In 2004 I argued in Why our schools are failing that if state and federal governments are serious about lifting standards and making schools more effective then school autonomy was critically important.

Worming away the advances in school autonomy… Illustration: Sturt Krygsman

Based on overseas practice and the example of the Victorian Kennett Government’s Schools of the Future Program I argued, “… it is vitally important that Australian schools are freed from provider capture (where teacher unions and bureaucrats control what happens) and given greater flexibility and autonomy”.

Over the last year or two, it appears that governments around Australia have finally caught on and whether Western Australia’s Independent Public Schools initiative or the Queensland and NSW governments recent decision to give schools greater autonomy, it appears that schools and their communities are finally being empowered.

As might be expected, given its desire to force schools to abide by a centralised, union dominated system of enterprise bargaining, the Australian Education Union is opposed to school autonomy on the basis that, “Unfortunately for its advocates, there is no evidence that devolution in its myriad forms has in itself led to improved student achievement”.

The AEU is wrong.  While the evidence might not be overwhelming, there is an increasing consensus that giving schools the freedom and flexibility to best manage their affairs and meet the needs and aspirations of their local communities leads to stronger educational outcomes.

The most recent edition of the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2012 states, “In recent years, many schools have become more autonomous and decentralised organisations and have become more accountable to students, parents and the public at large for their outcomes. PISA results suggest that when autonomy and accountability are intelligently combined, they tend to be associated with better student performance”.

Additional evidence is provided by a 2007 study investigating the impact of a more market-driven approach to education, titled OECD Education Working Papers No 13, where the conclusion is that, “Various forms of school accountability, autonomy and choice policies combine to lift student achievement to substantially higher levels”.

Freeing schools from the often inflexible and intrusive demands of head office is not just associated with conservative governments as proven by the Academy Schools initiative championed by the UK Labour Government under Tony Blair.  More significant is that here, once again, the evidence is that giving schools control over budgets, staff and curriculum focus is beneficial.

A 2011 study by the London School of Economics concludes, “…moving to a more autonomous school structure through academy conversion generates significant improvement in the quality of pupil intake, a significant improvement in pupil performance and small significant improvements in the performance of pupils enrolled in neighbouring schools”.

Closer to home, the example of Catholic and independent schools also provides evidence that school autonomy leads to stronger educational outcomes.  It’s no secret that non-government schools, even after adjusting for students’ socioeconomic background, outperform government schools in areas like test and Year 12 results and tertiary entry.

Central to the success of non-government schools is what, within the Catholic system, is known as subsidiarity.  The overriding principle is that decisions are made as close as possible by those most affected and external authorities are only involved where necessary.

Best illustrated by the Building the Education Revolution Taskforce report, where there is an acknowledgment that non-government schools, compared to government schools, were able to build infrastructure more quickly and more efficiently, autonomy is preferable to schools being micromanaged and controlled by those far removed from the realities of the classroom.

It shouldn’t surprise that non-government schools perform so well.  Schools have control over hiring, firing and rewarding staff, such schools, within a general framework, are able to set their own curriculum focus and in areas like classroom behaviour and discipline schools have the power and ability to set standards and manage their own affairs.

Such is the evidence supporting school autonomy that the Conservative government in the UK intends to give local authority controlled schools the opportunity to become what are termed Free Schools.

In the USA, President Obama has made it a condition of federal funding that the states introduce what are termed charter schools – schools given the freedom to employ staff, control budgets, partner with community, philanthropic and business groups and decide curriculum.

It’s ironic, while the ALP federal government argues it supports school autonomy, that in her recent National Press Club speech Prime Minister Gillard outlined a range of initiatives that constitutes a serious attack on school autonomy.

As part of her so-called moral crusade in education, under the banner of a National Plan for School Improvement, every school in Australia, government and non-government, will be forced to implement an annual school improvement plan, teachers will be subject to annual performance reviews and be made to design personalised learning plans for at-risk students.

Coupled with the Rudd/Gillard inspired national curriculum, national testing, national teacher registration and certification and national standards for teacher training it’s clear that all roads lead to Canberra and schools will face an ever increasing tide of intrusive regulation and micromanagement.

Worse still, the Gillard led government’s command and control model of education will have its most adverse impact on Catholic and independent schools; the very schools that achieve so much and that are increasingly popular with parents because of their distinctive character.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of Education Standards Institute and author of Educating your child: it’s not rocket science.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEST.

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    • Karen from Qld says:

      04:28pm | 27/09/12

      It is evident that in her clueless arrogance and self delusional grandeur Gillard is set to bring down an education system that actually works. Each day with this Govt we are being drawn closer and closer to communism - centralised education, setting up a govt funded regulator for the media,. One wonders what is next.

    • Steve Putnam says:

      06:15pm | 27/09/12

      @Karen from Qld How is “Gillard…bring(ing) down an education system that actually works” by increasing education funding? This is cloud cuckoo land stuff to be placed alongside your comments of some months back about the NDIS where you pushed the absurd line that the $1 billion the Commonwealth was putting into the pilot scheme was worse than what had previously been in place (which was nothing).
      Perhaps you prefer the way the Howard Government gave money hand over fist to wealthy private schools to build indoor swimming pools and rifle ranges while students in government schools were forced to share text books and teachers told to cut down on paper usage. 
      Quite honestly Karen you’d boo Santa Claus.

    • The New Economist says:

      04:31pm | 27/09/12

      How can we afford anything when Labor has blown the budget again??

      In the 2011-12 Budget National Debt was budgeted to be $106.6B, up about $16B from the Election Budget.

      The outcome was $147.3B, almost $5B more than the 2011-12 Budget estimates in May 2012. As the national debt was $84.6B at the end of last financial year, that means debt rose by over $1B/week, by $62.7B in one year.

      There also seems to be some fudging of the figures as Liabilities have skyrocketed, and Australia’s Net Financial worth has plummeted by approximately $100B from the May 2012 estimates.

      So, why haven’t we seen this in the newspapers??

    • Cobbler says:

      04:30pm | 27/09/12

      So many facts, so few links….......

      “Kevin is Director of Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute.  ESI is a conservative think-tank”

      Ah, that explains it…...................

    • John says:

      05:29pm | 27/09/12

      Not to mention that Kev has was chief-of-staff to Liberal minister Kevin Andrews and has repeatedly sought Liberal Party pre-selection.

      A politically neutral commentator, he is not.

    • Palzy says:

      06:21pm | 27/09/12

      OMG…a conservative having an opinion…should be a jailable offence!

      <sarc off>

    • Mattb says:

      06:25pm | 27/09/12

      “conservative think-tank”

      thats an oxymoron right?...

    • Rich Kids Rock says:

      04:34pm | 27/09/12

      A conservative commentator and defender of private schools doesn’t like Labor and wants more money going to the privileged schools and the autonomy to spend it on whatever they want.
      What a revelation.
      Why don’t you wait till it’s your turn at the trough? Oh, I see you think somehow this fable will accelerate the process.
      Good luck with that.

    • bananabender says:

      04:58pm | 27/09/12

      Parental education is a far better predictor of academic success than the school environment.

      Most of the students at Harvard and other Ivy League universities attended public (government) schools. [ It is harder to get into a Harvard BA programme than an Australian undergraduate medical degree. ]

    • Bob the Builder says:

      05:01pm | 27/09/12

      Its actually very simple how to improve public school education. I’ve had my kids in the german system and it’s easy. Kids get tested all the time by the teacher, no national tests. All the kids know each others marks, they compete to do better. In year 4 that right year 4 your whole life is determined by your marks. Your get into the uni school the trade school or the ditch diggers school. Most kids want to go to trade school as you finish at 16 and are trained in a trade and get a good job which then has more training. Most kids don’t want to go to uni as they tell me “there are lots of doictors and lawyers and who would want to do that?”.

      In germany only the rich stupid kids go to private school, or if you are the prince of bavaria. So just use the german system easy cheap (kids only go to school between 7.30am and lunch time). The marking is hard the competition hard and the kids succeed. No need for another $5 billion spent on rubbish. Time to copy some systems that work not this anglo saxon hogwash that we put up with now.

    • Palzy says:

      06:35pm | 27/09/12

      “there are lots of doictors and lawyers and who would want to do that?”

      The german system, hey…at least in the Aussie system, kids are taught to spell well before the BS kicks in.

    • Sergeant Schultz says:

      07:06pm | 27/09/12

      Herr Bob the Builder…mein country of being born i was in Germany…so to me der peoples are saying ” i know nussing ” Dis ist nein gut…der teachings i not got very gut…now der teaching i am getting Australian very gut… German ist der hogwash !

    • Alfie says:

      07:25pm | 27/09/12

      Typical Labor, reduce everything to the lowest common denominator.


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