Autonomy to do what?

I did an online survey this week to support an evaluation of school autonomy. The questions were probing the extent of autonomy at the school level and its impact. I expect the survey would have been administered across different states and territories and school sectors.

There’s not a school in Australia that is fully autonomous. Schools must meet relevant state or territory authority standards to be registered in Australia. In recent years we’ve also seen a move towards common registration standards for teachers within jurisdictions, as well as national professional standards.

Curriculum and assessment frameworks, particularly at senior year levels, are determined by state and territories and in recent years have aligned with a national curriculum agenda. There’s significant school and teacher autonomy in terms of how this is delivered but the central framework applies to all. We have a national testing regime, NAPLAN, which sits underneath this and a national ranking for high school graduates that provides equivalence across jurisdictions.

And of course all schools are publicly funded to some extent. So the notion of complete school autonomy is a furphy. What we have is differing degrees of autonomy, particularly between the school sectors and between states and territories. Independent schools have a higher degree of autonomy than systemic Catholic schools and in turn this is generally greater than in government schools. Here in Victoria government schools have probably had a greater degree of autonomy than in other states for the last 20 years.

Federal governments admire school autonomy, often without much understanding of what it means and what real impact it has. And even in states like Victoria the government often struggles between the inclination to support autonomy on one hand and the need for central intervention on the other.

Certainly state governments have a constitutional and civic obligation to determine education priorities and ensure standards are maintained. Education, after all, is a key driver of not just the economy but also social cohesion. But while there is a national imperative for schools to work well it’s less clear what role the federal government should play, particularly given the absence of constitutional responsibility. The 2015 Reform of the Federation discussion paper provided a range of options in an attempt to resolve this issue. Unfortunately we’ve made little progress.

It’s worth noting that the evidence that school autonomy makes a difference for government schools is thin on the ground. I’ve worked in Victorian schools long enough to know that the increasing level of autonomy we’ve been provided with makes a practical difference to the way in which decisions are made and schools run. What impact this has had on students is unclear, because it’s hard to isolate the impact of autonomy – in selecting staff and making local decisions about the allocation of resources, for example – from the many other things that impact on schools. And I am somewhat sympathetic to the claim that in some instances autonomy has provided an ‘easy out’ for the government. This was fairly evident under the previous state government where systemic direction and support dissipated, along with funding.

Very often the public discourse around this matter goes like this: students in non government schools do better than those in government schools because those schools are not fettered by government directives and can exercise their autonomy in ways that makes them more responsive to community, family and student needs. Kevin Donnelly, I’m talking to you. And you lot in Canberra.

This is a load of bollocks. To the extent that the autonomy enjoyed by non government schools makes a difference it does so in three ways:

  1. The capacity to adopt their own enrolment policy.
    This is logical for these schools. They are founded on a particular ethos and a set of values they ask families to subscribe to. By adopting some form of selective enrolment policy – generally based on academic, music or sporting ability,capacity to pay the school’s fees (see below) or religious affiliation – these schools shape their student cohort in such a way that they attract those students they wish to have attend the school. Students that don’t fit either don’t get in or don’t stay. Some are asked to leave. You get good results, naturally, and the ability to promote your ‘achievement’ to attract even more high ability students. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.The beauty of this approach of course is that only students who contribute to the school’s good standing are retained. When you can choose your own students it’s no surprise that results are good and you can then use this ‘achievement’ to attract even more high ability students. It’s a self-perpetuating business model. The only caveat here is that in some locations these schools have to compete very hard for enrolments, and so may need to compromise their standards by accepting students they’d otherwise not take on. That is if they can’t attract them on scholarships from government schools. I imagine that can be stressful environment.So the school’s autonomy contributes the better educational achievement by allowing it to pick the students they want. It’s the major benefit of school autonomy, but it will never be granted to government schools. They have a commitment to serve the whole community.                                               * I should add here that many Catholic and some other small non government schools exercise this aspect of autonomy differently to more elite independent schools; but it’s still a factor.
  2. The capacity to set school fees.
    Non government schools do not receive as much public funding as government schools so they need to generate revenue themselves. This is good for them on a few fronts, despite the challenges of having to find a ‘price point’ that doesn’t price them out of the market. Firstly, it allows them to acquire, in overall terms, more funding than government schools. This can be used to employ more staff, develop more facilities and run more programs that attract enrolments. Secondly, it provides financial capacity (often supported by philanthropic funds) that allow scholarships to be offered to students of high academic, sporting or musical ability who would otherwise not be able to afford to enrol. Finally, the level of fees acts as a hard barrier to families of low socio economic background. And the data is pretty clear about socio economic status as a predictor of academic achievement. Even the moderate fees charged by many Catholic schools serve the same purpose. Government schools are tightly controlled in terms of their capacity to set compulsory fees. Even in a state like Victoria where government schools have considerable autonomy, schools are forbidden from setting compulsory parent fees. So autonomy won’t do much for government schools in this sense.
  3. Governance
    There are many variations of governance in non government schools but most involve a board of some type which is either a representation of the faith of the school or a more corporate entity. Often it’s a combination of both. In all cases there will be some level of parent and community involvement. These bodies have the capacity to set the direction of the school and bring to bear financial expertise, connections and experience that assist in the mission of the school. The relationship with the head of the school can vary considerably but in general terms the head has less direct control over some aspects of the school than does a government school principal. That could be good or bad I guess.Governance for non government schools is a facilitator of school improvement. For the good part this is achieved through the exercise of enrolment policy and financial management, including the setting of school fees.State and federal governments make a lot of noise about reforming the governance of government schools. Some change might be a good thing, particularly if it led to greater community and corporate support for government schools. But it will not be a panacea. The balance between staff and parent/community participation can be challenging already for some schools and a further layer of complexity may generate additional issues. Imagine, if you will, a corporate style government school council with accountability for performance and the pressure they would bring to bear on government for additional funding. Government school councils would become very political. It won’t happen.

The great unwritten bargain between state and federal governments and the non government school sector is that by accepting a funding model which provides them with less than that given to government schools, these schools will be allowed carte blanche in terms of enrolment policies and charging of school fees. The question for government is whether this is a fair deal. Even the Gonski report tiptoed around this question. I submit that a condition of receiving public funding should be a commitment, at the bare minimum, to entering into a community based enrolment protocol. The recent Bracks report into Victorian government school funding broached collaboration between school sectors but didn’t contemplate enrolment practices.

Autonomy for government schools is not going to lift student achievement relative to that in non government schools. It has benefits but autonomy without additional financial capacity won’t deliver much at all. The key driver of the different levels of student performance in the government and non government schools sectors is the cohort of students sitting in non government schools. This is driven by a range of factors, including the aspirations and prejudices of parents. School autonomy only plays a role in that it provides non government schools with the freedom to set their own enrolment policies and improve their financial position through charging school fees. And this is not the kind of autonomy governments will ever allow government schools.







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