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The Autonomy Thing

The Victorian government’s agenda for education is fairly clear. The ‘third wave’ of reform will come from building the capacity of individual schools and allowing them the autonomy needed to network and collaborate in ways that will lift the performance of the system as a whole. It’s a proposition that aligns with the commonwealth’s approach, particularly when coupled with a focus on improving the quality of teaching. On one level this sounds eminently sensible, and indeed for some schools this may be exactly what they want and need.

The issue for government, however, is that it is essentially seeking to redefine the public education system. Government has always accepted responsibility for a system of schools, not for a collection of individual schools. It’s a not so subtle difference and it’s not lost on the supporters of public education.

The drivers for this shift in thinking are likely twofold. There is a range of research which indicates that under some circumstances increased autonomy is desirable in public schools. The non government education sector has also long argued that a key factor in the success of their students is their autonomy, connectedness to community and capacity to define a mission which responds to local needs. The government seems particularly taken by this point of view, which might be said to ignore that these schools have socio economic benefits as well as the capacity to select their own student cohort.

Secondly, there is an economic imperative for government. Both federal and state governments have been keen to point out at every opportunity that increases in education spending have not delivered improved student outcomes. And state budgets have been under increasing pressure. This is a case of figuring out how to do more for less.

Autonomy is an attractive concept. Victorian schools have enjoyed a greater degree of self control than their interstate counterparts for 20 years and no-one would want to return to a centralised system. However for autonomy to create a platform for systemic improvement schools need the capacity to leverage the opportunities it provides. The government is emphasising the development of human capacity through principals, teachers and school councils. It should also recognise that unless schools have commensurate financial capacity they will not achieve sustained improvement.

Government school budgets in Victoria are lower per student than the national average. The state has always been proud of the fact that it achieves strong results with lower spending than other jurisdictions. When school budgets are delivered in the coming week the government will tell us again that spending has risen and is at all time highs. The fact is that school budgets rise on the back of industrial agreements and CPI. Schools have been under increasing pressure in recent years. The Gonski/Better Schools deal has had no impact on our budgets.

On election the government seemed clear that it wanted to stop dictating to schools. This was a welcome change from the top down approach of the previous government. As cost savings measures were introduced the education department also stripped itself of human and technical capacity to lead such an agenda. The claim of government was that it expected schools to develop outstanding practice and ideas and that these would be shared between school networks. In reality the networks are loose and the government has shown no inclination to respond to initiatives developed at ground level. This is consistent with a philosophy that there is no ‘system’ , only individual schools. From my experience this is not quite the view of everyone within government or the department, but that is what it most often looks like.

What we have seen to date from both sides of politics in the run up to the November state election has done nothing to allay these concerns. Infrastructure announcements are always welcome where they are made but we’ve seen nothing else apart from the government’s position on school governance being released, which ironically only highlighted the issue. There is plenty of fertile ground for either the government or the opposition to move beyond the rhetoric and confirm in very practical terms that they see themselves as having responsibility for the state’s public education system. A balance needs to be found between the autonomy agenda and the government’s responsibility for the sector.

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