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Pyne touts study linking school autonomy to achievement

High levels of school autonomy could be the key to greater student achievement, based on new research launched by the education minister, Christopher Pyne.

The report included the latest findings from the work of emeritus professor Brian Caldwell, the Australian lead in an international study to track school autonomy and its impact on student achievement.

Caldwell examined case studies of four Australian schools – selected in part because they were deemed to have a higher level of autonomy than most – based on site visits and various data, including information sourced from the My School website, along with online reports of school plans and reviews.

The research then assessed this information in relation to the way decisions were made at each school with regard to aspects such as organisation of instruction, personnel management, planning and structures, and resource management.

“A high level of coherence was evident in each of the case studies in the sense that leadership and management were closely … connected to curriculum and pedagogy,” Caldwell wrote in his report. “This coherence extends to the selection of staff and the allocation of funds in budgets, each of which reflect the unique mix of learning needs at a school and priorities for action.

“The four case studies in these ‘demonstration schools’ provided rich descriptions of what was done, and by whom, to make the link to learning.”

Pyne says the findings supported previous Australian and international data indicating that higher levels of school autonomy are associated with higher levels of achievement, providing there is a balance of autonomy and accountability.

“The research also indicates that the focus of autonomy should be on professional practice, with the aim of making connections between the functions associated with school autonomy and actions that are likely to have an impact on student achievement,” Pyne says. “Great schools have leaders and teachers who have the independence to make decisions and deliver the education that best meets the needs of their students.”

Phillip Heath, national chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia and Head of Barker College, says the research Caldwell presented shows local decision-making enables schools to direct resources where they have the most impact.

Heath welcomes the priority the government has placed on school autonomy as a driver of educational reform, and says the research “confirms the importance of the autonomy of principals in underwriting the transformation and improvement of schools”.

“However,” he says, “given the importance of the role of the principal in ensuring autonomy leads to student gains, it is vital that policy is informed by a broad and deep understanding of autonomous school leadership.”

In an opinion piece published the The Conversation following the launch of the research findings, the director of the Office of Educational Leadership at the University of NSW, Scott Eacott, points to “serious flaws in the study’s methodology”, including how the four schools were selected to participate.

Eacott said that whilst there was little doubt that the argument for autonomy was persuasive, the “evidence at this point is inconclusive”.

“In the interest of improving our schools, there is a need for serious dialogue and debate,” he wrote. “We need clarity on what school autonomy means, what evidence we have to support it (or not) and what we need to know.”

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