School reform needs more than just autonomy

Companies choose their staff; they manage their finances; they determine their future directions. Overall, it’s a pretty efficient process.

So, why shouldn’t government schools do the same?

Unfortunately, improving school autonomy doesn’t necessarily translate to improving student outcomes. It can certainly play an influential role when applied appropriately, but it is not a central determinant to effective education reform.

The recent Grattan Institute report, The myth of markets in school education, showed that while the best performing education systems in the world practice varying levels of school autonomy, it is not central to their reforms. Moreover, the report illustrated that Australian autonomous schools aren’t achieving better student outcomes than centralised Australian schools. For instance, the Victorian state education system has been a world leader on school autonomy; yet, it has not achieved student outcomes that are significantly better than NSW, which until recently has been a centralised education system.

This isn’t to say that allowing schools to be autonomous is wrong. To the contrary, we’ve seen firsthand through our work at SVA the power of effective school autonomy. A great example is the school transformation underway at Hume Secondary College, led by Principal Glenn Proctor. Hume Central has been given the autonomy to hire staff and determine their strategic direction. Five years in and this is already yielding positive student outcomes.

It would be incorrect, however, to attribute Hume Central’s success exclusively to increased school autonomy. The internal systems of teacher development, peer observation and appraisal, and staff support are exceptional and are constantly building the capacity of the Hume Central staff. It’s these foundational practices that are empowering their teachers to lead the school well. While school autonomy is assisting this process, it would be useless without the teacher development.

Therefore, the issue is that school autonomy places an enormous expectation on the shoulders of a few to change the trajectory of many. Some are up to the challenge, some aren’t. It’s unrealistic to grant autonomy and demand high expectations unless you furnish the means to achieve these expectations. That’s why ongoing teacher and leadership development policies that focus on the best ways to teach and learn are the cornerstone of the best education systems. This is a guiding principle of the SVA Bright Spots Schools Connection – developing excellent school leaders to autonomously run low SES schools effectively and efficiently.

If Australia’s education system is going to pursue a more autonomous schools structure, then school leaders need to be supported through capacity development to lead their schools well. Only then can school autonomy begin to be effective.