The lost decade of school autonomy in NSW

Aug 17, 2023
Globe against the background of a school class Australia.

It is just over ten years since the school autonomy program called Local Schools, Local Decisions commenced in NSW. It has been a lost decade. It was supposed to increased student results but high inequity in education continues with more bureaucracy, less central support for schools and bigger workloads for principals and teachers.

The stated goal of Local Schools, Local Decisions was to improve student outcomes. There is scant evidence of this in NSW NAPLAN results. They show shocking inequalities in school outcomes between highly advantaged and disadvantaged students with few improvements since 2010.

For example, consider the reading, writing and numeracy outcomes for Year 9 low SES, Indigenous and remote area students in NSW. For each group, we can examine the proportion not achieving the national benchmark standards, NAPLAN scores and achievement gap with high SES students since 2010. Thus, there are nine indicators of achievement for each group, giving 27 in total. Of these, only nine showed any improvement.

There were no achievement improvements by low SES Year 9 students and declines in some areas. For example, the percentage of low SES Year 9 students not achieving the reading standard increased from 19% in 2010 to 28% in 2022 and the percentage below the writing standard increased from 30% in 2011 to 35% in 2022. Reading, writing and numeracy scores all declined and achievement gaps between high and low SES students of about four years of learning remained.

Indigenous education is one area of significant improvement. For example, the percentage not achieving the writing benchmark fell from 44% in 2011 to 38% in 2022. Writing and numeracy scores improved but there was little change in reading. There were large reductions in the writing and numeracy gaps between Indigenous and high SES students.

There was little change in the proportion of remote area Year 9 students not achieving the reading and writing standards but the proportion below the reading standard fell. There was also little change in NAPLAN scores and achievement gaps against high SES students remained large.

In summary, none of the nine achievement indicators for low SES students showed any improvement while six show declining achievement. Six of the nine indicators for Indigenous students show increasing achievement while only three show improvement by remote area students.

Funding was a critical factor, both for the failures and improvements. Funding for public schools failed to keep up with costs from 2012 to 2016, meaning there was a fall in funding adjusted for inflation. Subsequent funding increases were devoted to non-teaching and non-school staff instead of teachers. However, more targeted funding for Indigenous students has contributed to improving outcomes for these students.

Under Local Schools, Local Decisions, central support structures for schools were dismantled. Major job losses occurred in teaching and learning support including curriculum support, professional development, drug and alcohol education, student welfare, student behaviour, the equity unit, rural education, and special education.

Non-teaching staff in schools increased by much more than teachers from 2012 to 2022, with the biggest increases occurring from 2016. Total non-teaching staff in primary schools increased by 44% compared to an increase in teachers of 12%. Non-teaching staff in secondary schools increased by 26% while teachers fell by 3%.

The largest increase in non-teaching staff in schools was for administrative and clerical staff who increased by 48% in primary schools and by 32% in secondary schools. The increases in administrative staff also far exceeded the increase in enrolments – over five times the increase in enrolments in primary schools and 30 times the increase in secondary schools.

There was also a huge increase in central and regional office staff. They increased by 132% which was 26 times the increase in all teachers and 22 times the increase in enrolments. Since 2015, when detailed figures were first published, executive staff increased by a massive 390% and administrative and clerical staff by 108%. Over the same period, teachers increased by only 5% and students by 6%

Overall, the growth in the number of non-teaching staff in schools and non-school staff increased by more than the number of teachers. Non-teaching staff in schools increased by 6,155 and non-school staff by 2,755 compared with 2,742 in the number of teachers. It is incredible that under a school autonomy program the increase in Department staff exceeded the increase in teachers.

Public schools in NSW and elsewhere are subject to widespread accountability measures that have driven the huge increase in administrative staff in central office and in schools.

The Department of Education is focused primarily on reporting and compliance roles rather than curriculum, teaching and learning support. Its detailed organisational chart shows that the vast majority of its branches are devoted to administration of finance, policing compliance to regulations, performance monitoring, human resource management and other corporate functions. Of some 55 branches less than 10 could be considered as directly involved in supporting teaching and learning.

Despite the huge increase in administrative staff, the workload of teachers has not diminished. Instead, the administrative load for principals and teachers has increased. School leaders and teachers are working longer hours on accountability measures. Filling out endless forms and writing reports for central office is part and parcel of the life of principals and teachers.

Apart from the increases in non-teaching staff; the NSW Department of Education increased its use of consultants which is a further drain on the direct funding of schools. Payments to consultants increased from $1.5 million in 2014 to $10.6 million in 2021, a seven-fold increase. In 2022, the Department let contracts with consultants worth $17.4million, most of which were with Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PWC.

School autonomy has been another education policy failure. Devolution of decision-making in NSW and other states was introduced as part of a quasi-market to promote competition between schools as the path to school improvement. Central office was re-structured to focus on policing and compliance rather than professional support for teaching and learning. It dispensed with the notion of public education as a system of collaboration and mutual support. Together with massive under-funding of public schools, it has stymie efforts to increased equity in education.

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