School autonomy plan a good start

The Gillard Government’s plan to give state school principals the power to hire and fire teachers and full control over school budgets is a good start to much needed educational reform:

Julia Gillard plan to liberate schools

We’ll need to see the full details before drawing conclusions, but the plan may allow for performance-related pay, which is essential for improving our schools, although there is much debate on this point (see previous post: Reading performance of Australian students deteriorating).

Ideally, the reforms would go further and would support, even encourage, the mobility of students and funding across state schools.  A risk with the plan, based on the brief outline in today’s media, is that it will entrench the advantages of the current leading state schools (e.g. Brisbane State High, Indooroopilly High).  The reputations and locations of these schools alone will enable them to attract the best teachers.  However, unless there is a mechanism for the funding of these schools to increase, they will have to remain highly selective regarding out-of-catchment enrolments.

The Government needs to develop a plan around how students and funding can move from low-performing schools to high-performing schools, which may involve school vouchers (an entitlement each student gets to spend $X on their education at any school they would like to attend).  The best thing for students, even though it would involve a longer bus or train ride, may be for them to move out of the local low-performing school and into a high-performing school in another area.

Governments may need to accept that some schools are dysfunctional, with a poor environment for learning, and it is better to reallocate resources to schools with a proven recipe for success.

Of course, there are only so many teachers out there.  If the better schools are to expand, and the poorer-performing schools are to contract, there will have to be a signficant movement of teachers to the better schools, and not all of these teachers will be superstars.  Also, many poorer-performing schools will continue to operate, and it is important to improve educational outcomes in these schools, too.  For these reasons, performance-related pay remains an essential part of the policy mix – so we can motivate the average teachers and get better people into the teaching profession in the first place.

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