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Estimates: School autonomy questions

Estimates & Committees
Penny Wright 20 Nov 2013

Education and Employment Legislation Committee 
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership/Department of Education

20 November, 2013

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you for that guidance. I will just follow up on the questions being asked by Senators Lines and O'Neill. Regarding the discussion about the research available on outcomes for more independence for schools, but first of all I will come back to AITSL. I would like to get a bit more clarity about the concept of autonomy, because it seems to me there is a spectrum of autonomy and it can relate to a whole lot of different functions. There would be autonomy in relation to pedagogical leadership; and curriculum development; community interactions and budgeting. They are all separate aspects and I can envisage a situation where there may be more autonomy in relation to one and not so much in relation to others. Is that correct?

Ms Evans: Yes.

Senator WRIGHT: We were particularly discussing the Western Australian schools and the evaluation there. I am interested in whether there has been any evaluation of the consequences or impacts on those schools that are not independent public schools in Western Australia as opposed to saying that the evidence indicates that there may be some better outcomes for those who are. One of the concerns that is raised is that this risks the further entrenchment of disadvantage at some schools and some principals will perhaps always be more able to avail themselves of whatever autonomy is available, whereas there are other communities and other principals who will not. I am wondering if there is any information about that from the evidence or evaluation.

Ms Evans: I do not know whether there has been a specific control group evaluation. However, I am aware—and this is more anecdotally than officially in my role as CEO of AITSL—that the independent public schools in Western Australia cover the gamut. There are lower-socioeconomic schools, large schools, rural schools and metropolitan schools. So, quite deliberately, they embrace the range of schools.

Senator WRIGHT: In terms of that spectrum that I just described about autonomy, are you able to say what aspects of autonomy are available to those independent schools and what aspects are not yet?

Ms Evans: It probably is better that those questions are directed to either—

Mr T Cook: I am happy to take these questions. There is a range of autonomy or independent directions across Australia, as you know. Victoria has been known for quite a while now for being quite an autonomous system. There are particular projects around WA and Queensland independent public school initiatives. As you have indicated, the focus particularly on more freedom around budget. So it is more of a case of untied funding as opposed to tied funding, so the principal has greater discretion as to how to use the budget to best meet the needs of the students in his or her school. It is also focused on staffing. So in those schools where they have greater autonomy they may have greater ability to actually make a selection of staffing. Some states have a more centralised staffing process. In some states, as you are aware; it is done by the department themselves and the teacher who turns up in the school is really a decision by the department as opposed to the principal or the school community or the parents having a view on some of those things as well. So there is some greater autonomy around some of those areas as well.

Independent public schools do not have autonomy around what the legislation says. So it is quite clear that with the state legislation applicable to these government schools they cannot just move away from the state legislation per se. They still have all of the requirements in relation to that, and they still have the range of requirements around accountability generally—providing information about school performance and things like that back to their state and ACARA, in the case of some of the NAPLAN data.

So it is particularly around budgets and staffing. It is also about flexible use of resources to engage the community and the parents as well. Most schools have that, but by freeing up some of the budgetary requirements you have, or some of the budget you have at your school, it enables you to do a few more things around some of those innovative ways of approaching education, as well.

Senator WRIGHT: I am particularly interested in the Western Australian example, because that is what the original questions were about. To what extent has provision been made for those independent public schools in Western Australia to have additional resources provided to principals in the form of business managers. Also, have more resources been provided to those schools?

Mr T Cook: My understanding is that in WA they receive an initial grant. I think it is about $50,000. That enables them to undertake professional development and training programs about moving towards a more independent public school, where they would engage both the principal and the leadership staff, the teachers and also the school community. My understanding is that there is an ongoing grant that may help the school in relation to some of the business issues or business requirements. It goes over about three years, as I understand it.

The federal government has announced $70 million for independent public schools. The minister has a particular interest in supporting schools around their ability to move towards independence. So it is providing the training and support for principals, parents and school communities in relation to that.

Senator WRIGHT: In relation to Western Australia, apart from those grants that are to assist with the implementation, are we comparing apples with apples. We have been told the research indicates they have had outcomes that are considered favourable. But are they receiving otherwise the same amount of resources that other schools are getting.

Mr T Cook: That is my understanding, so short of some of the additional support they have received in these independent public schools for initial grant, and then some $40,000 or so per year. My understanding is that all other financial and budgetary processes are the same for other schools.


Senator WRIGHT: I would just like to come back to the evidence that you were giving a bit earlier, Mr Cook, about the evidence for improved educational outcomes coming from autonomy. I go back to the issue that I raised earlier about autonomy meaning many things to many people. First of all I will take you to the evaluation of the independent public schools in Western Australia that was carried out by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. My understanding is that the conclusion from that evaluation is that there has been no improvement in school outcomes. The evaluation said:

In this early phase of the IPS development there is little evidence of change to student outcomes such as enrolment or student achievements.

The report said:

...there was no evidence of substantial differences in outcomes between schools that were selected into IPS and those that were not.

It also said:

Analysis of the secondary data shows that IPS were generally high-performing before transition, and there has been no substantive increase in student achievement after becoming IPS.

They conclude:

As yet, there is no strong data indicating that the IPS initiative has significantly changed the ways that public schools engage with their communities … the secondary data shows no substantial change in staffing, student behaviour, attendance or performance between IPS and other public schools.

What would you say to that, because that is not what I understand the evidence was from the witnesses?

Mr T Cook: The evidence I was giving before was about a range of international assessments. I want to clarify that point. I talked about the OECD and the World Bank looking across a range of countries—not just one place—where autonomy or moves towards autonomy were being characterised. They found that, looking at the international assessments, those countries were performing better than countries where they had not made that move.

In relation to the WA evaluation there are a range of findings. There are also findings where principals themselves would say that they have found, as a result of the work they have done in the independent public schools initiative, that their student outcomes, in a broader way—not just in literacy and numeracy—have improved and will continue to improve. They have also indicated that they believe they have a much greater engagement with the school community as a result of moving into that particular program.

Senator WRIGHT: I guess I would be suggesting that the jury is still out, given that there is that particular evaluation. I think we would probably all agree that it is really important that we keep seriously analysing, because if this is a forward momentum that is being cited as being justified by the evidence and the data, we would need to look into that some more.

I also have some information about the international research that you have referred to. My understanding is that that OECD research has found that greater school autonomy in curriculum and assessment tends to improve outcomes but that greater school autonomy in budgeting and staffing has had little to no effect. I will take you to the OECD's 2009 program for international student assessment—PISA. That has reported:

… in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better …

It continues:

… the prevalence of schools’ autonomy to define and elaborate their curricula and assessments relates positively to the performance of school systems.

On the other hand, they say:

While there is a clear relationship between the degree of curricular autonomy a school system offers its schools and the system’s performance, this relationship is less clear when the degree of autonomy in allocating resources is analysed through measures such as: selecting teachers for hire, dismissing teachers, establishing teachers’ starting salaries, determining teachers’ salary increases, formulating the school budget, and deciding on budget allocations within the school.

I would like your comments on this because there is a forward momentum. There are statements made that the evidence is there and I genuinely want to understand what the evidence is and I think it is really important that we get to that.

The study found:

… in the vast majority of 64 countries participating in PISA 2009, including in Australia, there was no relationship between student achievement in schools and the degree of autonomy in hiring teachers and over the school budget.

It concluded:

… greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall student performance.

I am not sure if it is the OECD-PISA evidence that you are citing in support of this policy change. What would you say?

Mr T Cook: I think what we have said, again, is that the nature of independent public schools includes aspects of curriculum freedom in terms of how teachers teach subjects to students. You have been quite clear that the OECD has indicated that there have been increases in student outcomes as a result of that. That is part of an independent public school process, so I do not think it is inconsistent with what I have said.

The point you raised, however, is particularly about some of the issues around teacher flexibility and hiring teachers. I guess I find it difficult to understand, if a principal has the ability to hire a teacher around a specific area and greater flexibility in that area to do that, how that could not impact positively on student outcomes.

Senator WRIGHT: I am just going to the research that you cited yourself. The results are there and I guess you either rely on them or you do not, and if that is what PISA was saying—

To come back to my point, the research was quite strong around the fact that student outcomes were improving in those countries. You have picked particular aspects of the independent public school or the notion of autonomy.

Senator WRIGHT: But they actually refer to the basis of what they think is related to that. They differentiate between aspects of autonomy, whereas your answer really, I think, concentrated on the budgetary.

Mr T Cook: No, it did not. It referred to flexibility.

Senator WRIGHT: You said that the schools would still be subject to state legislation. We still have a curriculum authority which is setting a national curriculum and there is no indication that the federal government is going to move out of that space. Essentially, it seems to me that the real room to move in this with a change of policy would be through budgeting, financial resource allocation and the hiring of staff. The OECD data seems to indicate that that actually does not have a proven effect.

Mr T Cook: These are linked. I do not think it is correct to identify each of these separately; these are linked. If a school has a greater budget flexibility, it can make different decisions about how curriculum is offered in the school. It can make different decisions about the sorts of teachers that are working there if it has greater flexibility around teachers. My point is: while there are these various aspects, they actually are interrelated in a school. We also have research in relation to work that has happened around Australia by way of other initiatives around school autonomy, where we would say that principals are saying it is having a positive impact on their schools. Every state and territory is moving towards autonomy. There is no state or territory that is not moving towards autonomy. Every state and territory has its various aspects of that.

The federal government has identified that greater engagement with communities and parents, and greater ability for schools and principals to make decisions around their budgets, are characteristic of things that will make a difference. In many cases, if you make a decision at the local level—and this is not just in education; it is broadly—often that decision is much more relevant than if a decision is made in a bureaucracy somewhere else in a capital city. So these are directions on which the government has certainly based its independent public school initiative.

Senator WRIGHT: Yes, I understand that. All I am saying, I think, is that it is a complex issue and that to cite international evidence as holus bolus supporting the view that autonomy across the board or that being able to hire and fire teachers et cetera is not necessarily accurate. I do accept—I think we all agree—that there is a spectrum and that, certainly, schools are moving in different ways, but thank you for that.

Mr T Cook: I have other research, including from the World Bank: 'Countries that perform well in international assessments give local authorities and schools substantial powers over their resources.' All I am saying is that there is a range of research. Some of that research obviously concerns particular aspects of autonomy, which is why states and territories particularly are moving in that direction, but also in terms of the work the federal government has identified around the independents and public schools. Overall, I think there is significant evidence to support that direction.

Senator WRIGHT: What I am really saying is that I think it is also important to be clear-eyed and really seriously interrogate the data to see whether there are potential adverse implications or unintended consequences also—looking at the overall effects of the moves that are being made in the various aspects of whatever autonomy means.

Ms Paul: To reinforce what Mr Cook has been saying, I think I would to draw on two things. One is that, as far as we can tell it, looking at the research and understanding, for example, independent public schools in WA and so on, it is really important to look at the notion of autonomy in a holistic way. There are some risks in separating out bits of research which look at a part of it. In the government's commitment there are five domains of importance to take a holistic view of school autonomy and to engaging communities more and letting teachers, parents and principals have more of a say in the running of their schools. The other thing I would draw on is—

Senator O'NEILL: Could you list those five areas you just mentioned, now?

Ms Paul: I may have to draw on my colleagues for that. I will see if Ms Gordon can pull that out. They were in my head a minute ago—I know there are the five key domains. The other thing I want to say too is that it is important to look at what the WA principals themselves are saying, because in a way it comes down to principal autonomy being about how they are experiencing at and how their school communities are experiencing it. The two features which I find particularly interesting are that they find that the engagement of the whole school community is greater—they consider it to have become improved or to have become enhanced or deepened—and also that they do consider that, apparently, outcomes for their students have improved. That is interesting, too.

Senator WRIGHT: I do not discount the absolute importance of taking that on board, but I guess there are also a whole lot of factors that could be taken into account. I wonder if they would have the same response or the same feeling if it was in fact a time of declining resources, when there was actually a shrinking of resources and they were being made responsible and autonomous to manage fewer resources. I would just draw your attention to the fact that there is a Productivity Commission report that questions the effectiveness of autonomy and I would also put it to you that the World Bank study actually:

… says that there is no convincing evidence of the effects of school autonomy in Australia, New Zealand and the UK on student achievement.

It is a very important issue to be considering, but I think there are still quite mixed results. It depends really on what we are measuring and the effect of what autonomy actually means.

Ms Paul: I want to clarify one thing that you said, which is that if you are making principals take more autonomy, certainly from the federal government's point of view the commitment to independent public schools is voluntary.

Senator WRIGHT: At this stage, yes.

Ms Paul: Nobody is being forced to do this. And yet, as Mr Cook said, it is a clear direction right across the country at the moment. It started many, many years ago, particularly in Victoria, but really you could look at every jurisdiction now. The WA independent public schools approach is quite a well-defined approach which has clearly proven quite successful in that state. It is interesting that it is the only state where there is a drift of enrolment towards government schools.

The five domains, in answer to Senator O'Neill, are increased local governance, greater accountability to the local community, implementing streamlined or one-line budgets, increased local management of school facilities and infrastructure—this relates back to the government's point—and increased delegation over staffing to maximise student learning outcomes. Those are the five things. They can be implemented in various ways, which is of course the point, that are appropriate for each school, and so on.


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