School Autonomy: Use Responsibly

fortunecookieThe old Chinese proverb, ‘be careful what you wish for’, comes to mind when thinking about the new autonomy agenda for schools.

With autonomy comes great responsibility. This can be said of many sectors but is particularly true for the work of schools. For the school leaders in our Catholic system, local school autonomy has traditionally been a feature of leading their school communities.

Strengthening local school autonomy is now a key agenda for governments – both state and federal – through the Local Schools, Local Decisions  initiative and the Empowering Local Schools (ELS) National Partnership.

The work of the Australian Institute for Teachers and School Leaders (AITSL), who released the first National Standard for Principals in 2011, is supporting the ELS national partnership through its flagship professional learning program, Local Leadership.

These initiatives aim to enable participating schools to make decisions within their local contexts in order to better meet the needs of their students and the school community, and lead the learning and teaching within their communities to improve the quality of teaching and students’ learning outcomes.

While the focus on strengthening local leadership is an important one, we must never mistake autonomy for independence. Schools, like all contemporary organisations, don’t exist in isolation. Isolation in the third millennium is death

Our school leaders have been fortunate over the last few years to work with Professor Michael Fullan to further develop our shared understanding of how to improve students’ learning across the system. Late last year, Michael – who has just received a prestigious and well-deserved Order of Canada for his work – spoke to our leaders about the concept of ‘systemness’. ‘Systemness’ has a few aspects to it, but is essentially the ‘buy in’ you get when individuals identify with the bigger picture.

Within the local school context, ‘systemness’ means each teacher isn’t just responsible for the learning of their own students, but for each and every student in their school. At the system level, ‘systemness’ means all schools work to improve the learning of each and every student across the system and so on.

Fullan says the importance of ‘systemness’ or system coherence is the shared mindset. Initiatives such as the ELS national partnership and frameworks like the AITSL standards are only as good as the people using them. We have to work to build the capacity of all colleague leaders and teachers across the system, not just focus on our own backyard.

Nine of our primary schools are taking part in the ELS national partnership funded by the federal government which runs for 18 months from mid-2012 to end of 2013, and will be followed by a year of evaluation in 2014.

In line with our own system strategic focus, the schools have formed a professional learning community (PLC) to challenge and support each other in decisions they make around improving school leadership, teacher and student performance with a particular focus on improving numeracy.

The PLC has discussed teacher goal setting practices and the importance of feedback and accountability to improving school leadership and teacher performance; and have established learning conversations around these lines of inquiry.

Each school is reflecting on their own school effectiveness through a variety of data (e.g. Quality Catholic Schooling data, NAPLAN, attendance rates, locally collected school data, etc); identifying areas of improvement; and asking the tough questions these present. This is then presented within the PLC to share reflections and test conclusions. It’s an iterative process. School leaders collaborate, share experiences and work together to find ways to best respond to changing circumstances for their own schools.

This is a practical example of what I call ‘enterprise schooling’ – our teachers and school leaders in this context are moving from isolation to connectedness from independence to interdependence. Our school communities have identified what is “core” for each and how this core can be strengthened by ongoing collaboration. In this core there are such things as personal responsibility  professional learning for all staff, commitment to an evidence base for improving student learning and teacher feedback to colleagues. How this is done in each context differs and gives a rich experience set for all.

This doesn’t negate local autonomy or responsibility, rather it strengthens it by providing opportunities to build capacity and benefit from the work of other school communities, while contributing to their learning as well. In a connected world, we have never needed interdependence more than we do now.

It’s imperative that… ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.

2 thoughts on “School Autonomy: Use Responsibly

  1. Greg again I am astounded by your clarity, Parramatta Diocese Catholic Schools are fortunate to have a leader who is able to reflect on the challengers and responsibilities we have has educators. It is also a credit to the schools who are taking on board the great work of Fullan and Torres in establishing PLC’s that are going to be challenging and supportive of the work of (AITSL). Debbie & I will certainly be interested in following the results and the autonomy of these schools throughout the course of 2013. John Galvin

    1. Thanks John it’s a system effort that I’m proud to say has been gaining momentum over the past 6 years. It’s extraordinary what can be achieved through openness, collaboration and a willingness to reflect critically on our work together.

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