CHRIS BONNOR & BERNIE SHEPHERD. When public schools become part of the problem

Aug 19, 2016


School education in Australia has been invaded from the west. In 2010 Western Australia added its contribution to free-market orthodoxy by declaring that its public schools would be given greater control over staffing and budgets. From 2010 an increasing number have become independent public schools.

Like many reforms (?) over the last few decades it has a certain resonance and indeed was initially welcomed by a large number of schools. School principals have always complained about excessive bureaucratic control of their schools.

WA’s Independent Public Schools (IPS) has been Australia’s contribution to the move to greater autonomy for public schools. Variations of it exist, in various guises, in most of the other states – usually but not always promoted by conservative governments. When in Opposition, Tony Abbott, promised to roll out Independent Public Schools (IPS) across Australia. After all, as his later education minister (Christopher Pyne) was to claim, such a system overseas was improving student outcomes – a claim deemed to be unsubstantiated by the ABC Fact Check.

In common with much of the neoliberal agenda for education the evidence for IPS was either never produced or was quite easily dismissed. Those who might otherwise support such autonomy for public schools had their doubts, including Ben Jensen, previously with the Grattan Institute. Even at the time the OECD was at best ambivalent about claims that autonomy would improve student outcomes.

And early cautions came out of Western Australia. In 2011 the WA Auditor General warned that the program could create a two tier education system. In the same year a Curtin University report showed that the policy would do little to improve student learning outcomes.

The author of the report said “The evaluations that have taken place afterwards around the world would seem to suggest that it’s actually stacking up problems,” he said. “We’d be better looking at that now rather than waiting two or three years down the line to deal with the problems that may appear further down the track.”

It is now 2016 and we are now indeed further down the track. A review by the Education and Health Standing Committee of the WA parliament has just found that the IPS initiative has exacerbated existing inequalities in the public education system, both perceived and actual, reinforcing a ‘two‐tiered system’.

As the ABC reported on August 15, this meant that “more capable schools receive more benefits, and less capable schools fall further behind. Remote and hard-to-staff schools are particularly disadvantaged as a result”. While IPS schools “benefitted by being able to recruit the best teachers” this came at the expense of non-IPS schools, which were then forced to accept teachers rejected by independent schools “who are less suitable for the school environment and have less experience”.

On student achievement the report noted “It’s also too early to tell whether the IPS initiative has created the conditions which will lead to improved student outcomes in the future,”.

Is it really too early? The independent public schools initiative is just another component of a 30 year-old experiment in choice and competition in schooling – an experiment that research and reviews have shown to have failed to lift student achievement while at the same time worsening equity. Our recent analysis of My School data, published by the Centre for Policy Development in Uneven Playing Field, highlights the more recent evidence of this failure.

The problem facing public education schools and systems is that every attempt to create greater autonomy ends up becoming a zero-sum game. Some schools, especially those with existing advantages, derive a benefit. Others face compounding challenges. All that the Independent Public Schools initiative seems to be showing is that public schools are perfectly capable of becoming yet another part of problems we steadfastly refuse to address.

Chris Bonnor AM and Bernie Shepherd AM are Fellows of the CPD.

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