Thursday, January 12, 2017

Kevin Donnelly: Canadians can learn from Australia about advantages of choice

Canada’s Fraser Institute is investigating the world’s education systems to identify and analyse the qualities and characteristics that can be used to strengthen and improve the nation’s province-based education systems.

As Australia and Canada are both federal systems with two levels of government, it makes sense to look at Australia and learn from our experience, especially given the similarities in our history, economy and the multicultural nature of our societies.

Australia is also worth investigating as we have one of the highest enrolment levels in non-government schools among OECD countries. The increasing involvement of the commonwealth in schools also provides a useful illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of centralising control over education policy.

With continuing debate both here and overseas about the best way to balance school autonomy and accountability, Australia also provides useful lessons on what needs to be done to ensure compliance without denying schools the ability to manage themselves.

One of the strengths of Australia’s education system is that it is a tripartite system where Catholic, independent and government schools all receive a degree of state and federal funding and support. Such financial support over the past 30 to 40 years has been ­accompanied by a significant rise in non-government school enrolments and greater opportunity for parents to exert school choice.

The fact that Australia has a robust non-government system, in addition to allowing parental choice, also leads to stronger education outcomes. Australia’s non-government schools outperform government schools (with the ­exception of selective government secondary schools) even after adjusting for the impact of students’ home background and socioeconomic status.

At a time of financial constraint and increasing fiscal ­responsibility, it is also significant — as non-government schools are only partially funded by ­governments — that this means ­billions of taxpayer dollars are saved each year.

One estimate puts the annual savings to governments, based on 2012-13 figures, at $8.7 billion. This represents the additional cost to state, territory and federal governments if all non-government students moved to the government school sector.

While critics such as the Australian Education Union, Save Our Schools’ Trevor Cobbold and ­activist Jane Caro argue against providing funding for non-government schools, their existence demonstrates that a market-­driven model of education delivery is preferable to a centralised, bureaucratic one where there is limited parental choice and school autonomy.

As argued by the University of Melbourne’s Brian Caldwell in the ­recently ­released book The Autonomy Premium, flexibility and freedom from a command and control ­approach lead to greater innovation and the ability to best reflect the needs of students and their communities.

After an extensive evaluation of Australian and overseas ­research, the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission reaches a similar conclusion. It ­argues that: “The debate is not in fact about whether there should be devolved decision-making. Rather it is about how far it should extend, through what means it should be given effect, and how to make sure schools are accountable for the decisions they make.”

The argument in favour of school autonomy and school choice is not restricted to Australia. Whether charter schools in the US, free schools in England, New Zealand’s partnership schools, Australia’s independent public schools and friskolor schools in Sweden, the leading edge of reform ­involves greater freedom at the local level.

There’s no doubt that Canada can learn from Australia’s tripartite system of school education, where all schools receive a level of state, territory and federal funding and where there is a strong history of non-government school autonomy.

At the same time, given the Canadian federal government has no control over schools, the increasing federal involvement in Australia provides the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of centralised control where there is less autonomy at the local level.

Since the Rudd-Gillard years, the federal government has ­increased its control of education in areas such as the national cur­riculum, national testing and ­national teacher certification and registration.

One example of Australia’s ­increasingly centralised attitude to education is the Australian ­National Curriculum across foundation to Year 10. Given that the new curriculum covers all major subjects and areas of learning, and its implementation is tied to federal funding, the danger is, if it is substandard and inflexible, all schools will suffer.

The challenge faced by Canada, illustrated by the Australian experience, is to balance school autonomy and school choice with external monitoring and ­accountability in such a way as to allow schools to innovate, to be flexible and to arrive at the most effective way to raise standards and strengthen outcomes.

Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of the Fraser Institute’s Regulation and Funding of Independent Schools: Lessons from Australia.

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