Labor ties school principals up in knots
Australian school principals say that they need to have more control over what happens in their schools as a natural extension of school performance being transparent for all to see on the new MySchool website.
They are dead right, and the Coalition continues to hold to the belief that local school principals and parents (through the school’s governing council) know more about what is best for the school than faceless bureaucrats in Education Departments – number crunchers whose interaction with students is non-existent.
The strange thing about the debate on principal autonomy is that the Minister, Julia Gillard, says she’s in favour of it too – even though every action she has taken as Education Minister gives a lie to this claim.
Through the $16 billion spending marathon of the schools stimulus debacle, not one cent was provided directly to school principals to manage. Instead Minister Gillard set up three-step process to entrench central authority.
• The Federal Department wrote guidelines for the States on how the program would roll out.
• The State Departments told the local schools what buildings they would receive.
• Local Principals and Governing Councils were given a yes/no choice on whether or not they would receive the building they were offered.
This is why we had the ridiculous examples so widely reported – schools without gyms being given a second hall; schools being told to knock down reasonable classrooms to build new rooms to the same design; and million dollar pavilions constructed by multinational building companies while local builders quoting a fraction of the price were denied.
Any sensible Government would have placed control of a program like that in the hands of local principals and governing councils – the people who know what the local school needs – as the former Government did in our school infrastructure programs. Unfortunately Julia Gillard has a faith in the infallibility of the bureaucracy that is matched only by her hypocrisy in claiming she supports local autonomy.
In October, Minister Gillard released a document called the “Principal Autonomy Research Report”. It is a report commissioned by former Minister Julie Bishop when the Coalition was in Government, and it was delivered to the Government in December 2007 – weeks after taking office. It provides sixteen specific recommendations about how schools may be improved by providing greater autonomy for principals at the local level.
Julia Gillard’s office suppressed this Report’s publication for two years, until the Minister was confronted with the anger of Principals whose schools’ performance would now be held up to close comparison with other schools, but without any ability to take the necessary measures to improve their school.
The Minister claimed in her media release that the report ‘supports the direction of the education reforms the Rudd Government is pursuing’. I commented at the time that she was clearly hoping nobody would read the report because it does no such thing.
To date Julia Gillard has followed only one of those sixteen recommendations – the development of a national curriculum that was already in train under the previous Government. Despite her lip service to increased local autonomy, she has presided over the greatest expansion of bureaucratic control over our schools since the Department of Education was set up.
Minister Gillard seems to think that increasing transparency is an end in itself, although she argues that she is “against simplistic leagues tables”. The fact is that those simplistic leagues tables are the only possible result of publishing school results without a consequent increase in principal autonomy allowing them to take the required action to lift the standards in their schools.
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