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Competition, 'autonomy' and schools

By Dean Ashenden - posted Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The collapse of the command economies of Australian schooling has been less dramatic and complete than that of the Soviet Union, but in other respects they have much in common.

Both imperiums enjoyed tremendous reach and power almost to the moment of their eclipse. As late as the 1960s the government school systems enrolled three in every four Australian students; most of the rest were in impoverished Catholic parish schools or, a tiny few, on private islands in a socialist sea. The grand departments dominated much of the curriculum, teacher education and employment, and policy. As in the case of the Soviet Union, few saw the end coming – everyone thought that the Catholic schools were the ones at risk of collapse, not the govvies – and no one really intended it.

And as in the USSR, the fatal blow was struck by friends, not enemies. The Karmel committee, riding to Whitlam's instructions, devised a settlement of the "state aid" question resting on three different ways of funding three sectors, each to be governed by its own rules and conventions. The result was a bonanza and a liberation for the Catholic schools and subsidies for the privates that saw both come into competition with the government schools, and successfully so.


The departments, already rattled by the industrial and other consequences of the postwar enrolment boom, were panicked by declining prestige, authority and enrolment shares. They clutched at straws including "devolution," "autonomy," and "choice and diversity." In a famous "Freedom and Authority Memorandum," one director-general provided what turned out to be a national lead, telling his principals that from now on they were masters (or, very occasionally, mistresses) of their own fate. Zoning regulations were loosened; new "specialist" schools (in music and the performing arts, sport, technology and so on) were established; and selective schools and programs were expanded.

These developments were reviled by many, and particularly by employees and patrons of the government schools, partly out of self-interest, partly out of respect for the great principle that schools are a special kind of institution with the high purpose of seeing that the sins of the parents are not visited on the education or opportunities of the children. Schooling, in this view, is irreducibly a common, public undertaking, not a marketplace.

That view enjoyed no more success than the schools it defended. Governments of all political stripes pressed on; there was no going back on Karmel. The right of parents to choose a school on religious grounds became the right of increasingly prosperous parents to choose on any grounds at all. The consequences were rationalised by governments as a Good Thing. Savvy parents playing a competitive market would force schools to lift "performance."

Into this desolate landscape has ridden the Grattan Institute, bent on finding out whether "competition" and its instrument "autonomy" are actually doing what governments hope and many others fear.

Grattan's choice of topic and timing for its latest report is almost exquisite. Its motivating concern with what makes a good school system, rather than the currently conventional focus on what makes a good school, is salutary. Its findings are surprising, and will chasten both the federal government and the opposition as well as state governments. But The Myth of Markets in School Education is limited in diagnosis and limiting in prescription.

GRATTAN's concern is to see whether schools do or could compete in ways that push up educational performance. "Evidence-based" as always, it takes a close look at what actually happens in a broadly representative group of schools, those of Southeast Queensland, home to around three million people. Grattan's detailed examination of what actually does and doesn't go on in these schools reveals that between 40 and 60 per cent of them don't and can't compete on "results," and the rest do so only at the almost irrelevant margins.


It's not that the schools lack the "autonomy" to compete. Contrary to popular and official assumption, Grattan finds that Australian schools enjoy a higher degree of autonomy than just about any in the OECD. What crimps the market as an instrument of "performance" is distance, transfer costs, school capacity limits, and relatively modest differences in schools' educational performance. In the upshot, parents rarely take their sons and daughters from one school to another in pursuit of better results, and schools rarely lose or gain them. "Good schools don't grow," Grattan finds, "and bad ones don't shrink."

This is not good news for the federal government, and it is positively bad news for the Coalition. The government has put serious money into training principals to run more autonomous schools, and it has run hard on NAPLAN (the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) and the MySchool website on the grounds that better-informed parents will choose better-performing schools and thus drive a better-performing system. But at least the government has Gonski as its big selling point.

The Opposition doesn't and, worse, it has invested heavily in the autonomy and competition arguments. It has a long history of claiming that higher subsidies to non-government schools will provide more access and therefore more choice and more pressure on schools to perform.

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This article was first published by Inside Story.

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About the Author

Dean Ashenden was co-founder of the Good Universities Guides and Good School Guides, and had been an adviser or consultant on education policy to state and federal governments and agencies.

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All articles by Dean Ashenden

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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