“A programme to implement independent public schools will lead to higher productivity, better quality education outcomes for students.” - The Coalition’s Policy for Schools, August 2013.
The Coalition has declared a “unity ticket” with Labor on education funding in this election campaign, but has sought to distinguish its position on education by announcing a commitment to greater school autonomy.
The Coalition’s policy states that, if elected, it will “encourage 25% of existing public schools to become independent public schools by 2017”. It will also establish a $70 million “Independent Public Schools Fund” to support schools that elect to become an independent public school.
Underpinning the Coalition’s rationale is a belief that independent public schools are more effective and accountable, respond better to local issues, promote greater community engagement, and ultimately, lead to improved education outcomes.
But what are independent public schools? And do they lead to higher productivity and better student outcomes?
What are independent public schools?
The idea of an independent public school can be misleading in an Australian context, where the term “independent school” traditionally means a “private school”.
An independent public school, however, is not a private school at all. Instead, it is a public school governed in ways that more closely resemble a private school.
The Coalition has signaled its intent to promote reforms similar to Western Australia’s independent public school model, which has expanded rapidly since its establishment in 2009. There are currently 255 independent public schools in WA, but by the end of 2013 nearly two-thirds of all public schools in the state will be “independent”.
The WA model is designed to give principals and school communities greater control, reduce bureaucracy, and improve operational efficiency and student outcomes.
In practice, these goals are pursued via a range of new governance arrangements, detailed in an independent public school prospectus produced by the WA Department of Education.
Core features include greater authority for principals over their school’s budget and the staff members they hire, as well as some ability to develop locally tailored policies and processes.
The model is a big change for WA, as it shifts many responsibilities from the “Regional Office” level to the school level, by requiring principals to sign a “Delivery and Performance Agreement” that makes them directly accountable to the Director General of the state education department.
If similar changes were rolled out nationally, they would impact upon state and territory systems very differently, depending on existing arrangements. Victoria, for example, already has a highly devolved system of school governance, whereas New South Wales is more traditional and centralised.
The WA model also places importance on School Boards, which typically comprise parents, community members and business representatives. School Boards contribute to the strategic direction of the school and play a role in appointing principals. This is in contrast to traditional public schools, where principals are appointed centrally by the Department of Education.
While independent public school have new flexibilities, they must still adhere to core legislative requirements, industrial agreements and policies. For example, independent public schools must still deliver the Australian Curriculum and enrol students from the local area.
The WA model shares some similarities with Free Schools in England and Charter Schools in the USA. However, it is misleading to make direct international comparisons, as countries have unique education systems and legislation. Some US charter schools, for example, are run by for-profit corporations.
Will it help ‘productivity’?
The Coalition’s policy contains two central claims. First is that more independent public schools “will lead to higher productivity”. It is not exactly clear what “productivity” means here, but it most likely refers to potential flow-on benefits from more efficient school governance models.
The argument that school autonomy produces greater efficiency has circulated for decades in academic and policy circles – the typical view being that freeing schools and principals to some extent from centralised control and unnecessary bureaucracy allows time, resources and energy to be more effectively directed.
Brian Caldwell and Jim Spinks are two of the most proactive researchers and supporters of this kind of argument in Australia, although they prefer the terms “self-managing” and “self-transforming” schools.
The most relevant Australian evidence to assess the Coalition’s claims is a recent independent evaluation of Western Australia’s independent public schools model by researchers at Melbourne University.
The evaluation found principals of independent public schools overwhelmingly perceived the initiative to have “enhanced the functioning of their school”, particularly in terms of “resource efficiency”.
Principals expressed some concerns, however, over increased workloads and new administrative burdens.
While the evaluation painted a positive portrait of the WA system, more research is required to assess the actual efficiency and productivity of the WA model beyond the level of principal perception, as well as the impact of increased workloads on school management and productivity.
International research on the topic varies widely. On balance, it appears there is insufficient evidence to suggest increased school autonomy leads to more effective or efficient schools.
What about student outcomes?
The Coalition’s second claim is that more independent public schools will lead to “better quality education outcomes for students”.
This is a far more contentious claim and there is a lack of solid evidence to suggest it is accurate. The Melbourne University study, for example, found “little evidence of changes to student outcomes” and “no substantive increase in student achievement”.
The evaluation described the lack of impact on achievement as “concerning” and reported teachers who said there had been “no change in teaching practice” since their school became an independent public school.
This lack of evidence is supported at the international level. Multiple research projects in England, the USA and New Zealand, for example, have found school autonomy has very little or no effect on student achievement.
There is, however, some international evidence that contradicts this trend. The OECD, for example, has presented a mixed bag of evidence, suggesting a positive correlation in some cases, but a negative correlation in others, with significant variations within and between countries and systems.
Some charter schools in the USA have also demonstrated improved student achievement in neighborhoods with historically poor achievement levels – a fact lauded in the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman.
At a national level, however, research from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, found charter schools generally perform no better, and in many cases substantially worse, than traditional public schools in reading and mathematics.
Borrowing policies from other countries, therefore, should be approached with caution.
The Coalition’s claim is misleading. While there is some evidence to suggest independent public schools could potentially promote greater efficiency and productivity, there is no solid evidence to suggest they will improve student outcomes.
This is a fair summary of current research on policies promoting greater school-level autonomy. The review notes that there are similarities between the reforms proposed by the Coalition and policies implemented in England, New Zealand and the United States.
However, the Academy model in England may be a more useful comparison than the “Free Schools” since the latter are generally new schools. Still the author is correct to highlight the dangers of cross-national comparisons.
Also the film “Waiting for Superman” did indeed celebrate the achievements of a few charter schools in undeserved areas. Yet a passing reference in the film also acknowledges that most charter schools do not get very good results, citing earlier research from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University.
In fact, the Center’s most recent assessment of charter school outcomes identified a relative advantage for charter schools in reading (equal to about a weeks’ worth of learning) but not in mathematics. However, a review by the National Education Policy Center found this impact from charter schools to be “trivial”.
The author is right to say the Coalition’s claims are misleading and have no strong empirical foundation. - Christopher Lubienski.