Key messages: Victoria’s school system delivers generally good results for students, but its performance falls short of the world’s best systems. To lift the Victorian system into the top global tier in the next decade, the Government has signalled a further wave of school reforms focused on improving the quality of teaching and school leadership, and extending previous school autonomy initiatives.
The Commission was asked to contribute to this reform process by undertaking a public inquiry into the issues that arise in giving effect to a more autonomous and accountable school system and to analyse specific governance and accountability options. It found that increasing the degree of autonomy that schools have could contribute to realising the top tier performance goal — including by allowing schools to better tailor services to the needs of their students and school communities; and by helping to improve school leadership and teaching quality, the key drivers of better student outcomes.
However, for these benefits to be realised, a number of conditions must be met.
• The school system as a whole must have access to appropriate leadership skills.
• Principals must be able to focus on the things that matter for better student outcomes and not be hobbled by inflexible centralised controls or red tape.
• The governance framework must hold schools and principals to effective account; and ensure that the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) supports schools to operate autonomously, but does not control their day-day-operation.
Cognisant of the array of reforms underway in the schools area, the Commission is proposing a modest number of initiatives that target these requirements, including:
• initiatives to de-clutter the role of the principal and more sharply focus that role on improving the performance of students in the school
• a strategy to enhance the supporting role of the middle level of the school system in promoting collaboration and information sharing across schools
• an improved performance appraisal system for principals and teachers, and making more information on the performance of schools available to the public
• modification to school council arrangements to increase the capacity of councils to provide governance in a more autonomous system.
The Commission has also identified a range of constraints that will reduce the scope for principals to recruit and manage staff to best advantage in a more autonomous system, and indicated how these might, over time, be addressed.
And it has explored the benefits of establishing multi-school, independent, boards as a complementary, or alternative, governance framework for the new autonomy regime. It considers that this framework would have some significant advantages compared with one based on individual schools, and has proposed that the approach be explicitly tested in the governance review underway in DEECD.
As part of its analyses, the Commission has looked closely at the implications of a more autonomous school system for disadvantaged students. If the new regime is well implemented, disadvantaged students could benefit significantly. But this will require that there is effective leadership within schools; that funding supplementation for disadvantaged students recognises their higher needs; and that principals and schools are held to effective account for the learning outcomes of these students. These outcomes would also be examined as part of a wider proposed review of the new autonomy arrangements after 10 years of operation.