The Abbott Government’s policy of ‘independent public schools’ will lower standards and widen inequalities in Australian schools.

By Alan Reid

[NOTE:This is an edited version of the negative case against the Abbott Govt’s Independent Public Schools policy made by Alan Reid in his debate with Kevin Donnelly held at the Australian Curriculum Studies Association Symposium in Canberra on Friday August 1, 2014. Find a link to the full text  below.]

We enjoy a high quality public education system in Australia, however we should constantly be trying to raise education standards. There is always room for improvement, and we have a particular need to address educational disadvantage across our nation.

Importantly any educational policies we implement should benefit all, not some, Australian children and certainly should not take us backwards.

I believe the Abbott Government’s policy of  Independent Public Schools  (IPS)  is a flawed policy that will do exactly that. It is important to recognise that the concept of ‘independent public schools’ is not synonomous with the current model in Western Australia which carries the same name. Rather it is a broad concept which embodies the philosophy of choice and competition in an education free-market. There are various versions of IPS.

The central attribute of independent public schools is autonomy. From the case put by Kevin Donnelly (co-chair of Christopher Pyne’s  National Curriculum Review ) and from the literature on IPS, it is clear that autonomy can range from approaches which seek to fully privatise public schools, turning them into for-profit institutions run by companies, community bodies or individuals (Kevin Donnelly appears to be a great supporter of this notion of autonomy); to those which seek to maximise the ‘autonomy’ of the principal and the School Board to manage finances, allocate resources, appoint staff and maintain buildings and facilities, while remaining within a public system (this is Minister Pyne’s version).

What is common to both versions are the values of choice and competition. Parents and students are understood to be consumers making educational choices in a free-market. Principals and School Boards are charged with the task of maintaining and increasing market share. It is claimed that this fosters competition between schools as they vie for custom, so promoting educational quality.

I will argue that no matter which version is adopted, it will advantage some Australian children at the expense of others and will take us backwards in our quest to address educational disadvantage. Worse, I believe it will actually lower educational standards in Australia.


The idea of public schools being ‘independent’ is philosophically at odds with what lies at the core of public education.

Public schools are the cornerstone of our education system. They exist in every community in Australia and take all-comers. They are state-owned and funded from the taxes we pay, so they belong to all of us, helping to develop our young as individuals, community members, workers and citizens. Public schools are microcosms of the community at large, with students coming from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds. In this melting pot students are able to learn from and with one another about diversity and difference, and learn tolerance and empathy. In short, public schools promote the common good. Not to recognise this dimension of public schools is to miss the essence of public education.


The Independent Public Schools policy will cause real damage to our system of public education, and lower educational standards for the following reasons:-

1. It establishes public schools as businesses. The purpose is to compete to advance the interests of the school regardless of the impact on other schools. The fact is that public schools are not businesses. They are community goods serving public purposes. When they operate as full or quasi-businesses, the most successful are rewarded, and the least successful – invariably those with the least cultural and financial resources – go to the wall. In this way, an IPS agenda confirms and exacerbates inequalities between schools.

A lot of time and money is spent on publicity and marketing at the expense of educational outcomes. This sets up principals as employers, marketers and business managers, rather than as educational leaders.

2. It allows governments to escape their responsibilities by placing greater burdens on schools, often reducing resources while setting performance targets, and then blaming schools if they are not achieved. It also exponentially raises workload as things previously done centrally or by regions are done by Principals and teachers.

3. It destroys the sense of local community engagement with each school, not just the parent community but also where the school uses the community as a learning resource and for community activities. When parents choose schools far away from the local community in which they reside the link between public schools and their local communities is weakened. It encourages parents to simply leave a school when there are perceived issues, rather than stay, work through the issues, and help to build the school.

4. It promotes schools as stand-alone entities rather than as belonging to a system. True public schools aren’t independent, they are networked; and they cooperate to build a quality public system overall, not compete to create a system where there are shining beacons of success sitting alongside schools which are struggling or failing. True public schools are fuelled by a sense of mutual obligation, not self-interest.


Not all autonomy is bad.

I support autonomy where it means providing greater flexibility for schools (eg., greater curriculum freedom), but within a set of values which are consistent with a public system which fosters the common good. Flexibility can be used by each school to maximise educational quality in the school, but also to collaborate across schools to make better schools and a better system for all.


So where is the evidence that Independent Public Schools will improve standards?

IPS is a policy in search of evidence. To start there are significant issues associated with the research methodology used by those promoting IPS.  It is not sufficient to google a few studies which appear to support a pre-determined position, without evaluating the rigour of that research and the ways in which it is used.

Problems with the research methodology

I make the following points about the evidence that Kevin Donnelly has proffered:

Kevin doesn’t bother to differentiate between different forms of autonomy. He simply draws from and generalises across the autonomy continuum, randomly using examples from fully privatised public school models to quasi-private models. This is problematic, to say the least.

Kevin generalises from research conducted in a range of countries and cultures assuming that if it works in one context it will work in another. This of course is a basic research error. There are real problems in taking research findings from one cultural setting and transferring them to a completely different policy approach in another cultural setting, as though the findings are tablets of undeniable wisdom which are universally applicable.

Most of the researchers that Kevin quotes (eg Hanushek, Woessmann, Hoxby, Fuchs) are not educators – they are Professors of Economics. Invariably the research is statistical where the sole measure of education quality is narrow standardised test results – it tells us nothing about key aspects of education quality such as the nature of relationships, school environment or community engagement, let alone learning areas such as the arts and technology.

The most damning flaw is that Kevin assumes correlation implies causation. He seems to think that wherever there is a ‘good’ educational outcome in the presence of school autonomy, then there is a causal relationship, even if that has not been the focus of the research. This is a grievous research error.

These research flaws are significant issues for public policy claiming to be ‘evidence-based’. However, for the sake of the debate, let’s assume that such research does tell us something about the effects of autonomy that can be applied in Australia.  Even then the evidence doesn’t stack-up.


Claims there is international evidence in support of IPS are wrong

When announcing the IPS policy, Minister Pyne claimed that there was international evidence, based on PISA data, which supports greater autonomy for schools. In fact, that research actually shows that:

….school systems that grant more autonomy to schools to define and elaborate their curricula and assessments tend to perform better than systems that don’t grant such autonomy…. In contrast, greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall performance’ (PISA 2009 Results: What Makes Schools Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices, Vol. 4: 52).

This of course is the complete opposite to what Minister Pyne is proposing. In his policy the focus is on managing budgets and resources. Far from giving more curriculum freedom as the PISA research suggest should happen, schools must conform to state and national system-wide curriculum guidelines.


Clearly the PISA research won’t help the IPS case. So what other international evidence is there?

Kevin uses overseas examples of school ‘autonomy’ in places as varied as the United States, UK, and Africa. In the main, this evidence comes from the extreme ‘privatising public education’ end of the autonomy continuum. This includes models like Charter schools in the United States and Free Schools in England and Sweden, where governments have outsourced the operation of public schools to private corporations, individuals, community organisations, and so on. These schools seek to attract students from traditional public schools across large areas of cities, promising miraculous results.

Well, at best there is mixed evidence that these schools improve educational outcomes; and a lot of evidence about a number of troubling long term effects of unbridled autonomy, not the least of which is that it tends to exacerbate educational inequality. I can give you examples from each of the countries Kevin has named, but I will largely confine myself to Charter schools in the US.


United States: Charter Schools

Charter schools in the US receive public funding but are bound by an individual school charter and not by government regulations that apply to state schools. Started about 25 years ago, they are run by education management organisations and not-for-profit groups. They have sought to reduce costs by hiring less experienced teachers; paying teachers and staff less, increasing class sizes, and standardising curriculum. Many pride themselves as having a ‘back to basics’ approach, with constant assessment and performance pay for teachers. By 2012, there were approximately 6000 charter schools with over 2 million students in the US.

It is precisely because the charter sector is comprised of thousands of different entities, it is difficult to generalise about them. They range from schools which run like boot camps, to those which boast progressive pedagogies of the sort despised by Kevin.

As usual, the studies rely on standardised test results. In terms of student learning outcomes, the best that can be said about Charter schools is that the results are very mixed.

Most studies conclude that on average the scores on standardised tests are no different if charter schools and public schools enrol the same kinds of children.

In 2009, the performance of Charter Schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia was assessed by researchers at the Centre for Research on Educational Outcomes (Credo). They found that:

..a decent fraction of charter schools, 17%, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the Charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options, and over a third, 37%, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realised had they remained in traditional public schools.

This report was consistent with the results of five independent government reports completed between 2003 and 2007. It is possible to find studies which show that Charter schools have improved educational outcomes, such as research by Caroline Hoxby in New York, and the most recent CREDO report (2013), but the research methods used by both have come under strong criticism. However, for every piece of research that Kevin cites, I can produce research which shows the opposite. For these reasons it is pointless to cherry pick research to make the case one way or the other, without looking at the rigour of the research. You can’t just google and quote.


The adverse effects of Charter schools which have become big business in the US.

But the research is clear about the adverse effects of Charter Schools which have become big business in the US. A number have started up for-profit chains (e.g., KIPP, GULEN, EDISON), franchising education like Kentucky Fried Chicken. This may not worry Kevin, but it truly worries me, not least because the research tells us that in order to turn a profit many Charter schools engage in practices which would not be tolerated in a public education system serving the common good. For example:

In order to attract custom and improve results, many exclude the weakest students, and enrol lower proportions of disability students and English language learners than traditional public schools. One Charter school in Washington DC had an expulsion rate 28 times as high as the local public schools.

Many hire unqualified teachers, and spend more on administration and less on teaching than traditional public schools.

A number have been mixed up in shady real estate deals, and been closed down because of corruption, embezzlement or bankruptcy.


A number of research studies demonstrate that Charter schools diminish three of the most powerful characteristics of public education: diversity, community and collaboration.

First, they tend to segregate by race and class.  Charter schools are more racially segregated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the US. In some areas white students are overrepresented in charter schools while in other charter schools Black and Hispanic students have little exposure to white students.

Second, they destroy local community involvement in public schools as children travel across cities to get to their school of choice.

Third, they have severed any sense of a supportive public system. In an era of high stakes testing, Charter Schools compete, not collaborate with, their public school peers.


The failure of Free Schools, a similar model, in the United Kingdom.

Three years ago the UK Minister of Education, Michael Gove established hundreds of Free Schools citing the usual claims that giving principals the power to hire and fire staff, would cause standards to rise. In fact, it seems to be going the other way. A recent OFSTED report shows that the failure rate of free schools is running at three times the national average for state-funded schools. Overall about 78% of state schools are rated as good or outstanding by OFSTED, compared with 68% of Free Schools.


Tomorrow’s Schools in New Zealand are not a success story.

Kevin cites the highly devolved New Zealand model, Tomorrow’s Schools, as a success. Leading New Zealand researcher Dr Cathy Wylie (the Head of Research at the NZCER) argues that the self-managing schools model has not resulted in any significant gains in student achievement, new approaches to learning, or greater equality of opportunity since it started in 1989. Instead it has had a number of predictable deleterious effects, such as:

  • creating a system of fragmented schools, where self-interest is dominant;
  • creating competition between schools making it harder for those schools at the bottom of the local competition market;
  • making the principal largely a business leader rather than an educational leader managing property and finances, and marketing;
  • maintaining and widening large gaps in student achievement between rich and poor, with no gains in student achievement overall.

Wiley suggests a return to more central and regional support for schools in New Zealand.


Lack of Australian evidence that school autonomy improves outcomes.

What of the Australian research evidence? The Grattan Institute whose previous reports Minister Pyne has quoted enthusiastically, has published a research report which explores the claims about school autonomy and concludes that:

On autonomy, Australia and other countries have the wrong strategy. The world’s best systems have varying levels of autonomy. But it is not central to their reforms. …..Autonomous schools in Australia and other countries are no better at implementing these programs than are centralised schools (from Myth of Markets).

The same conclusion has been reached in a number of other Australian studies. The Productivity Commission’s 2013 report reviewed the literature on autonomy and found ‘… mixed impacts from delegating decision-making authority to schools’; and that greater autonomy for schools is associated with an exacerbation of inequalities.

Kevin has given us another angle on the Australian evidence – the claim that private schools perform better in terms of student outcomes than public schools, and that this can be put down to their greater level of ‘autonomy’. Not only has he again attributed causation by simple correlation without the research evidence, but his basic premise is wrong.

Recent Australian studies contest the premise. Chris Ryan for example in a research study published last year in the Economics of Education Review examines the decline in student achievement as measured by PISA results over the last decade, and found that declines in maths and reading literacy were more apparent in private schools than in state schools.

Other studies – such as Luke Connolly’s research using the 2008 and 2010 NAPLAN results of 15,000 year 5 students and 11,000 year 3 students have found that the NAPLAN scores of students from Catholic and other private schools did not statistically differ from those in public schools – after controlling for factors like household income, health indicators and parent education levels.


The West Australia’s model of ‘independent public schools’ is not evidence that IPS works.

At first, Minister Pyne claimed IPS had improved student outcomes in Western Australia. Howevere Melbourne University was commissioned last year to conduct an evaluation of the early years of the IPS reform. Their report stated very clearly that up to now ‘… there is little evidence of changes to students outcomes …’ (and indeed they reported many teachers saying that there had been ‘no change in teaching practice’ since their school had become ‘independent’).

Undeterred by this set-back, Minister Pyne recently turned to his latest evidential life-boat – the small increase in the proportion of students attending public schools in Western Australia which he claims points to the success of IPS. But once again the evidence fails him.

The fact is that over the past three years the mining boom in WA has produced an estimated increase in the population of about 1500 per week, with a consequent increase in the school population of about 10,000 per year. It is this increase which has produced the growth in numbers in public schools, not IPS. And the increase has been across the board in schools which are non-IPS and IPS. Grasping at disconnected fragments of evidence to justify already-determined policy is not the way educational policy should be made.



Treating public education as though it is a business designed to make profits rather than a public good which benefits the entire community is to betray its essence. The strength of our public schools depends on their collectivity, cohesion, connection to community, collaboration, and diversity. Destroying these characteristics will not raise standards, it must lower them and widen the inequalities which currently exist in our schools and the wider society. The policy of IPS could irreparably harm our public education system which is so central to the development of Australian society and its democracy.


alanreid-1 copy  Alan Reid

This is an edited version of the negative case made by Alan Reid in his debate with Kevin Donnelly held at the ACSA Symposium in Canberra on Friday August 1, 2014. Find the full text  HERE

Professor Alan Reid AM is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include education policy, curriculum change, social justice and education, and the history and politics of public education. He has published widely in these areas and gives many talks and papers to professional groups, nationally and internationally. Alan presented the Radford Lecture at the AARE annual conference in December 2012.



3 thoughts on “The Abbott Government’s policy of ‘independent public schools’ will lower standards and widen inequalities in Australian schools.

  1. Dr Kevin Donnelly says:

    At least Professor Reid uses the weasel words “appears to support” privatising school education when referring to the arguments I have put over the years. As I told him during the debate – I do not support schools being privatised and run for profit and loss.

  2. Alan Reid says:

    Kevin – I am puzzled then, as to why the evidence you use to make an argument for school ‘autonomy’ comes largely from privatised models of public education. This includes Charter schools in the US (many of which are for profit) and Free Schools in the UK. You also constantly refer to James Tooley and his research on low fee, for profit, private schools in Africa as an example of how school autonomy promotes quality. If you oppose these privatised models, why do you cite them so favourably in a debate about ‘independent public schools’ in Australia?

  3. Careful assessment and negotiations are needed to be made by educators, passionate educational leaders so that the outcomes will be tailored to suit individual needs and differences

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