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Autonomous schools pay education dividend

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Friday, 13 January 2012

Across the English speaking world, especially England, the US and Australia school choice has reached a tipping point where governments of all political persuasions are embracing autonomy, diversity and parental choice in education.

In England, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary is building on Tony Blair's example of freeing schools from centralised and bureaucratic control, represented by City Academies, by planning to introduce hundreds of so-called free schools.

According to Gove, for far too long schools in England have been burdened by intrusive, cumbersome and ineffective regulations and, while accepting the need for some accountability, argues that schools should be freed from external control.


As noted in the English White Paper, titled 'The Importance of Teaching', the belief is that, "the case for the benefits of school autonomy has been established beyond doubt" and the intention is to allow every school "to shape its own character, frame its own ethos and develop its own specialisms, free from either central or local bureaucratic constraint".

President Obama is also committed to expanding what in the US are known as charter schools; schools that have been given the power to manage their own staff and budgets, set their own curriculum focus and ensure that they reflect the needs and aspirations of their school communities.

An essential requirement of the billion-dollar 'Race to the top' federally funded programme is that the various states agree to extend charter school programmes, especially amongst at-risk and disadvantaged communities.

While lagging some years behind events overseas it is also the case that Australian state and Commonwealth governments, at least in terms of rhetoric, are embracing school choice by introducing programmes to give government schools increased flexibility and autonomy.

Whether Western Australia, Victoria, NSW or Queensland, where the Liberal National Party, if elected, has promised to give state schools greater freedom, the reality is that governments of both political persuasions are championing the benefits of freeing schools from external constraint.

While opposed by self-serving groups like the Australian Education Union (AEU), a union that appears more concerned about maintaining its stranglehold over government schools than lifting standards, the consensus is that autonomy and choice strengthen outcomes and better serve school communities.


Local research by Gary Marks, at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) concludes that Catholic and independent schools outperform government schools even after adjusting results for students' socioeconomic background.

Marks' research is supported by two researchers at Curtin University who, in a recent paper published in the 'Australian Economic Review' conclude that non-government schools achieve higher results compared to government schools even "after differences in schools' ICSEA are taken into account" (ICSEA is a measure of a school's socioeconomic profile).

A significant characteristic of non-government schools, compared to state schools, is that they have greater control over staffing, budgets, curriculum and school culture. The fact that governments around Australia are now allowing state schools to enjoy similar freedoms proves how beneficial and effective autonomy can be.

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The above is a summary of a keynote paper to be delivered by Dr Kevin Donnelly at a forthcoming international conference on school choice in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A version of this was published in The Australian on January 10, 2012.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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