Will local autonomy improve public schools?

19 March 2012

Principals in NSW are to be given greater control over their schools. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Professor Raewyn Connell answered the question, "Will local autonomy improve public schools?"

There is little new here. For the past 25 years, Australian education has been steadily reshaped on market lines.

The idea is to make schools, as well as universities and TAFE, more like little corporations competing with each other, and less like co-operative public institutions. The power of managers has grown and workforces have become more casualised.

Urged on by the Business Council of Australia, the federal Labor government is now on the point of reintroducing that fine 19th-century innovation, payment by results for teachers. Ideally, business expertise will take over the whole sector. We have a splendid model in the pre-school department, where ABC Learning led the way.

With the major parties in agreement, the mass media in support and business pointing the way, where do critics turn? The unions are easily dismissed as a 'special interest' resisting reforms that benefit the whole community.

I doubt this agenda benefits anyone but a privileged minority. Are we comfortable about testing systems with systematic social biases? Do feelgood stories about happy winners each year outweigh the fact that competitive testing requires losers - and that defining students as losers destroys their education? Do we really want to subsidise gated communities in education, where parents pay to keep the rubbish people out?

Markets commodify things - that is basic. If you ration education, you can sell a privilege to those with enough advantage and you can reduce the need for public investment in education for all. That's what the market agenda in education basically does.

Crucial to the market logic of competition and the rationing of access is a means for defining and then measuring 'success' v 'failure' - and making it look objective. That's why a competitive testing regime has become central to Australian education policy. It's also why our policymakers have turned away from negotiated curricula, community participation, multicultural education, and the other democratic initiatives.

Market fundamentalism in business places power in the hands of top management. That's why we have those huge salaries and bonuses for CEOs. In education, too, management prerogative has grown at all levels.

We can do better. There are other possibilities in education. At the next panic about test results, ask whether we need these tests at all. At the next website launch, whether it's MyUni or MyKinder, show a little tough love and ask the awkward question: what interests are really being served by this?

Professor Raewyn Connell is University Chair in the Faculty of Education and Social Work.

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