Autonomy carrot shifts
onus from government

Kerri Carr

Increased local decision-making in government schools, the purpose of the Federal Government's Independent Public Schools program, will allow governments to take another step away from their civic obligation to public schools and another towards potential privatisation, warns Federation President Maurie Mulheron.

Victoria, with the country's most devolved, fragmented public education system, has a new school governance policy, funded by the Independent Public Schools program. The Australian Education Union — Victoria Joint Primary and Secondary Sector Council describes this as "effectively transferring government and departmental responsibility onto principals and parents for a school system they have neglected and underfunded". Students in Victoria are funded $1881 less than the national average.

Mr Mulheron wrote in If we forget history: The thirty year war against public education: "In government, neo-liberals under-fund and run down public services: it is essentially a deliberate strategy to make the public more receptive to privatisation."

Mr Mulheron warns that structural changes from a system to individual school entities will enable the privatisation of individual schools, such as academies in Britain and charter schools in the United States.

The Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission has been examining autonomy and accountability in Victorian Schools. In the draft report the Commission explores the concept of "independent, skills based boards" when "suitably skilled individuals" cannot be found for school councils. The Commission favours a multi-school board approach, with board positions being "modestly remunerated to attract appropriately skilled people and strengthen board members' accountability". In response, Research Fellow at Canberra University Jennifer Chesters (The Conversation, September 17) asks: "Is this the path to the privatisation of public education?"

Ms Chesters also observes the draft report "suggests that Victoria should aim to emulate the PISA results of top-tier jurisdictions such as Shanghai, Korea, Singapore and Finland" but that "jurisdictions with autonomous schools mentioned in the report, Sweden, the Netherlands and England (academy schools), do not feature in the top tier".

No hard evidence

The Federal Government's Students First website, promoting its Independent Public Schools program, claims "evidence shows, and overseas experience highlights, that increasing school autonomy can help lift student outcomes", but others disagree.

Ms Chesters said: "If the Victorian government intends to privatise public education, then it will need more convincing evidence of the merits of this policy than this report provides. There is no conclusive evidence that shifting responsibility from government to parents will help push Victoria into the top tier of education systems."

Former NSW Education Director-General Dr Ken Boston has described school autonomy as "an irrelevant distraction". He told Federation's Annual Conference in July that he had 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."

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli (Sydney Morning Herald, July 20, 2013) said: "We will not be introducing charter schools or independent public schools because there is no evidence that they improve student performance."

In an article about the federal push to make Victorian schools independent (theage.com.au, September 14) Berwick Lodge Primary School principal Henry Grossek said: "We already have the highest level of independent schools in the developed world and on the basis of OECD results we aren't near the top at the moment. It could be argued that we should in fact be moving in the opposite direction."

Tasmania, South Australia and the ACT have also accepted money from the $70 million Independent Public Schools fund without having to create such schools, instead using funds to encourage greater parental involvement.

Mr Mulheron said the states and territories' reluctance to introduce Independent Public Schools was a rebuff to Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne.

"There is no educational purpose. It's only to pursue an ideological agenda and doesn't improve student outcomes," Mr Mulheron said.

Mr Mulheron's Eric Pearson report, "If we forget history: The thirty year war against public education", is available from the library section of Federation's website.