive achievement gap between rich and poor. The Gonski report says this is the most pressing challenge facing Australian education today. The $500 million would be a good down-payment on the Gonski recommendation for an increase of $5 billion to improve education outcomes for our most disadvantaged students.

Trevor Cobbold

This article is a summary of a review of research studies on school autonomy published by Save Our Schools.

School Autonomy is Not the Success Claimed1

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