The Evidence Does Not “Stack-up” for Independent Public Schools

This is an edited version of the negative case made by Professor Alan Reid of the University of South Australia in a debate with Kevin Donnelly about independent public schools held at the Australian Curriculum Studies Association Symposium in Canberra on Friday August 1, 2014. The full presentation is available below.

I argue that the idea of public schools being ‘independent’ is philosophically at odds with what lies at the core of public education and that IPS is a policy in search of evidence.

Philosophical objections
The key word in the concept of Independent Public Schools (IPS) is that of ‘public’. Public schools are the cornerstone of our education system. At their core are a unique set of characteristics, such as being available to all – they exist in every community in Australia and take all-comers. They are state-owned and funded from the taxes we pay, so they belong to all of us, helping to develop our young as individuals, community members, workers and citizens.

Public schools are microcosms of the community at large, with students coming from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds. In this melting pot students are able to learn from and with one another about diversity and difference, and learn tolerance and empathy. In short, public schools promote the common good. Not to recognise this dimension of public schools is to miss the essence of public education.

IPS is contrary to the common good philosophy, will cause real damage to our system of public education, and lower educational standards for the following reasons.

First, it establishes public schools as businesses. The purpose is to compete to advance the interests of the school regardless of the impact on other schools. The fact is that public schools are not businesses. They are community goods serving public purposes. When they operate as full or quasi-businesses, the most successful are rewarded, and the least successful – invariably those with the least cultural and financial resources – go to the wall.

In this way, an IPS agenda confirms and exacerbates inequalities between schools. In an open market, ‘disadvantaged’ school communities can’t raise as much money, or attract the same level of resources as more affluent schools. Abandoning to the vagaries of the market the role systems can play in the fair allocation of resources can only entrench inequality, and therefore lower standards overall.

In addition, a lot of time and money is spent on publicity and marketing at the expense of educational outcomes. This sets up principals as employers, marketers and business managers, rather than as educational leaders seeking to involve teachers and the wider school community in educational discussions.

Second, it allows governments to escape their responsibilities by placing greater burdens on schools, often reducing resources while setting performance targets, and then blaming schools if they are not achieved.

Third, it destroys the sense of local community engagement with each school. By this I mean more than the parent community, important as that engagement is. I also mean connection with the local community where the school uses the community as a learning resource, and the community uses the school for community activities.

When parents choose schools far away from the local community in which they reside, two things happen. It weakens the link between public schools and their local communities. And it encourages parents to simply leave a school when there are perceived issues, rather than stay, work through the issues, and help to build the school.

Finally, it promotes schools as stand-alone entities rather than as belonging to a system. True public schools aren’t independent, they are networked; and they cooperate to build a quality public system overall, not compete to create a system where there are shining beacons of success sitting alongside schools which are struggling or failing. True public schools are fuelled by a sense of mutual obligation, not self-interest.

Rather than a cohesive public education system, autonomy as represented in the policy of IPS, creates a system of thousands of stand-alone and competing public schools. Individual self-interest reigns supreme. The term public is retained but its essence is destroyed. In this sense, the term ‘independent public school’ is an oxymoron.

Empirical evidence
The evidence doesn’t stack-up for independent public schools. At best there is mixed evidence that these schools improve educational outcomes; and a lot of evidence about a number of troubling long term effects of unbridled autonomy, not the least of which is that it tends to exacerbate educational inequality.

When announcing the IPS policy, Minister Pyne claimed that there was international evidence, based on PISA data, which supports greater autonomy for schools. In fact, that research actually shows that:

….school systems that grant more autonomy to schools to define and elaborate their curricula and assessments tend to perform better than systems that don’t grant such autonomy…. In contrast, greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall performance (PISA 2009 Results: What Makes Schools Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices, Vol. 4: 52).

This of course is the complete opposite to what Minister Pyne is proposing. In his policy the focus is on managing budgets and resources. Far from giving more curriculum freedom as the PISA research suggest should happen, schools must conform to state and national system-wide curriculum guidelines.

The best that can be said about Charter schools (the US form of independent public schools) is that the results are very mixed. Most studies conclude that on average the scores on standardised tests are no different if charter schools and public schools enrol the same kinds of children.

The jury is not out on the adverse effects of Charter schools which have become big business in the US. A number of Charter schools have started up for-profit chains (KIPP, GULEN, EDISON), franchising education like Kentucky Fried Chicken. In order to turn a profit many Charter schools engage in practices which would not be tolerated in a public education system serving the common good. For example:
• In order to attract custom and improve results, many exclude the weakest students, and enrol lower proportions of disability students and English language learners than traditional public schools. One Charter school in Washington DC had an expulsion rate 28 times as high as the local public schools.
• Many hire unqualified teachers, and spend more on administration and less on teaching than traditional public schools.
• A number have been mixed up in shady real estate deals, and been closed down because of corruption, embezzlement or bankruptcy.

More than this, a number of research studies demonstrate that Charter schools diminish three of the most powerful characteristics of public education: diversity, community and collaboration. First, they tend to segregate by race and class. Charter schools are more racially segregated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the US. In some areas white students are overrepresented in charter schools while in other charter schools Black and Hispanic students have little exposure to white students.

Second, they destroy local community involvement in public schools as children travel across cities to get to their school of choice. Third, they have severed any sense of a supportive public system. In an era of high stakes testing, Charter Schools compete, not collaborate with, their public school peers.

Similar models in other countries have fared just as badly.

Sweden was an early convert to the idea of outsourcing education to private equity firms in the 1990s. In a lax regulatory environment and with companies with an eye on profits, it was not long before things began to go wrong. Soon the schools (which comprise about a quarter of Sweden’s secondary schools) were being criticised for poor educational practices and deteriorating results. The 2012 PISA results showed Sweden’s results in sharp decline. As with the Charter schools, advertising and marketing has diverted attention from education; and the local community has felt alienated.

Three years ago the UK Minister of Education, Michael Gove, followed Sweden’s lead and established hundreds of Free Schools citing the usual claims that giving principals the power to hire and fire staff, would cause standards to rise. In fact, it seems to be going the other way. A recent OFSTED report shows that the failure rate of free schools is running at three times the national average for state-funded schools. Overall about 78% of state schools are rated as good or outstanding by OFSTED, compared with 68% of Free Schools.

Leading New Zealand researcher Dr Cathy Wylie argues that New Zealand’s highly devolved school system has not resulted in any significant gains in student achievement, new approaches to learning, or greater equality of opportunity since they started in 1989. Instead it has had a number of predictable deleterious effects, such as:
• Creating a system of fragmented schools, where self-interest is dominant;
• Creating competition between schools making it harder for those schools at the bottom of the local competition market;
• Making the principal largely a business leader rather than an educational leader managing property and finances, and marketing;
• Maintaining and widening large gaps in student achievement between rich and poor, with no gains in student achievement overall.

Wiley argues that New Zealand needs to totally rethink the model to encourage stronger connections and collaboration across the system. She suggests a return to more central and regional support for schools.

What of the Australian research evidence? The Grattan Institute whose previous reports Minister Pyne has quoted enthusiastically, has published a research report which explores the claims about school autonomy and concludes that:

On autonomy, Australia and other countries have the wrong strategy. The world’s best systems have varying levels of autonomy. But it is not central to their reforms. …..Autonomous schools in Australia and other countries are no better at implementing these programs than are centralised schools.

The same conclusion has been reached in a number of other Australian studies. The Productivity Commission’s 2013 report reviewed the literature on autonomy and found “… mixed impacts from delegating decision-making authority to schools”; and that greater autonomy for schools is associated with an exacerbation of inequalities.

The most recent attempts to extract some evidential support for IPS relates to West Australia’s model of ‘independent public schools’. At first, Minister Pyne began to claim that IPS had improved student outcomes. Unfortunately he was stymied when a team from Melbourne University was commissioned last year to conduct an evaluation of the early years of the IPS reform. Their report stated very clearly that up to now “… there is little evidence of changes to students outcomes …” (and indeed they reported many teachers saying that there had been ‘no change in teaching practice’ since their school had become ‘independent’).

Undeterred by this set-back, Minister Pyne recently turned to his latest evidential life-boat – the small increase in the proportion of students attending public schools in Western Australia which he claims points to the success of IPS. But once again the evidence fails him. The fact is that over the past three years the mining boom in WA has produced an estimated increase in the population of about 1500 per week, with a consequent increase in the school population of about 10,000 per year. It is this increase which has produced the growth in numbers in public schools, not IPS. And the increase has been across the board in schools which are non-IPS and IPS. Grasping at disconnected fragments of evidence to justify already-determined policy is not the way educational policy should be made.

Treating public education as though it is a business designed to make profits rather than a public good which benefits the entire community is to betray its essence. The strength of our public schools depends on their collectivity, cohesion, connection to community, collaboration, and diversity. Destroying these characteristics will not raise standards, it must lower them and widen the inequalities which currently exist in our schools and the wider society. The policy of IPS could irreparably harm our public education system which is so central to the development of Australian society and its democracy.

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