Increasing school autonomy the key

07 Apr 2012 Article

(Originally published in The Australian)

LOOKING at a list of top performing schools, the tendency for government and policy makers is to seek among them commonalities that can be isolated and extracted like some sort of antidote to improve all schools.

The My School website similarly invites experts to draw conclusions based on whether national testing data is riddled with red dots or awash with green ticks.

It is simplistic, creates false impressions and doesn’t really capture the true challenges that educators face on a day to day basis. That is not to say that the Coalition does not support national testing. National testing is the antidote to the poison of accepting mediocrity. However publishing the NAPLAN data on the My Schools website has not improved student outcomes, rather it is distorting the true standard of our students.

A good school is one where the students are nurtured and encouraged to achieve to the best of their ability. I’ve visited many schools as the Shadow Minister for Education and have come to the conclusion that the very best thing governments can do to improve education is to get itself out of the way.

The very best way to do that is to increase school autonomy.

There is a growing body of research that supports the approach that school management practices should place an emphasis on local decision-making.

Time and again it has been shown to be the most effective means of improving student outcomes and quality teaching.

This is supported by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment Report 2010 (PISA) study.

The study found that when looking at school policy and practice on average across OECD countries, school autonomy has a significant impact on student outcomes in reading, mathematical, and science literacy.

The research also shows that autonomy leads to better outcomes in primary school because in countries that have greater school autonomy, the schools foster a belief in young people that going to university or seeking high-level vocational education or training is something that they should be thinking about.

Beginning to foster a desire for higher education and training should begin in even our most formative years.

Naturally these attributes lead to greater participation from low income households and of course, means the country has a higher skilled workforce, better productivity and growth.

Decentralisation of decision-making is an important factor in accounting for differences of student outcomes between countries. Australia's Government school system has for a long time exhibited an extraordinary degree of rigidity and centralisation.

Unsurprisingly it has been Liberal State Governments that have led the way in creating more autonomous and independent public schools.

The West Australian Government’s independent public school programme has transformed participating schools into community driven hives of activity. School boards have replaced bureaucracies and decisions are made locally to benefit the students, teachers and community. The New South Wales Government has recently indicated it will pursue autonomy in schools and the new Liberal National Government took a school autonomy policy to the election.

But pursuing school autonomy will not be easy. Governments face entrenched opposition from unions and state Labor Oppositions who are determined to put their ideological campaigns ahead of school improvement and student outcomes.

Parents who have witnessed the astonishing changes that autonomy can bring to their child’s school need to speak up in support of this movement.

At the same time the Federal Labor Government has spent billions on school halls and computers, our national testing shows a decline or stagnation in literacy and numeracy in our schools over the past four years, it is time to act decisively.

The national education debate is currently focussed on school funding, but it should be focussed on school autonomy which is the driving force of change – a truly revolutionary idea.

Arresting that decline and improving school outcomes requires an honest appraisal of what works and what doesn’t – and what we know is that handing power from bureaucracies to principals and school boards has an undeniable transformative power.

Christopher Pyne is the Opposition spokesman on education.