Barry O'Farrell's Local Schools, Local Decisions will affect our kids in more ways than we are being told. Despite the political rhetoric, devolution is not all it's made out to be.
An attempt at devolving authority to schools in the United States and Britain has not worked. Despite the popularity of academies in Britain and charter schools in the US, these types of self-managing schools consistently fail to improve student learning outcomes.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says that what truly makes an education system thrive is principals having autonomy over school curricula and assessments. Interestingly, while NSW principals will be given new powers over staffing and budget, they have not been given powers to set their schools' curricula or assessments. The prospect of receiving these powers seems even less likely with the rise of NAPLAN and the push for a national curriculum.
A glance at two evaluation reports of the ''47 Schools Pilot'', a recent two-year pilot of the reforms, paints an even bleaker picture. Of the 47 participating schools, 20 lost both student enrolments and staffing entitlement. In addition, 171 permanent teaching positions were filled by temporary teachers on short-term contracts.
Mr O'Farrell claims that this reform is about delivering what principals have wanted for years - authority to make decisions at the local level, and principals say they welcome this new flexibility. It overcomes the archaic ''one-size-fits-all'' model of operating and gets bureaucrats out of their schools when they simply don't understand the unique needs of students in their community.
Is this a good thing?
To some extent, yes. It's commonsense to say that localised authority and decision-making is important in enhancing democracy and grassroots participation - something that other devolution policies tried to achieve decades ago.
But this new devolution is radically different. It is based on a political agenda of economic efficiency and competition between schools, which is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. In a system where schools already fiercely compete for students, academic marks and other resources, inequity will be rife.
Local Schools, Local Decisions will also give principals power to choose up to 50 per cent of their staff, up from the present 10 per cent. This power aims to ensure that principals select the best teachers to deliver education to our kids. Principals and parents don't want remote bureaucrats making these decisions.
But should we be putting this extraordinary power into the hands of principals? Many principals will say they are more capable of making these decisions. In addition, they will tell you that interview panels are made up of well-trained members who each have a say over which teacher is the ''best fit'' for the school.
However, speak to other principals and they will question the interview process altogether.
Perhaps Mr O'Farrell needs to revisit this selection method if panels will now be making 40 per cent more of the staffing decisions.
Staffing decisions will also be made in the face of an ever-increasing principal workload. Research has already shown that principals who have worked under such reforms tend to take on responsibilities never before part of their job description.
Under the 47 Schools Pilot, many principals could cope only when they had the support of a newly hired business manager.
So, will the Department of Education provide every school with a business manager?
Or will schools have to draw on already limited resources for an ongoing position with no educational focus?
While Local Schools, Local Decisions is unlikely to worsen the staffing situation of ''hard-to-staff'' schools in the most disadvantaged areas of the state, they will not be better off.
Principals in these schools face chronic challenges attracting and retaining quality teachers. It is a common tale that young teachers will get their training in a ''hard-to-staff'' school, accrue enough incentive transfer points for their service, then pack up after two or three years and move to the coast or North Sydney.
The worrying thing is that neither schools nor the Department of Education have ever come up with the formula to attract people to and encourage them to stay in an ''undesirable'' location. This problem will be compounded when the National Partnerships and Priority Schools funding that low socio-economic schools receive from the Commonwealth runs out soon.
The reforms have failed to ensure that experienced quality teachers are delivered to and remain in schools all over the state.
There is a reason Local Schools, Local Decisions has been challenged head-on with stop-work meetings, strikes and general public outcry. Mr O'Farrell needs to listen to what concerned principals, teachers and parents are saying about a reform policy driven entirely by political and economic concerns.
Mihajla Gavin is an honours student in work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney.
The story In a debate about schools, why aren't lessons being learnt? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.