School autonomy and IBAC

Victorian public schools have operated with a high degree of autonomy for the last two decades with the high point being the short lived Self Governing Schools initiative of the late 1990’s. In fact the move towards local control of schools probably began well before this, with the establishment of school councils in the mid 70’s.

For the last 25 years Victorian schools have set their own strategic direction, made their own staffing decisions, and marshalled their resources accordingly. Seminal to this change was the work of Brian Caldwell and Jim Spinks through the late 80’s and the 90’s which argued that school improvement would be best achieved through localised management of resources.

The jury is out on whether increased autonomy has led to better outcomes for Victorian students, partly because so many other factors impact on schools, including federal and state policy and funding. The evidence from around Australia seems to suggest that the performance of education systems is only loosely tied at best to the degree of autonomy experienced by public schools.

Cynics argue that autonomy in Victoria has allowed the government to pass responsibility for a range of functions to schools while avoiding paying the full cost of this divestment of responsibilities. Certainly spending per student is significantly below the national average and one reason for this is the relatively small size of the education bureaucracy.

I doubt that public school communities or principals want to revert to a centralised system. But there is growing angst at the financial pressure schools are experiencing. This is a major challenge facing the Andrews government as it seeks to make Victoria the ‘education state’.

Interestingly, another process currently underway may also impact on the degree of autonomy for schools and that is the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) investigation into financial management within the department. This process is still running its course and there has been speculation it may be followed by another process focused on the Ultranet. Time will tell.

What is already evident, however, is the department’s initial response to the IBAC investigation. Money previously held by regional offices in ‘banker schools’ or ‘program coordinator schools’ has been taken back into central coffers. Several principals have been stood down pending the outcome of the IBAC process, while some senior department officials have lost their jobs. There has been a tightening up of interstate and international travel for school staff while a review is undertaken of current policy.

Principals are preparing for a sharper departmental focus on financial management and conflict of interest. Areas most likely to be the focus include procurement processes (IT and external provision of services), staffing appointments, travel, hospitality and school based fraud policies. At the very least there will be increased training for principals and school councils. I am also hearing a concern among principals that the department may seek to exercise greater control over some school functions, placing at risk the extent of autonomy currently enjoyed by principals and school councils.

This would be a great pity. In essence the issues identified through the current IBAC process seem to be a direct result of a lack of financial control and supervision emanating from the central office of the department. No evidence has been led thus far in IBAC to suggest that banker schools or program coordinator schools acted independently in breach of their responsibilities. This was fraud led from central office.

I suspect that the fears of school principals are misplaced. The government will be obligated to respond to the issues raised in IBAC. There will be more red tape and financial training. But the department itself has limited capacity, and I expect little desire, to intervene in the running of schools. And the government will want to demonstrate that it retains trust in school principals; to do otherwise would sabotage its mission of making Victoria the ‘education state’. The challenge for the minister will be to get the balance right between improving probity and keeping schools onside.

This process, like IBAC itself, will take some time to play out.

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