The Jury Is Out On Independent Public Schools… You Be The Judge!

Recently, our new Liberal Government’s Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne MP, planned to introduce a new modus operandi in our education system, namely public schools being phased out in favour of ‘independent’ public schools. According to the Coalition’s “Policy for Schools” dated August 2013, Christopher Pyne stated, “A programme to implement independent public schools will lead to higher productivity and better quality education outcomes for students.” This may sound good in theory, but many questions need to be asked regarding the details of this proposed new system, and just as importantly, the concerns of private citizens and anxious parents, need to be addressed.We have not been fully or accurately briefed as to the details of how our proposed independent public school will work, for example, giving greater autonomy to Principals to determine how school funding is spent as well as giving Principals greater power to hire and fire staff, may well be positive measures.

Personal biases and prejudices would most certainly arise in such circumstances

As long as all schools have to adhere to the Australian Curriculum such change in the modus operandi of schools may well be beneficial. Alternatively, however, if independent schools in Australia are required to mimic those Charter Schools in America, we should all have grave concerns.Many people are under the impression that ‘independent’ really means ‘private’. This is not true, although these schools will be governed by methods which very closely mirror private schools. Theoretically, advantages do appear to be part and parcel of this educational system. These schools would have greater autonomy and a development programme would be put into place by Principals. The main focus of this programme would entail an in-school “preparation plan” concentrating on an individual school’s circumstances.

As long as all schools have to adhere to the Australian Curriculum such change in the modus operandi of schools may well be beneficial

Some independent public schools would join clusters, which may translate into shared resources and perhaps brainstorming of ideas that could be implemented across the cluster. School Curriculums would be decided on the premise of what would work in the best interest of the children. These independent schools would still remain an integral part of the public school system; nevertheless, the school’s curriculum would be determined by the Principal and parents involved with the running of the school. Personal biases and prejudices would most certainly arise in such circumstances.Already Western Australia accommodates this type of schooling. It was first introduced in 2009, and to date there are two hundred and fifty-five independent public schools.

Surely we owe it to the school children of today, and future leaders of tomorrow, to make sure that we get it right and not rush into this new form of education, when comparisons with other countries with similar educational institutions, have been proven to be less than effective? Australia’s students deserve the best start in education they can possibly have, and our government must ensure that equality is within each and every student’s grasp, not beyond their reach, and not just benefiting a select group of students

Supposedly, the advantages to this system were to promote greater control, improved operational efficiency and reduction in bureaucracy. A core difference between traditional public schools and independent public schools is the fact that Principals are appointed centrally by the Education Department in public schools, whereas School Boards play a pivotal role in the decision making appointments of Principals, in independent public schools. The makeup of School Boards represents interested parents, members of the community, as well as business representatives. The direction that the school would be heading towards would be primarily decided by this group of people known as the ‘School Board’.This is where the dilemma lies. Is too much power being handed to the School Board, which would wield extraordinary influence and power over the Principal, members of staff and students? This form of education is a reflection of the Charter Schools in America. The Centre for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, declared that on a national level, performance by students at Charter Schools were substantially worse than that of traditional public schools in the subjects of mathematics and reading. ‘Proceed with caution’ should be the adage if the Coalition government is determined to borrow other countries policies. As yet, there is no solid evidence to suggest that they would improve student outcomes.Disadvantages of this form of education are many. Strict admission requirements may deter certain children from being accepted into this school. Facilities and resources may be less than optimal in some schools compared with others. More importantly, it may not be compulsory to follow some government regulations pertaining to curriculum etc. Teaching standards and perhaps teacher certification may be jeopardised in these scenarios, especially schools unable to attract sufficient funding.To help make the transition to independent public schools, the government would provide grants. Already in the schools operating under this system in Western Australia, the Education Department is not responsible for choosing staff, the schools have that power. Finances are governed by the schools and changes to the Curriculum can be made “in school”. For example, a Principal and interested parents may prefer Creationism to be taught in lieu of say, Science. This change in Curriculum may proceed if the majority voted for it. Such a change may well have significant impact on the development of critical and analytical skills normally an adjunct to the teaching of Science. The same could apply if the topic of global warming is debunked in favour of the climate change sceptics’ views regarding our planet’s future. Such is the ambiguity of changing school Curriculums when members of the public are involved.It is estimated that almost a third of Western Australia’s eight hundred and twenty-nine public schools will become independent by the end of 2013. Eventually all public schools state-wide will become independent. On the agenda as well is the establishment of a ministerial advisory board. Schools will be given more autonomy over school budgets and staff requirements, as well as the power to waive compulsory fees, as they remain publicly funded. Of course the School Board will hold enormous influence in the overall operation of these schools.Underpinning the concept of this type of education is the threat of a two-tiered government system. This system could be deeply flawed as Principals are normally appointed for their educational skills, not their administrative business expertise. As already mentioned previously, concerns have been raised about the correlation between independent public schools and the Charter Schools in the United States, given that the United States performed poorly on rankings carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.In contrast, Finland has proven to be the world benchmark in educational excellence. They have neither Charter Schools, Independent Schools, private schools nor selective segregated schools, preferring to opt for a complete public school structure. Equitable educational outcomes are commonplace in this country. Our government’s determination to establish independent public schools Australia wide, would promote a two-tiered system which would potentially widen the gap between schools in the distribution of resources and the like.All educational policies should demonstrate improved outcomes for all students, not just a select group. Research on independent schools approach has been performed in other countries, and it has been demonstrated that it does not improve educational outcomes, and in fact it could well exacerbate inequality. The risk of Principals becoming business managers is very real, as raising money for the schools through sponsorship and parents would be high on the Principal’s job list. This correlates to the government handing over more responsibilities to schools, for schools to be run more as a business rather than an educational institution, ultimately with it being a cost saving measure for the government. Is this the path which we want our educational system to go down? Creating a greater divide of ‘the haves’ and ‘the have nots’ is not the answer. More competitiveness would also result when schools are pitted against other schools, in an effort to attract students and by implication Government funding. This could very well happen if all public schools within Australia become ‘independent’, under an Abbott led Coalition government.I am reminded of Nelson Mandela’s famous quote… “Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world”. Surely we owe it to the school children of today, and future leaders of tomorrow, to make sure that we get it right and not rush into this new form of education, when comparisons with other countries with similar educational institutions, have been proven to be less than effective? Australia’s students deserve the best start in education they can possibly have, and our government must ensure that equality is within each and every student’s grasp, not beyond their reach, and not just benefiting a select group of students. They deserve to not be let down by the system and eventually succumb to a second rate education.

rootmaster