Independence down under

South Australia and the impact of the National Policy Agenda

By Garry Le Duff

The Association of Independent Schools of South Australia (AISSA) – formerly the Independent Schools Board – was formed in 1974 to represent, promote and protect the interests of independent schools in South Australia.

The AISSA is recognised as the umbrella body for the independent school sector in South Australia. It provides a forum for debate on significant policy issues and plays a significant leadership role in providing advice and information, representing individual schools and the sector, and shaping change across the sector.

The AISSA provides a wide range of services to its member schools covering the following key areas:

  • curricula, from preschool to senior secondary education
  • funding
  • human resources, including industrial relations
  • legislation and regulations
  • legal matters
  • school governance
  • information and communication technology
  • school leadership development
  • promotion of the independent school sector to the community and overseas
  • compliance and risk management
  • management of government-funded programmes such as literacy and numeracy.

The AISSA’s structure provides opportunities for school leaders and various interest groups within the independent schools’ sector to discuss and formulate policies and strategies that enhance the distinctive characteristics of independent schooling.

Independent school sector profile

There are 95 independent schools in South Australia, which educate approximately 44 500 students (17% of total school enrolments). These schools are characterised by their local governance and management arrangements. The majority of schools are affiliated to a particular church; for instance, Anglican, Lutheran, Uniting Church. In addition, there are several schools that base their education programmes on a particular educational philosophy, such as Steiner or Montessori. Others are secular (see diagram 1). Catholic schools are administered by a separate central school system authority and are not members of the AISSA.

The AISSA draws strength from the diversity across the membership. Independence in the 21st century implies empowering school communities to develop a distinctive culture, to provide a learning environment in which individual children can feel safe and valued, to develop good governance practice, to implement effective and efficient approaches to decision-making, to foster particular approaches to teaching and learning, and to generate options to meet local needs and engage with the wider community.

Funding for independent schools

Independent schools in South Australia are funded from three key sources:

1. The Australian government provides a per-capita recurrent grant based on a socio-economic score (SES). This value is based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data. Schools with an SES of 85 and below receive 70% (AUS$6 788 per primary and AUS$8 382 per secondary student) of the average cost of educating a student in government schools (AGSRC). Schools with SES scores of 130 or above receive 13.7% of the AGSRC. This is described as a needs-based funding model.

2. The state government also provides public funds to independent schools on the basis of a per-capita allocation and additional funds based on the student profile and school needs, (Aboriginal, language background other than English, students with disabilities, fee remission for disadvantaged families, rural location, boarding students). On average, this totals approximately AUS$1 450 per student.

3. Parents and others in school communities contribute through fees and donations – on average, 45% of the total income. This contribution is significantly higher in some schools.

In addition to the above, the Australian government provides funds for specific programmes, particularly to assist disadvantaged students such as those with low levels of literacy and numeracy, students with disabilities and learning difficulties, students from non-English-speaking backgrounds, indigenous students and students from rural and remote areas.

The Australian government also provides grants to independent schools for capital works. This is distributed predominantly on the basis of ‘need’, which is determined by several socio-economic indicators. This source of funds complements the contribution of parents and other donors from school communities that contribute approximately 80% of funds for capital development.

All independent schools in South Australia, therefore, receive some level of government funding. This will vary according to the socio-economic profile of the school community and the profile of students attending each school. An increasing number of families from middle and low incomes are now able to access independent school education across South Australia.

Emerging national education agenda

While the education portfolio is a state responsibility, the Australian government is playing a significant role in shaping the policy that will direct the future of education and early childhood services. The principles underpinning the policies include ongoing improvement in school and student performance, greater public transparency about student and school performance, accountability for the use of public funds linked to educational targets (such as improved literacy and numeracy standards and increased school retention rates), the allocation of public funds to disadvantaged students, improvement in the quality of teaching and school leadership, and parental choice in schooling.

There have been some significant reforms introduced by the Australian government, including:

  • development of a national curriculum
  • development of online educational resources
  • national testing in literacy and numeracy
  • national regulation of early childhood services
  • development of national teacher education standards
  • the development of the MySchool website
  • funding of professional learning programmes for teachers and leaders
  • a wide range of strategies to enhance the quality of education for indigenous students
  • the empowering local schools project.

Implications for the independent school sector

Some of these initiatives have, no doubt, benefited school communities and disadvantaged students within the independent school sector. The school communities are appreciative of the government funds. However, the reforms and initiatives bring increasing levels of regulation and accountability that seem to be driving independent schools into a ‘one size fits all’ and ‘top-down’ education system. This trend conflicts with the fundamental strengths of the independent sector; in particular, the autonomy of school boards, the opportunity to align education to a particular school ethos and the diversity of education offered in each school.

We consider these characteristics to be fundamental to high-quality and high-performing school education. The AISSA has a key role in providing strong representation to governments and to the community about the strengths of the sector. It also engages in the key policy debates that seem to be shaping the future of education in Australia.

Convincing governments of the differences in the governance and management of independent schools compared to government system schools has been a particular challenge.

The loss of autonomy has emerged as a significant concern for independent school leaders, i.e. the capacity to shape and determine the future of each school within a particular ethos is diminishing. Pragmatically, most leaders would acknowledge that with the receipt of government funding comes some compliance requirements. However, the breadth and complexity of compliance arrangements seem to be creating a low-risk culture that diminishes the capacity to be innovative and to sustain community engagement. Perhaps a less-explicit outcome is the diminishing importance placed on building social relationships and voluntary commitment and the more significant role of regulation in shaping the characteristics of schools.

The challenge is: how can the independent school sector take a more proactive role in shaping the education policy agenda and demonstrating how the qualities of the sector can be embedded in future policy and reforms?

The AISSA is assisting schools to prepare their strategic plans for the future and to develop a culture of ongoing improvement through a comprehensive leadership development programme and professional development programme for teachers. School boards are also offered opportunities to undertake professional development in good governance; in particular, strategic planning, financial planning, risk management and board evaluation. These services are embedded in an overall strategy to build the organisational capacity of each school to lead change and to progress in a more complex regulatory context.

The AISSA regularly engages with members of parliament and uses the media to distribute positive stories about the contribution of independent schools to the wider community, and as a mechanism to convey the concerns of the sector about government education policy. At times, we also engage the services of expert consultants to prepare advocacy strategies.

Individual schools are exploring new career pathways for teachers, undertaking extensive reviews of their organisation, developing the skills of the school board and being more selective about participating in government-funded programmes. They are also supporting the AISSA in its advocacy role by meeting with members of parliament (state and national) to discuss their concerns about the trends in education policy and legislation.

Category: Winter 2012

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