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 Article published in Avery Magazine online, 14 March 2016


Abbott government plan to make 1500 public schools Independent by 2017. Is this a ‘good thing’?

by Rohan Feegrade on 29 April 2014

Hinging on the success of the new Abbott government proposal, Principals will have more power to choose their staff and attain greater autonomy over decision making in schools. This falls under a $70 million plan to help a quarter of Australia's public schools become independent by 2017. However, will all states agree and is this the best approach?

Under this plan, the federal government will fund specialised training for school principals and leadership boards to become "independent-ready" by 2017. This would create a 2-tiered system of public schools and independent public schools.

This all falls inline with an Abbott government election promise in which $70 million will be spent on getting parents and principals to have more say on school curriculums, budgets and management.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has said research shows more autonomous schools lead to better student outcomes. "The more a principal and his or her leadership team have control of the destiny of their own school, the more that seems to lift the school performance." Could this be true? Well, yes BUT... Many more factors must be considered to validate this claim. Factors such as parent and community support and involvement, socio-economic conditions, existing school infrastructure and facilities, as well as, current school staffing. Also worth considering is that credible research suggesting the single most influential factor on student achievement is the teachers that teach them.

Mr Pyne also said "In very tight budget circumstances, it's a real measure of the government's commitment to independent public schools that $70 million is available."    

Interestingly, Mr Pyne said all states and territories, except South Australia, which is due to being in post election mode, have signed on to the initiative, which aims to have 1500 more public schools turned independent within three years. This is not quite true. Some states have only indicated interest and refute claims that they have 'signed on'. NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said that they would not support two types of public schools in NSW. Tasmania and the ACT continue to distance themselves from the proposal.

Kate Ellis, opposition spokeswoman for education, claims that the Abbott government is again misleading the Australian public and should honour their election commitment to match Labor's Gonski reforms and school funding.

This raises the debate between what is better - increased school funding, or greater autonomy for school leadership to make decisions in the best interests of their students. Credibility can be granted to both arguments; however, factors such as those previously mentioned in this article must be considered. I especially refer to the quality of teacher the student is exposed to. I merely propose the idea that a 'blend' of approaches could be the best approach. More funding can mean a greater investment in teacher professional development, higher teacher salaries to attract and retain the best teachers and better-resourced schools. An investment into school leadership by means of training is crucial. We can't afford to throw full autonomy over to school leadership with little or no accountability in their decision-making. A major factor influencing teacher performance is teacher wellbeing. Teacher wellbeing is directly impacted upon by school culture, workload, professional respect, recognition and acknowledgment of high performance. School leadership and management drive all of these factors. A harmonious blend of these arguments can help us achieve the most important outcomes in this process - Improved student learning outcomes, student wellbeing and opportunities for students beyond school.


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