A renewed federal and state policy commitment to devolution is that of Independent Public Schools (IPS).
At a federal level, the Australian Government has committed $70 million to ‘build on current developments across the states to help schools become more autonomous and independent if they so choose’, while at a state level the IPS has been introduced in Western Australia (in 2010) and Queensland (in 2013) to support greater managerial freedom for a growing number of schools.
These policies are informed by the market logic of policy trends from places such as England and the US.
This logic assumes diversity of provision, parental choice and inter-school competition within and between public and private systems will ‘improve’ schools and therefore school systems.
Advocates of this policy claim that greater localised governance and decision making will generate more effective public education.
Freedom from centralised authority is said to create the conditions for school leaders to better respond to local needs, promote innovation and produce resource efficiencies at the school level, leading to system-wide efficiencies and improvements.
There is limited research into the efficacy or otherwise of school autonomy reform. Findings are mixed and there are no definitive links that can be made between school ‘autonomy’ and school ‘improvement’, whether in English academies, US charter schools or Australian ‘selfmanaged’ schools.
In fact, there is much counter-evidence to indicate that the market imperatives of competition and choice accompanying school autonomy reform have increased inequalities at both system and school levels, as indicated by standardised assessment regimes of NAPLAN in Australia and PISA internationally.
The market imperatives driving public education have forced schools to run themselves like businesses in an environment of increasingly limited public resources, where public schools have the ‘autonomy’ to do more with less.
The ‘freedoms’ of school autonomy reform are particularly curtailed by the emphasis in centralised systems on compliance with a narrow range of academic outcomes.
Public schools are now subject to greater and more rigid external and public accountability measures (eg. PISA, NAPLAN and MySchool) to evaluate and compare their effectiveness.
The many perverse effects include:
a. increased gaming practices (where schools exclude more ‘needy’ [ie. underperforming] students)
b. greater stratification and residualisation within the system which has undermined school choice for less privileged parents and students unable to access high performing schools
c. a narrowing of curriculum and pedagogy to a teach-to-the-test mentality
Such effects are clearly counter to producing greater equity at the system and school levels.
This is not to say that the idea of autonomy should be abandoned. It is to say that the broader context of compliance and rigid accountabilities within which principals are expected to take up the ‘freedoms’ of autonomy reform are highly challenging.
Autonomy is not a magic bullet for school improvement, as it often seems to be presented in political and public discourse.
As most principals will tell you, it is a complex range of processes that can be taken up in productive ways – but is compromised by current ideologies that prioritise narrow measures of academic accountability and competition with other schools.
Such a focus has undermined the notion of schooling as a public and social good. In this space, the significance of moral leadership becomes clear.
For Michael Fullan, educational reform expert, leadership is about much more than just improving students’ achievement on narrow performance measures. It is about engaging with a broad view of the purposes of schooling in terms of equity and citizenship goals.
For many principals this moral leadership entails ongoing resistance to the perverse effects noted above.
It involves challenging the gaming practices encouraged by the current context of compliance and competition through using testing data to support needy or underperforming students, rather than exclude or re-route them because they are too expensive or will damage the school’s reputation.
It involves adopting enrolment processes that work to counter inequity and stratification within the public education system through recognising how the option of school choice advantages some parents and students, for example, those who are capable of acquiring the information necessary to make well informed and optimal educational choices.
Such leadership will counter the ways in which the current policy context threatens to undermine schools’ moral and social accountabilities – it will work with the ‘freedoms’ of school autonomy to strengthen these accountabilities.