Among the turmoil generated by COVD19 for schools – are they open, are they closed, staggered attendance, online learning – and significant planning and workload on schools leaders and educators, the New South Wales Auditor-General released a report reviewing needs-based equity funding under the NSW Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) reform.
The timing of the release was perhaps curious however the reaction to the report from public school principals was loud and immediate.
The Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) reform was introduced in 2012 in NSW by the NSW Coalition Government. It gave public school principals new powers to spend funds and make local decisions. In 2014 extra needs-based funding was allocated directly to many disadvantaged NSW public schools to for them to spend on the unique needs of their students.
Lack of accountability
The NSW Auditor-General’s report highlighted a lack of accountability for funds being spent. The report found that the NSW Department of Education “has not had adequate oversight of how schools are using needs-based funding to improve student outcomes since it was introduced in 2014.” And it accused the department of not being “able to effectively demonstrate the impact” of equity funding.
This is consistent with recent political pushes reported in mainstream media where political leaders suggested public school principals needed to earn their autonomy and that extra funding has not delivered better results.
Reaction to the report of “lack of accountability”
In response to the Auditor-General’s report and newspaper articles on the topic, many principals took to social media with stories of what accountability under Local Schools, Local Decisions was like for them.
Examples teachers gave of what funds were used for included hiring paraprofessionals to provide tuition for students, subscriptions to software programs to support student learning, updating technologies and learning spaces, resources (e.g., science equipment, textbooks, calculators, musical instruments, and novels), additional counsellors, and professional learning for staff to be meet the needs of students in the school.
These are hardly extravagant and as mentioned in the tweet, all auditable by the system.
Our project on School Autonomy and Social Justice
The NSW Auditor-General’s report and the reaction of NSW public school principals was of particular interest to us. We are a group of educational researchers conducting extensive research across four Australian states in order to generate an evidence base and new knowledge around the impact of greater autonomy in our school systems. The ongoing tension we are currently witnessing between oversight of spending and the freedom to deliver context-sensitive solutions, is consistent with data we have generated as part of our ongoing Australian Research Council funded project on School Autonomy and Social Justice.
Our interviews with principals
While bureaucrats and politicians bemoan the lack of explicit accounting for dollars spent and direct links to impact and performance, school principals and educators are spending more and more time on administration and accounting for activities.
Interviews with principals and principal groups in our research project have reported numerous concerns with increased workload and burdensome administrative accountabilities (compliance) under Local Schools, Local Decisions. In addition, there has been the reduction in systemic supports for the work of schools. For example, some responses we collected include:
There are a lot of people in principal positions now who feel pressured to comply with everything, all the time. They are being pursued by people in the department. They are being pushed. And the stress levels have gone up enormously. People are burning out…people are having nervous breakdowns; people are drinking too much. And that’s something the department should be concerned about. I don’t see that level of concern. They just lay on more and more requirements that go against the spirit of autonomy. (Erin)
So much has got pushed back on the schools that principals were just coming apart at the seams. (Charles)
So, I think burnout is a big issue and health and well-being is a really big issue (Ursula)
Well part of the issue for principals is there is so much work…it’s the emotional labour…quite often because of the way they have to operate, quite often they are isolated. (Ursula)
The role is now sort of 24/7 principal…you have got to be contactable at all times; and you have got to manage situations when they pop up. (Russell)
There’s a lot more compliance, policy implementation that’s mandated…because there’s no consultation to it, there’s no feedback, or the famous thing when we’re doing policy implementation review – “look the deadline for that is tomorrow, can you get your feedback on that policy by 4pm tomorrow?” and you are ‘well I am just trying to stay afloat here at the moment’ (Russell)
The high stakes of achieving equity
There are very few who disagree that context matters in schools. And there are very few who disagree that those closest to students and schools should be making decisions on how best to meet educational needs. However, the tensions for school principals in terms of increased autonomy, compliance and accountability with public funds remains difficult to balance. This is particularly important when the equity funds are to alleviate disparities for disadvantaged schools and communities and are not necessarily ‘extra’ funding above what public schools need.
Granting additional funds to compensate for social disadvantage while reducing systemic supports means that the schools needing to do the most work to achieve a socially just education are left with a higher share of the burden. Generating more administration and compliance further takes educators and school leaders away from the work that matters – providing high quality education to all students.
Delivering a high-quality equitable education for all students is always a challenging task. The diversity of communities makes a one-size-fits-all solution next to impossible. Finding the balance between systemic supports and local context-sensitive initiative remains the desired utopia of school autonomy reforms.
The stakes are high. Australia is often considered to have an inequitable school system and finding an approach that delivers high-quality context-sensitive schooling is the key to addressing inequities.
Scott Eacott is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. His research interests and contributions fall into three main areas: i) developing a relational approach to scholarship; ii) educational leadership; and iii) school reform. You can find out more about his work at scotteacott.com. Scott is on Twitter @ScottEacott
Richard Niesche is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. His research interests are in the areas of educational leadership, the principalship and social justice in education. He has published his research in a number of peer reviewed journal and books. His latest book (co-edited with Dr Amanda Heffernan) is “Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research” published with Routledge in 2020. Richard can be found on Twitter @RichardNiesche
This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190100190) with Deakin University as the administering organisation. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or Australian Research Council. Other investigators include Prof Amanda Keddie (Deakin), Prof Jill Blackmore (Deakin), Prof Jane Wilkinson (Monash), Dr Brad Gobby (Curtin), and Dr Katrina MacDonald (Deakin).