On evidence based decision-making ...

Maurie Mulheron

How many conferences have you attended during your career at which at least one very important speaker has uttered something like the following?

“All the research indicates …”

“There is overwhelming evidence to show …”

“Decision-making must be evidence-based …”

It has become pretty clear to me that the phrase is used too often to either sell a product or promote a political point. Other times, the phrase precedes an article of faith. In too many cases it is designed to shut down debate or criticism.

A case in point is school or principal “autonomy”, a managerial concept more than 30 years old, marketed under a variety of terms. Created by conservative economists, the idea first hit education circles around the early to mid-1980s, at a time of mullets, leg-warmers and shoulder-pads.

As a doctrine or belief system, we have some devotees of it appearing even now at education conferences, sporting their policy mullets.

Imagine the opprobrium directed at any teacher still using in 2016 an unaltered lesson plan from 1986.

Yet this is exactly what has happened with the NSW government’s Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) policy. It was based on ideas that were imported from Thatcher’s England of the 1980s.

Essentially, LSLD is NSW Treasury’s 1986 lesson plan.

One of the original enthusiasts of “local management” was the notorious teacher-basher, Kenneth Baker, Thatcher’s education secretary. Some years later, his interviewer, Nick Davies, commented on Baker’s approach to evidence-based decision-making: “On the face of it, a reform of schools would have to have, as its overriding priority, the welfare of children. Since this involved the construction of a new system to disseminate learning and knowledge, it would have to be built on a particularly strong intellectual foundation, a great deal of solid research and clear thinking. Not so. The most sweeping educational reforms this century, it transpires, had just as much to do with guesswork, personal whim and bare-knuckle politics.”

Baker himself recalled, “It was absolutely extreme stuff.”

In more than 30 years I have never heard a single senior officer of the NSW Department quote from even one critic of the notion of “school autonomy” even though there are dissident voices across the globe, many of them respected researchers in Australia.

“Placing schools at the centre of the policy frame, freeing them from bureaucracy and exhorting them to do better has not by itself generated many of the systemic improvements, innovation, or productivity gains that policy makers hoped for,” Plank and Smith argue in their 2008 paper, Autonomous Schools: Theory, Evidence and Policy.

“School autonomy” was responsible for a “lost decade” in education according to one of New Zealand’s leading education researchers, Dr Cathy Wylie of the New Zealand Council of Educational Research.

In her book, Vital Connections, Wylie argues that schools need more central support.

This is the very concept lacking in far too many NSW Department of Education policy directions.

In his paper, The Disaster of the ‘Self-Managing School’ — Genesis, Trajectory, Undisclosed Agenda, and Effects, Professor John Smyth argues that “school autonomy” in reality is government “… steering at a distance while increasing control through a range of outcomes-driven performance indicators”.

Smyth goes on to say, “The argument was that schools would be freed up from the more burdensome aspects of bureaucratic control, and in the process allowed to be more flexible and responsive, with decisions being able to be made closer to the point of learning. Many of these claims have proven to be illusory, fictitious, and laughable to most practising school educators.”

Dr Ken Boston, one of the members of the Gonski Review panel, has expressed frustration, arguing that “… school autonomy, is an irrelevant distraction. I worked in England for nine years, where every government school ... has the autonomy of the independent public schools in WA — governing boards that can hire and fire head teachers and staff, determine salaries and promotions, and so on. Yet school performance in England varies enormously from school to school, and from region to region, essentially related to aggregated social advantage in the south of the country and disadvantage in the north.”

Professor Steven Dinham from the University of Melbourne decries the lack of evidence for “school autonomy” models, saying: “The theory that greater school autonomy will lead to greater flexibility, innovation and therefore student attainment is intuitively appealing and pervasive. School autonomy has become something of an article of faith. However, establishing correlation and causation is not so easy.”

Dinham goes on to say, “What is needed above all, however, is clear research evidence that the initiative works, and under what conditions, rather than blind enthusiasm for the concept.”

Yet, none of this should surprise us. The OECD, in its Policy Outlook of 2015, cited 450 education reforms that had been implemented from 2008 to 2014 across 34 member nations including Australia. It found that only one in 10 was ever evaluated by governments.

I would argue that the new Secretary of the Department, Mark Scott, has a difficult job ahead of him because of the damage to the system wrought by Local Schools, Local Decisions.

There is now far too little central support for schools and we should remember that accountability measures are no replacement for any system-wide support.

At a time when we have gained the largest increase of recurrent funding to schools in years and with the requirement to ensure that the Department lifts student outcomes across the entire system in a dramatic way, the Secretary has fewer levers to implement system-wide improvements than any Department head in history.

But will this lead to a rigorous, independent evaluation of Local Schools, Local Decisions? Probably not. The Department will not risk that and will, more likely, control and undertake its own internal assessment. I can see the glowing reports already …

So, next time someone talks about “evidence-based decision-making” ask them to cite the evidence used to implement Local Schools, Local Decisions in NSW. Then go and grab yourself a coffee or two and a feed, because it will be a long time coming.

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