Ideas@TheCentre

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WA schools are independent in name only

Jennifer Buckingham | 28 August 2009

The WA government recently announced that it would be allowing up to 30 government schools (out of 768) to become ‘Independent Public Schools.’ These schools will have full management of their recurrent budget and will be given more authority over staffing appointments. They will allegedly have more flexibility in the curriculum up to Year 10 and will not have to apply to the education department for permission to expel students.

These are all good things for schools to be able to do. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be enough to create any real change. Some people have wrongly compared this reform to the charter school model used in the United States. In fact, it is more like a small-scale version of the self-managing schools reforms that took place more than 10 years ago in Victoria.

Unlike charter schools, Independent Public Schools in Western Australia will still be subject to the state industrial award for teachers. Schools might be able to choose the best candidate when/if a teaching position becomes available, but they will have no greater powers to get rid of bad teachers. They will have no flexibility with teacher salaries, and mandatory maximum class sizes will still apply.

Again, unlike charter schools, freedom of choice of curriculum will be tightly constrained since the schools will still have to comply with the national curriculum due to be rolled out across the country next year. Independent Public Schools might be able to make the final decision on student expulsions, but they will still have to find another school for any child they want to exclude. They will also still be obliged to take all students from within their enrolment zone, meaning that families who would like to attend these schools can only do so if there are leftover places.

The risk is that these reforms will be used as evidence that school autonomy doesn’t work, when in fact this not school autonomy at all.

The WA education minister, Liz Constable, described the Independent Public Schools policy as ‘an historic leap forward’ for public education in the state. The WA government is to be applauded for taking schools policy in the direction of flexibility and freedom, but this is more of a step than a leap.

Jennifer Buckingham is a Research Fellow at the Centre. Her new book Schools of Thought was published by CIS this month.