Public school principals must have autonomy to compete with private schools

Public schools must become like private schools with autonomy for principals to tailor their schools to local needs if Australia is to reverse the decline of the public school system, a CEDA forum in Adelaide has heard.

Public schools must become like private schools with autonomy for principals to tailor their schools to local needs if Australia is to reverse the decline of the public school system, a CEDA forum in Adelaide has heard.

Shadow Minister for Education Apprenticeships and Training, Christopher Pyne said while the debate on education had "focused obsessively" on funding, other policy objectives were more important in achieving educational outcomes.

"Funding is an important part of the education debate but it is not the most important part," Mr Pyne said.

"I take as evidence of this the fact that over the last 10 years we have increased our spending on schools by 40 per cent in Australia and, correspondingly over that time, our outcomes have declined in comparison to other countries and in real terms.

"So if money was the only issue in schooling, that statistic couldn't be true."

Mr Pyne said Independent Government Schools run by community boards had been introduced in Western Australia in the past three to four years and were proving popular, particularly with lower socio-economic communities.

Forum speakers, including University of Adelaide Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Pascale Quester, Smith Family General Manager (South Australia and Northern Territory), Graham Jaeschke, and Ernst and Young Lead Partner, Professor Stephanie Fahey, said that education policy-makers faced a difficult balancing task to ensure the whole education system - from kindergarten to tertiary education - was high quality and accessible.

The forum heard:

  • Australia has the most children in non-government schools in the OECD;
  • Implementing the Gonski recommendations to improve the quality of schools with a $2.8 billion cut to universities was an unacceptable price to pay;
  • Funding per capita in low socioeconomic status (SES) schools was already more than double the per capita funding of universities;
  • The new national curriculum would improve on the existing curriculum in most states but must evolve to focus on reading, writing, maths and science rather than reflecting fads and special interest groups;
  • Incentives should be introduced to encourage parental engagement with credit for volunteering at school being used to offset , for example, the cost of excursions or uniforms;
  • Interventions in early childhood education were cost effective as $1 spent on a child in early childhood saved $7 when they were teenagers;
  • The government's objective of having 40 per cent of citizens aged younger than 25 years with a Bachelor degree by 2020 should not be met if the quality of university education could not be maintained; and
  • The most important thing the government could do was to improve teacher quality by improving teacher training and professional development.

Mr Pyne told the forum that an incoming coalition government would leave in place a national agreement on education funding but if there were no national agreement, any deals with individual states would be repealed. And he warned an incoming coalition government would not be able to reverse the cuts to the tertiary sector.

Professor Quester said the Federal Government's plan to boost funding to the schools sector at the expense of funding to the university sector was like growing more and better crops but cutting off the roads to market; "nobody in their right mind would suggest that".

The education system would only thrive when all its parts worked together, Professor Quester said.

"More resources in one area only makes sense if there are more resources in the other because they both serve the same purpose: to future-proof the country by growing and adding value in what is fundamentally any country's most valuable asset - its human capital," she said.

Mr Jaeschke said having a high quality and equitable education system must be a policy priority. He said the Schooling Challenges and Opportunities Report 2012 found a strong correlation between the performance of a child and the average SES of the students that attend their school.

A third of students living in disadvantaged communities started school developmentally vulnerable, Mr Jaeschke said.

Professor Fahey said that policy makers needed to increase efficiency in universities by expanding shared services and outsourcing strategies and better leveraging their assets.

"We need to improve the quality we deliver because Australia is actually starting to slip behind in relative terms and slip behind in many areas - including K-12 education and research," Professor Fahey said.