At a time when other Western education systems are granting greater autonomy to local schools, the Gillard government is tugging on purse strings to assert Canberra’s dominance and control
Much of the debate over the last two years, given the Gonski review of school funding, has focused on the issue of what constitutes the right balance between government and non-government schools in terms of financial support.
Equally significant, although receiving less attention, is the question of school autonomy and the extent to which the Commonwealth should be allowed to take control of education.
A shame, as the Australian Education Bill 2012 tabled in the final week of parliament, incorporating the government’s National School Improvement Plan, represents one of the most significant interventions of the Commonwealth over the last 30 to 40 years in taking control of state and territory schools.
Even though the Commonwealth government neither manages any schools nor employs any staff, by tying funding to implementation, the bill will ensure that all roads lead to Canberra.
In addition to the ALP government imposing a national curriculum, national testing and results being made public on the My School website, a national teacher registration and certification system and national standards for teacher training, it now intends to force government and non-government schools to implement its National Plan for School Improvement.
In order to fulfil its promise to have Australian students perform in the top five countries in international reading, mathematics and science tests by 2025, the government is seeking to implement its grand plan involving making schools more accountable and transparent, improving teacher quality, making the curriculum more effective and, supposedly, giving school leaders increased power and autonomy.
The flaws, dangers and contradictions in the government’s National Plan for School Improvement are manifest. Instead of empowering school leaders, in itself a dangerous initiative if leaders are incapable or ineffective, the government’s plan imposes a highly centralised, inflexible and statist model of funding and managing schools.
As noted in a national research project carried out by Melbourne–based educationalist Brian Caldwell, schools across Australia are already complaining about being micro-managed and drowning in red tape. The situation is destined to deteriorate.
It’s also the case that much of the Prime Minister Gillard’s so-called national crusade in education is based on initiatives implemented in the UK and the USA over the last 10 to 20 years – most of which have failed to raise standards, strengthen schools and better support teachers.
In addition to being critical of national, standardised testing similar to Australia’s NAPLAN, President Obama favours a model of educational reform based on giving increased autonomy and flexibility to schools and their communities.
The failure of President Bush’s punitive No Child Left Behind initiative and the failure of the New York experiment, an approach based on increased testing and making results public and one championed by Julia Gillard when education minister, has led to a very different approach to that being adopted in Australia.
In the UK, since the election of the Conservative government and the appointment of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education, it’s also the case that there is less emphasis on a top-down, command and control model of education. The UK approach is to cut back on the number and complexity of regulations, simplify the curriculum and ensure that schools have the flexibility and freedom to manage themselves.
The irony is that while the Commonwealth government seeks to gain greater control over schools, an increasing number of state governments are seeking to free schools and introduce greater autonomy at the local level.
Whether the Western Australia’s Independent Public Schools program or Victoria’s recently released proposal to give schools greater autonomy, outlined in the Towards Victoria as a Learning Community paper, the intention is to allow decisions to be made as close as possible by those most affected.
Those seeking evidence that school autonomy is beneficial only need to look at the example of Australia’s Catholic and independent schools. Research proves that such school are able to achieve strong results, measured by academic standards, because they have the ability to manage themselves and to best reflect the needs and aspirations of their communities.
Non-government school critics like Angelo Gavrielatos, from the Australian Education Union, are wrong to argue that non-government schools only outperform government schools because they are better funded and resourced.
Catholic schools, compared to government schools, have better retention rates, stronger Year 12 results and more success at tertiary entry, even though such schools receive less state and Commonwealth funding than government schools.
It’s also important to note that Catholic schools, at a time when much of the Gillard government’s rhetoric in education is about helping disadvantaged students achieve improved results, are high-quality, high-equity.
Such schools are very successful at helping at-risk students achieve stronger results than otherwise what might be expected.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of Education Standards Institute