With schools returning this week, the usual debates have already started about the respective merits of government and non-government schools and the best way to make Australian students more competitive given unsatisfactory results in international literacy and numeracy tests. But equally if not more important is the fact that over the next 12 months the Federal Government plans to review the roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth, states and territories when it comes to managing schools.
As noted in Issues Paper 4 - Roles and Responsibilities in Education, released just before Christmas, the hope is to identify the best way to balance accountability, subsidiarity, equity, efficiency, effectiveness and fiscal sustainability across Australia's education systems and schools.
While not dealt with in the issues paper, one solution, in opposition to a command and control, top-down, centralised model, involves a more market-driven approach to education represented by school autonomy and increased diversity and choice involving well resourced government and non-government schools.
Education systems both here and overseas are implementing programs like the Commonwealth-funded Independent Public Schools initiative designed to give government schools greater autonomy. Similar to the flexibility and freedom enjoyed by non-government schools, the belief is that increased local control, what is known as subsidiarity in the Catholic system, leads to stronger outcomes and schools being better able to reflect the needs and aspirations of their communities.
The move to school autonomy is part of a wider movement arguing that choice and diversity in education, represented by the existence of government and non-government schools, is "a tide that lifts all boats" in terms of raising standards.
Unfortunately, Australia's major public sector teacher union, the Australian Education Union, has a long history of opposing school choice, represented by the existence and continued funding of non-government schools, and is also opposed to granting government schools increased, albeit limited, autonomy.
In its submission to the Gonski school funding review commissioned when Julia Gillard was education minister, the AEU opposes the proposition that "all systems and students have an equal entitlement to public funding".
The union goes on to argue, "Although substantial government funding to private schools has become entrenched in Australia in recent decades, we believe there is no pre-existing, pre-determined entitlement to public funding; i.e. there is no a priori justification for public funding of private schools."
The AEU bases its argument on the belief that only government schools are open to all and best able to serve the common good. As argued by Angelo Gavrielatos, the then AEU president, when criticising market-driven initiatives like school vouchers, "A voucher system to fund each individual's education represents the absolute commodification of education, smashing any notion of public education for the common good."
The union argues "public schools have a legal and moral responsibility to be open to all students; private schools do not and are not". The AEU also argues that the existence of non-government schools "residualises" government schools and diverts much needed funding to Catholic and independent schools that are supposedly already well resourced and privileged.
Ignored is that government schools are not open to all students as many are selective secondary schools where enrolment is based on academic ability. It is also the case that many of the most successful and popular government schools in metropolitan areas are in enrolment zones where only wealthy parents can afford to buy property.
The Australian Education Union is also apposed to school autonomy programs like the Independent Public Schools initiatives. A research paper commissioned by the union claims that "there is no evidence that devolution in its myriad forms has itself led to improved student achievement".
Ignored is the research by the German academic Ludger Woessmann that concludes, "Across countries, students tend to perform better in schools that have autonomy in personnel and day-to-day decisions."
Instead of welcoming increased flexibility and local control over schools, however limited in nature, the AEU clearly prefers government schools to remain under the control of centralised bureaucracies.
Such a situation ensures that there is an incentive for teachers to join the union, thus increasing membership, and guarantees that the union and its executive have a major role to play in negotiating industrial agreements.
The AEU's view is in opposition to concerns raised by principals' associations about over regulation and micro-management and the need for greater school autonomy. A survey of principals showed the presence of significant stress caused by the "lack of autonomy/authority".
A recent survey of Australian primary school principals, while arguing that autonomy, by itself, is not enough to guarantee improved outcomes, concludes that school leaders prefer increased flexibility and choice at the local level.
In relation to curriculum, the survey concludes that "The ideal level of freedom reported by all principals is greater than the current level. Government school principals see a 30% increase in significant or total freedom to 70% as ideal."
Notwithstanding the AEU's opposition to Independent Public Schools, it is also true that an evaluation of the early stages of the Western Australian program presents a favourable account. The evaluation concludes, "Overall, the story of the implementation of the IPS initiative is a positive one, with the concept of IPS being agreeable to most principals in Western Australia".
Not unexpectedly, schools are more effective and more conducive to stronger learning outcomes when teachers chosen to teach in a particular school support its direction. It is easier to imbue a sense of common purpose and collegiality when there is such agreement and it is also important to be able to tailor the curriculum to suit local circumstances.
As argued by Melbourne-based Professor Brian Caldwell:
There is a powerful educational logic to locating a higher level of authority, responsibility and accountability for curriculum, teaching and assessment at the school level. Each school has a unique mix of students in respect to their needs, interests, aptitudes and ambitions; indeed, each classroom has a unique mix.
It should also be acknowledged that the Australian Education Union and one of its predecessors, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association, have not always apposed school autonomy. During the 70s and 80s, a time of de-schooling and the rise of community-based schools freed from centralised and bureaucratic management, progressive teacher unions advocated innovation, flexibility and choice at the local level.
Such is the evidence supporting school autonomy that the UK's 'Schools White Paper 2010' concludes, "Across the world, the case for the benefits of school autonomy has been established beyond doubt".
While placing a number of caveats, a 2014 report evaluating school autonomy by the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission is also positive when it states, "Increased autonomy, effectively implemented, has the potential to enhance performance and therefore the competitiveness of the government school sector...".
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he taught for 18 years in government and non-government schools.