Senate Education Committee Rebuffs Govt & Coalition on School Autonomy

The Senate education committee has delivered a major rebuff to the Federal Government and the Coalition on school autonomy. It says that there is no clear evidence that greater school autonomy leads to better student performance and recommends more research on its impact.

Both the Federal Government and the Opposition have made school autonomy a key part of their education policies. However, the report is a severe embarrassment to the Coalition spokesman on education, Christopher Pyne, because he has put school autonomy at the centre of the Coalition’s education policy and a majority of the Senate education committee are Coalition members.

The Committee’s report on Teaching and Learning tabled in the Federal Parliament this week says:

…it is unclear whether school autonomy ultimately improves student outcomes….Clearly, further research into school autonomy and its impact on student performance is required. [p.47]

This statement is backed up by a reference to a submission to the Senate inquiry by Save Our Schools that reviewed the evidence from a large number of studies on the relationship between school autonomy and student achievement. It is the most comprehensive review of the evidence published in Australia. It concluded that the weight of research evidence is that greater school autonomy in budgeting and staffing has little to no effect on student results.

The Senate report makes the following recommendation:

The committee recommends that the COAG Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood conduct research into whether public schools participating in school autonomy programs have improved student results”. [p.48]

Mr. Pyne, has said that school autonomy is one of the three central planks of the Coalition’s education policy. He says he is “an unrestrained enthusiast for principal autonomy in government schools and that’s the Coalition Federally, that’s our policy, was at the last election, will be at the next election” [ Radio 5AA, 21 November 2012 ].

On the ABC’s Q&A recently, he said that “We, in the Coalition, believe very strongly in principal autonomy and expanding the reach of independent public schools” and that “principal autonomy will be at the heart of a Coalition policy on education”.

He told the Sydney Institute last year that the future of government schools depends on increasing school and principal autonomy and that a Coalition government will make discretionary Federal funding that is currently paid to the States contingent on the introduction of genuine school and principal autonomy.

Mr. Pyne has not provided any substantial research evidence to support his policy. In effect, the Senate report says that there is no clear evidence to justify the policy.

The Senate report also represents a major rebuff for the Federal Government as the report was also signed by two ALP Senators. The Federal Government has made school autonomy a central plank of its education policy with nearly $500 million committed over seven years to increase autonomy over budgeting and staffing schools around Australia.

However, the Government has also has failed to provide any substantial evidence in support of its claim that greater autonomy will lead to better school outcomes. The Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, has only ever cited very weak and selective evidence in support of his claim which is at odds with the overall weight of research evidence.

It is imperative that the recommendation of the Senate report be acted upon by the COAG Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood. It is astonishing that the Federal Government, the Federal Opposition and state governments have committed to greater school autonomy without first undertaking a comprehensive review of the research evidence. It is very shoddy public policy.

The Council should also investigate the potential harmful effects of greater school autonomy. In particular, there is increasing evidence that more school autonomy undermines collaboration and sharing of knowledge and good practice between schools. Even the deputy-director of education at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher, has recently acknowledged as much. He warned that “autonomy can work against you” by reducing collaboration between schools.

School collaboration is an essential component of school and system improvement, but as Schleicher says, knowledge is “very sticky” in education:

Knowledge about strong educational practices tends to stick where it is and rarely spreads without effective strategies and powerful incentives for knowledge mobilisation and knowledge management.

A book published last year by the head of research at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research on over two decades of school autonomy in that country says that it led to a decline in collaboration between schools in the same district to support each other to improve. It concluded that the lack of connections between schools under school autonomy makes it difficult to harness and use all the knowledge and actions needed to keep developing the quality education.

A report from the Academies Commission in England last year found that school autonomy in the form of academy schools has increased the isolation of schools as they compete with each other for enrolments and undermined school collaboration and the spread of good practice.

Greater school autonomy in a policy environment that promotes competition between schools through policies such as reporting school results on the My School website and league tables in newspapers adds to the incentive for schools to retain knowledge and successful programs and practices. How can we expect schools competing with each other to hand over their knowledge and experience to their competitors to help them improve?

School collaboration is vital for system improvement, but there is a fundamental contradiction between increasing school autonomy and improving school collaboration. School collaboration is being sacrificed to the altar of school autonomy and competition. Instead, we should be looking at ways to promote collaboration between schools to ensure the spread of innovations in teaching and learning.

Trevor Cobbold

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