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Dr. Kevin Donnelly

Set our schools free to help students excel

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The Victorian education department has released two papers initiating a public discussion about the best way to raise standards, improve equity and make schools that are more effective.

While a number of sound discussion points are raised, including better recognising teacher expertise, closer community/school ties and how best to prepare for lifelong learning, the papers ignore the international move towards diversity, competition, autonomy and choice.

In Britain, for example, the recently returned Conservative government has signalled a significant overhaul of state education, announcing plans to transform an additional 1000 underperforming schools into independently managed academies by 2020.

Academies were introduced when Labour’s Tony Blair was prime minister and have become a key plank in reforming England’s education system, endorsed by both major parties.

This coincides with the release of a research paper by the University of Melbourne’s Gary Marks that proves independently managed non-government schools outperform government schools. (The paper, published this month by Australian Journal of Education, is titled: “Do Catholic and independent schools ‘add value’ to students’ tertiary entrance performance? Evidence from longitudinal population data.”)

The British academy schools operate in the same way that charter schools in the US and Sweden and Partnership Schools in New Zealand are operated. Schools are managed locally and are free of top-down, bureaucratic control in areas such as staffing, budgets and the school curriculum.

Initially championed by US economist Milton Friedman and more recently by two economists specialising in educational research, Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, charter schools are based on the argument that the best way to overcome disadvantage and lift standards is to allow a more market-driven approach.

As detailed by Hanushek and Woessmann in a paper for the Munich-based CESifo Group (Working Paper No. 1011), additional funding to reduce class sizes, employ more teachers and better resource schools is not the solution.

The reality is that increased funding during the past 20 to 30 years, in Australia and overseas, has not led to stronger outcomes.

What is required is a new model of schooling based on the right balance between competition, choice, autonomy and accountability. As noted in a Program for International Student Assessment paper by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Program for International Student Assessment Focus No. 9 paper) and based on analysis of PISA test results: “When autonomy and accountability are intelligently combined, they tend to be associated with better student performance.”

Evidence that autonomy, diversity and choice lead to more effective schools and stronger outcomes is illustrated by the success of non-government schools around the world.

Independent schools, by necessity, must be attuned to parental and community expectations about what constitutes a rigorous and balanced education. Such schools, given their autonomy, also have the freedom and flexibility to ensure their curriculum and pedagogy are evidence-based instead of conforming to the latest fads.

As noted by a 2012 Productivity Commission Report: “Increased school autonomy removes impediments that can prevent principals and other school leaders tailoring school operations to best meet the needs of the local communities they serve. It thus has the potential to improve student outcomes.”

Andrew Coulson, from the US-based Cato Institute, uses a meta-analysis of about 55 studies across 20 countries, titled Markets v Monopolies in Education, to conclude that it is “the least regulated market school systems that show the greatest margin of superiority over state schooling”.

And contrary to the claim that a market-driven model serves only wealthy economies, the English academic James Tooley writes “research, both from India and from other developing countries, suggests that private education in general is more effective … even when controlled for socio-economic class and the background variables of students”.

Closer to home, research by Marks proves that Catholic and independent schools, with the exception of selective government schools where entry is based on ability, outperform state schools.

In relation to Year 12 Australian Tertiary Admission Rank results, Marks concludes, “Catholic and independent schools students averaged 6 to 8 ranks higher than government school students”, demonstrating that “non-government schools show higher academic outcomes than government schools”.

Non-government school critics such as the Australian Education Union and Trevor Cobbold from Save Our Schools argue that the only reason Catholic and independent schools do so well is because they enrol students from privileged families as measured by socio-economic status.

Marks’s research proves such is not the case when he writes the “higher performance of students attending non-government schools cannot be attributed to differences in the intake characteristics of each sector’s students”. The stronger performance of non-government schools remains even after adjusting for measures such as family background and students’ cognitive ability, leading Marks to observe “these findings confirm that Catholic and independent schools ‘add value’ to student performance”.

As to why non-government schools outperform government schools, Marks suggests factors such as “resources, higher expectations, better teachers, stronger discipline, or a more rigorous curriculum in the later years of schooling” are possibilities requiring additional research.

The commonwealth government is reviewing Australia’s federal system of government and late last year released Issues Paper 4, Roles and Responsibilities in Education (a related Green Paper setting out options for reform is due in the second half of this year).

Significant is that the issues paper, while not offering solutions, makes a number of observations about our system of funding and managing government and non-government schools and the respective roles of state, territory and federal governments.

Issues raised include whether the current situation allows “sufficient flexibility” to jurisdictions and non-government sectors and whether a centralised approach “may come at the expense of diversity and competition”.

One hopes that when the Green Paper is released there will be a sensible and balanced discussion about the institutional and organisational factors most affecting school performance and educational outcomes.

Central to this should be identifying why independent schools achieve such strong results, compared with most government schools, and what can be replicated across the sectors to ensure all students, regardless of type of school attended, benefit.