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School Autonomy

By Judith Sloan - posted Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The headline said it all: “Gillard plan to liberate schools”. Or did it?

The idea of giving school autonomy has been floated in a briefing paper that will be considered by the State and Territory Ministers of Education some time this year. But while everyone, apart from the officials of the Australian Education Union, seems to be in favour of school autonomy, there is less agreement about what is actually meant by the term.

The first point to note, of course, is that public schools are controlled and largely funded by State governments. Without their agreement, there can be no national approach to granting schools more autonomy.


This, of course, begs the question as to whether a national approach is really needed. After all, a number of State governments have already embarked on policies that involve devolving more responsibilities over staffing and budgets to schools themselves.

Western Australia, in particular, has been implementing a rolling program whereby schools apply for greater autonomy. Based on the apparent success of the program, it is anticipated that more schools will become “independent” over time. But a number of other States also have various schemes that impart greater autonomy to schools.

The case for greater school autonomy is based on a notion that giving public schools more independence from the central bureaucracy will lead to greater accountability of schools to their local communities and better educational and social results.

Seeing advantages in the independence that non-government schools have to hire and fire staff, to manage budgets and to create their own educational cultures, the argument runs that providing greater school autonomy for public schools can mimic these features. In turn, the superior educational outcomes obtained by most, although not all, non-government schools will be achieved by more public schools.

There are, of course, a number of legitimate points that can be made to rebut this argument. Public schools must enrol all-comers. (Selective public schools are exceptional in this regard and their education results are as good, if not better, than most non-government schools.) And the ability of public schools to expel students is extremely limited. For these reasons, the ability of public schools to demonstrate excellence and compete for more students is constrained, relative to most non-government schools.

At the other end of the spectrum is the possibility that some public schools, with their greater autonomy, will essentially fail – with enrolments falling and educational results deteriorating. But unlike a free market – and, yes, some non-government schools do fail and close – it seems unlikely that a State government would allow many, if any, public schools to shut their doors in the context of local students finding it difficult to relocate to other public schools.


This is not to deny the strength of the arguments in favour of greater school autonomy. Rather there needs to be some recognition that there will be limits to granting greater autonomy to public schools.

More problematic, however, is that unnecessary constraints will be imposed on devolving authority to school principals and school councils. In particular, it is hard to see State governments allowing individual schools to enter into separate enterprise agreements with their staff.

And even given the limitations imposed by current labour laws, will schools be able to pay their staff individual bonuses in order to retrain their services and reward their performance? Given the Gillard government’s antipathy to individual contracting, it seems unlikely that this aspect of school autonomy would form part of the national strategy.

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About the Author

Judith Sloan is Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne.

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

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