Teachers and Principals Say School Autonomy Means Cutbacks

The following is a media release from the ACT Branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU) on the results of a survey of principals and teachers in the 23 schools participating in a pilot project on school autonomy.

Almost two hundred teachers and school leaders across the 23 “empowered” or autonomy trial schools in the ACT recently completed an AEU survey.

The rationale for increased autonomy for schools, despite almost two decades worth of international and national evidence to the contrary, has been that it will improve student results. Less than one in five (19%) of teaching staff in the autonomy trial schools agree.

Members in autonomy schools are saying that increased autonomy brings with it significant threats.

The Education and Training Directorate (ETD) has been trialling over 18 months an average cost budget model, whereby schools are assigned a budget according to the average “cost” of a teacher. Schools with a more experienced staff are now seen as being “over budget” and will need to address this by cost-cutting decisions which potentially have little to do with the educational needs of students. Almost two in three (64%) of the staff in these schools say this way of calculating a school’s staffing budget has a negative impact on a school’s ability to pay teacher salaries and relief teacher costs. Less than 6% think it is a good idea.

Furthermore, 54% believe the average cost budget model has a negative impact on the ability of a school to select the right mix of teachers to meet student need. This rationale was one of autonomy’s major selling points. Teachers aren’t sold.

Almost six in ten (57%) believe autonomy has a negative effect on staff morale, while only 13% believe the impact is positive.

Every year teachers are asked to do more and they have to battle to stay focused on their students. 54% see teacher workloads increasing, while only 8% see them decreasing.

A significant number believe autonomy increases workload with regard to financial management (50%), general administration (53%), human resource management (53%) and compliance processes (48%). The last figure gives weight to suspicions that autonomy simply gives schools and principals the “freedom to obey”. A tiny number of respondents believe autonomy decreases workload.

73% believe school principal workloads will increase. Is this the “freedom to work harder”?

Victorian schools have been “autonomous” the longest. They are now the most poorly funded schools in the country. A massive 71% of members believe autonomy will reduce government funding to schools over time. Less than 11% believe schools will see better funding under autonomy.

Almost two in three (63%) believe that under autonomy they receive less support from the Directorate.

More than half believe principal and teacher permanency is under threat. Education is already the most casualised profession in Australia.

Almost two in three (63%) can see a negative impact with regard to equity across the system. The Gonski Report into School Funding recently highlighted Australia’s lack of educational equity as requiring urgent attention. Is autonomy the way to do it?

Acting Branch Secretary Glenn Fowler said: “Too often in recent years the profession has been ignored with respect to education reform. It is time for governments to start listen to those who are in schools about what is good for schools.”


The survey was completed by 17 of the 23 principals and 16 deputy principals across the 23 eACT schools.

School leaders are in the main supportive of the balance that has been struck between the union and ETD with regard to the transfer rights of existing staff and the capacity to select teachers locally.

But according to those best placed to know, our school leaders, the average cost budget model has been an unmitigated disaster. 69% of principals and 75% of deputies say it has a negative impact on their school.

All but one principal and all but two deputies in these schools say autonomy increases workload in financial management.

All but one principal and all but one deputy see an increase in workload in human resource management.

88% of principals and 88% of deputies say autonomy increases compliance processes.

77% of principals and 88% of deputy principals see administrative workloads increasing.

Glenn Fowler said: “Every minute spent performing administrative tasks, managing the books or meeting compliance requirements is a minute in which our educational leaders are not performing the educational leadership which our students need.”

82% of principals believe autonomy will increase their workload and a whopping 81% of deputy principals believe the workload of their principal colleagues will SIGNIFICANTLY increase.

Most school leaders believe they will receive less support from the Directorate.

56% of deputy principals describe a negative impact on staff morale.

69% of deputy principals believe autonomy will harm equity across our system. In other words, there will be winners and losers.

Glenn Fowler said: “It may be appropriate to have winners and losers in business, real estate or sport, but having losers in our schools is both unfair and unwise. This nation will be more cohesive, prosperous and productive if all students are given what they need to succeed. That should be where we invest our resources.”

Glenn Fowler
Acting Branch Secretary

Some Comments from Leaders in the Participating Schools
“I have spent a lot of time analysing this. Our school is well over $500,000 worse off under an average cost budget model. It is not possible to quickly convert the cohort of teaching staff to inexperienced staff in order to fit under this salary cap. It is definitely not in the interests of students to budget under this model – to select staff on their cost rather that what they offer the school.”

“Significant time is spent by school leaders in the school focusing on budgetary matters … It significantly detracts from the ability of school leaders teachers to focus on educational leadership within our school.”

The average cost budget model “creates winner and loser schools”.

“When we have to look at our dollar value, schools will naturally select new educators, thus resulting in a severe loss of experienced teachers.”

“It has created a divide between classroom teachers and school leaders as there is a lack of shared understanding and goodwill – partly due to the uncertainty and lack of clarity about what is going to happen.”

“This work takes me away from being an instructional leader.”

“It has meant over 10 hours per week for school leaders in undertaking additional financial management auditing with no additional value provided to the school.”

“We are wasting so much teacher time and effort, with massive stress levels, over panels for ratings, panels for filling jobs, finding staff, and finding relief staff. It’s just ridiculous.”

“This I believe is a cut in another form. It is an exercise in slicing the pie in another way – not increasing the pie.”

“Management and compliance demands have increased so steeply that there is much less focus on student outcomes. Something has to give!”

“Distrust and disharmony has been created between schools and within schools.”

“It contributes to inequity between schools, uncertainty among teaching staff and competition between schools, rather than building collaboration.”

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