Should non-government schools be autonomous or do governments have the right to control how such schools are managed? The question is more than academic. Within Australia some 30 per cent of students attend such schools and at years 11 and 12 in Victorian schools the figure rises to 41 per cent.
Such are the perceived weaknesses of government-controlled schools, including values-free education and politically correct curricula, that many parents are seeking the independent alternative.
One answer, given that non-government schools receive public funding and given that education is such a vital ingredient in economic success and social cohesion, is that governments must be involved in registering and holding independent schools accountable.
As stated by the Victorian Minister Lynne Kosky: “Clearly, with non-government schools responsible for the education of so many students - their performance is crucial to achieving better learning outcomes in Victoria … The non-government sector needs to be directly aligned with Victoria’s overall school education policy.”
A number of recent reports dealing with the relationship between government and non-government schools echo Minister Kosky’s sentiments: The report Governments Working Together, by the Allen Consulting Group, suggests the current education system is flawed and too many students are at risk.
The solution is to establish a “new integrated school education system” that, for the first time, would embrace government, Catholic and the majority of non-government schools.
Arguments in support of the above include that a properly funded integrated system would provide greater equity, improved standards and increased innovation and choice. The report also suggests Australian non-government schools, compared to overseas equivalent schools, are only moderately regulated.
Given the heated debate over school funding during the recent federal election campaign, it is also of interest to note the Allen Report argues so-called wealthier independent schools and schools wishing to remain outside a unified system should be denied any public money.
The Victorian Review of the Registered Schools Board (the Falk Report - pdf file 430kb) also recommends an increased role for government in regulating non-government schools. Reminiscent of the New Schools Policy, the report states before any new school could be established, existing schools would be notified and asked for their response.
The Falk Report, while stating it accepts the right of parents to choose non-government schools and it does not wish to overly interfere in how such schools are managed, also recommends a highly bureaucratic and intrusive accountability system.
Non-government schools are to be independently reviewed at least every 6 years and, unlike the current situation with government schools, there are explicit and tough sanctions against under-performing schools.
Sanctions include telling parents about school failure, naming and financially penalising schools and, as a last resort, de-registration. The Falk Report also suggests that non-government schools follow state sponsored curricula represented by the eight key learning areas and senior certificates like the VCE.
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