An update on independent public schools

School gateThe federal government has committed to assisting a quarter of the country's public schools to gain independent status by 2017. If you're wondering what this means for Australia's public education sector, read on as we set out to answer your questions.

What are independent public schools?

Australian public schools are funded and run by the state or territory government. This means the areas of finance, public accountability and hiring of staff are controlled by the relevant government, not by individual schools. The government's push for public schools to gain independence would see them remain within the government school system, but with greater autonomy to make decisions that reflect the needs of the school community similar to the private independent school model. Key to the independent public school initiative is the active involvement of community members and parents, who would help to ensure that schools provide an environment that is best suited to the needs of their student body.

How will schools change if they are granted independent status?

The major change to public schools that become independent is increased autonomy, resulting in improved ability to meet the needs of their respective communities. Other defining features of the government school system, including voluntary contributions and selection and enrolment procedures, will not change. Independent public schools will also continue to be funded by the state government.

Will all public schools become independent?

Although the federal government has encouraged schools across the country to gain independent status, the initiative is not proving popular in all states and territories. For example, while schools in Queensland and Western Australia have run independent public schools for some time, the New South Wales Government has openly opposed the move. The position of the remaining states is not yet clear. WA currently leads the nation with 255 independent public schools spread across the state. In Queensland, which is coming to the end of its first year of the initiative, 26 schools have been granted IPS status and a further 54 are slotted in for 2014. By 2015, it is expected that 120 Queensland schools will have gained ISP status. At this stage, it is expected that the transition to independent public school status will be a matter of choice for each individual school so long as the initiative is approved by the relevant state government.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of independent public schools?

The federal government has argued that granting public schools greater autonomy will improve student performance, in line with the goal of seeing Australia in the top five schooling systems by 2025. Key to this argument is that ˜schools are best run by those on the ground who can make decisions to deal with local issues', as voiced in the Coalition's pre-election education policy. Many have disagreed, including teachers' unions, who have shown concern that the independent public schools initiative is no more than a bid to disguise cost cutting and shift responsibility away from government. Likewise, a University of Melbourne study and fact checks conducted by the ABC and The Conversation have noted that there is little evidence to suggest that independent public schools provide better educational outcomes for students. With most research based on the outcomes of WA independent public schools, which began to transition to the model in 2010, it is not yet clear how student outcomes could be affected in the long term.

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