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Independent public schools: a dangerous reform path

Education Minister Christopher Pyne believes independent public schools are more efficient. AAP/Daniel Munoz

The Coalition has unveiled a A$70 million Independent Public Schools Fund to entice a quarter of Australian public schools to become independent by 2017.

The initiative builds on its pre-election promise to promote reforms similar to Western Australia’s independent public school model, which has seen nearly two thirds of the state’s public schools converted to independent status since 2009.

Federal education minister Christopher Pyne argues independent public schools are more effective and accountable, respond better to community needs, and lead to improved student outcomes.

Serious doubt exists, however, over the credibility of these claims. More importantly, independent public schools have the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities, making them a dangerous reform path for Australian public education.

Is an independent public school a ‘privatised’ school?

Contrary to popular misconceptions, independent public schools are not privatised schools, but instead are public schools governed in ways that more closely resemble a private school.

The WA model, for example, is designed to give principals greater autonomy, particularly over resource allocation matters such as the school’s budget and staff hiring.

The model also provides some flexibility for principals to develop locally tailored policies and processes, whilst adhering to core legislative and curriculum requirements.

In effect, an independent public school principal operates more like the CEO of a company, working closely with an elected School Board (akin to a board of company directors) that usually comprises parents, community members and business representatives.

Promoted under the banner of school autonomy, independent public schools share a family likeness with other market-based reform initiatives, such as Charter Schools in the USA and the Academy model in England.

Underpinning these reforms is a belief (often infused with a good measure of ideological bias) that freeing schools to some extent from centralised control and bureaucracy will allow time and resources to be more effectively directed.

Shaky evidence for the reforms

The problem for the Coalition is that there is a shaky ground of evidence to support its central claims that independent public schools will improve operational efficiency and increase student performance.

As I recently outlined in a pre-election Factcheck, the Coalition’s claims are quite misleading.

While there is some evidence to suggest independent public schools could potentially promote greater efficiency, there is no solid evidence to suggest they will improve student outcomes.

For example, a recent evaluation of the WA model by researchers at the University of Melbourne found that the reforms produced “little evidence of changes to student outcomes” and “no substantive increase in student achievement”.

This lack of evidence, however, has not stopped the Coalition from arguing otherwise.

In launching the Independent Public Schools Fund on Monday, Pyne’s media release kit provided a range of cherry picked quotes from a diverse range of reports to argue that school autonomy positively influences student performance.

This included the following reference to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data:

“PISA 2009 finds that: In countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better.”

This is a very misleading use of the OECD’s data, as this quote refers specifically to the relationship between student performance and curricular autonomy.

Independent public schools, however, will have very little autonomy over what is taught, as all Australian schools are now required to deliver the Australian Curriculum in core subjects.

When it comes to autonomy over operational matters such as staff hiring and budget allocations, the same OECD document to which Pyne refers states, “there is no clear relationship between autonomy in resource allocation and performance at the country level”.

In other words, when analysed objectively, the OECD’s data provides little basis upon which to claim that the form of school autonomy promoted by independent public schools will have any impact on student performance.

A dangerous path for fairness and opportunity

Decades of educational research suggest market-based reforms exacerbate, not alleviate, existing inequalities and divisions in education.

The greatest risk of independent public schools is the creation of a two-tier public school system, which has the potential to further polarise outcomes between high and low socio-economic area schools.

This is likely to occur due to the marketisation of human resource management that independent public schools promote.

With greater flexibility over the hiring and firing of staff, principals of high-performing independent public schools in socially advantaged areas will be much better placed to lure the most talented teachers away from low-performing public schools in disadvantaged areas.

Imagine, for example, you are a top quality teacher, struggling against the odds in a challenging low socio-economic area school. Four suburbs over, one of the highest performing public schools (in a ‘leafy green’ middle class area) gains ‘independent’ status, which allows the principal to phase-out ‘deadwood’ teachers and advertise a range of new positions. You apply for one of these positions and leave your struggling school. Why wouldn’t you?

Future scenarios like this are not fantastical projections, but instead are logical and expected outcomes of a system that further marketises teacher choice. More than ever, teachers will be able to choose from a market of employers, just as principals will have wider choice from the pool of available talent.

Whilst this system undoubtedly has benefits for already advantaged schools, the long term systemic effects of such sifting and sorting run directly against the grain of what a fair public education system should be about: that is, equitable opportunities for all students. 

Over the long term, the net effect of such trends will be a form of reverse snowballing, whereby the most talented teachers rapidly drift upwards to advantaged and high-performing schools, and the least talented teachers sink downwards to disadvantaged and low performing schools.

Put differently, the cream of the teaching crop will rise to the top, as the unforgiving and differentiating force of the market widens existing gaps between the haves and have nots.

The problem is, our best teachers are desperately needed to help improve student outcomes in our most disadvantaged schools. How will governments ensure the best teachers are retained in the schools that need them most?

Existing deep inequalities in Australian education - which Pyne claims do not exist - may therefore be exacerbated by the Coalition’s policy initiative.

There is not only a lack of compelling evidence to suggest the need for independent public schools, but it is unclear what governments will do to combat the significant threats to equity that this reform will pose.

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