Give all schools autonomy and promote school choice
21st July 2010

The ALP government wants to overcome educational disadvantage and to raise standards.  I argue in today's National Times that the best way is to free schools from provider capture by giving schools the autonomy and freedom to operate locally.  Catholic and independent schools are more successful than state schools as they embrace autonomy, diversity and choice. 

 Give schools the power to do well

National Times
Kevin Donnelly 
July 21, 2010 - 7:15AM

In her speech announcing the forthcoming election, Prime Minister Julia Gillard cited education as one of her key priorities and put overcoming disadvantage centre stage.
The Commonwealth government's review of school funding also cites overcoming educational disadvantage as one of the most important issues to be considered. The terms of reference state that the review must address the "funding allocation mechanisms that address current barriers to educational achievement".

What is the best way to overcome educational disadvantage and what do different approaches tell us about the major parties? Historically, ALP-inspired attempts to help at-risk students, such as the Whitlam government's Disadvantaged Schools Program, adopt a deficit model.

The argument is that once schools are identified as disadvantaged, usually measured by students failing to perform well in literacy and numeracy tests or in terms of gaining tertiary entry, such schools receive additional funding or become involved in targeted programs.

More recent initiatives, such as the Rudd/Gillard-inspired National Partnership Agreement on Low Socio-Economic Status School Communities and the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program (designed to increase the percentage of students entering tertiary studies from low SES backgrounds), also adopt such an approach.

Millions of dollars are spent on literacy and numeracy programs designed to raise standards or, as in the case of the tertiary entry program, measures are introduced to positively discriminate in favour of those students who do not achieve strong academic results.

There is another way, best illustrated by the then Howard government's commitment to supporting school choice and the recent decision by the Tony Abbott-led opposition to give government schools control over Building the Education Revolution infrastructure funds.

Catholic and independent schools prove the benefits of autonomy and school choice. Instead of politicians and bureaucrats introducing specific programs or mandating quotas for at-risk students, they should learn from those schools that are most successful in overcoming disadvantage and promoting equity in education.

It's no secret that non-government schools, when compared to government schools, achieve the strongest results, whether measured by basic skills tests, Year 12 results or the number of students completing secondary school and undertaking tertiary studies.

Non-government school critics argue that independent and Catholic schools only do well because students come from already privileged backgrounds and such schools are better resourced in terms of staff and facilities. Not true.

Research undertaken by Gary Marks, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, analysing the Year 12 performance of government and non-government schools suggests that it is wrong to argue that independent schools achieve the best results because their students come from privileged backgrounds.

After analysing the various factors impacting on Year 12 results, Marks states, ''socio-economic background accounts for only between 20 and 30 per cent of school-sector differences in tertiary entry performance". In a second paper, Marks summarises research into disadvantage by concluding, "research has shown that socio-economic background has only a moderate relationship with educational outcomes, not the deterministic relationship so often claimed".

Marks argues that Catholic schools are especially successful in overcoming disadvantage. "First, the generally higher levels of performance of Catholic school students found in most, if not all, studies cannot be attributed to socio-economic background since the socio-economic background of Catholic school students differs little from the government school students,'' he writes. ''Other more credible explanations are higher levels of parental and community involvement with Catholic schools, higher standards of discipline, and greater emphasis on academic performance."

When she was education minister, Gillard agreed that a student's home background and postcode need not automatically determine success or failure. "We need to be careful here,'' she said. ''The data shows that there is nothing inherent about a low SES family leading to a poor school outcome. What it tells you is that you need a great school."

Overseas research by German academic Ludger Woessmann also concludes that the success of independent schools cannot be explained by arguing that they only teach already privileged students. Woessmann also argues that additional resources and facilities do not explain why independent schools achieve the best academic results.
Based on his analysis of international mathematics and science tests, Woessmann concludes that stronger performing education systems are characterised by school autonomy and flexibility, competition and choice and accountability measures such as end-of-school, external, competitive examinations.

In relation to non-government schools, Woessmann concludes, "the results show that a larger share of privately operated schools is associated with better student achievement".

Woessmann goes on to note, "the estimated difference in achievement between a system like the Netherlands, with three-quarters of schools privately operated, and systems such as Iceland, Norway and Poland, with hardly any private schools, is equivalent to more than what students, on average, learn during two years".

The reason non-government schools do well is because they are managed at the local level and they have the power to best reflect the aspirations of their local communities. Catholic schools, in particular, embody the concept of subsidiarity, defined as the belief that decisions are best made at the local level by those closest to the school and its community.

The ALP government's education revolution, on the other hand, is centralised, bureaucratic and statist in its approach, denying schools the autonomy and flexibility to best meet the needs of the communities they serve.

During the election campaign, when it comes to education, it will be important to note whether the ALP continues its bureaucratic, command and control approach and whether the Liberal Party builds on its recent move to empower government school principals and offers a genuine alternative, a system based on diversity, autonomy and choice.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is author of Australia's Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars (Connor Court Publishing) and director of Education Standards Institute,


Responses to this Post

Vivien Johnson says:

Something like the voucher system in use in some USA states would be a big step forward. This way the money follows the student to their choice of school,whether public or private. This is tremendously threatening to entrenched power-holders like the teacher unions and so it is virtually impossible to even discuss it in government schools, you get howled down before you start.
The state of curriculum,the standards achieved and faint hope of even civilized conduct are so dire in many government schools around the country that people with decent degrees are simply not choosing teaching as a career. I have seen, for a few years now, at least half of the intake of science trainees drop out before completing their final year.
The reason is always the same - exposure to beastly,vile classes - gratefully dumped on them by their "mentor teacher". In such schools there is no incentive for anyone to do anything about it because they have a guaranteed clientele. In the ACT in the past couple of years the worst few high schools eventually shut down due to desertion - people voting with their feet but, the human damage and destruction while this slow process works through to completion are incalculable. This has got to stop.
Sad to say, new schools are opening with the same incompetent people in charge!

Vivien Johnson
Macarthur, ACT



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