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Despite location, no school is an island

What can we learn from countries that have devolved school management? The Australian state of Victoria has more than 1,600 public schools. From the tiniest to the largest, from cottage to castle, all are self-managing. Each has a council, each principal chooses the staff, the school decides on curriculum and programmes, and it enrols students from anywhere (except in high-demand catchments).

The Government does not supply teachers and administrative staff. It provides funds (credit and cash), and schools do the rest. A variable price per student determines the level of funding, adjusted for stage of schooling and supplemented for rurality and equity. It is probably true that none of the 1,600 principals wants to return to yesteryear.

They have matured in a system which requires active leadership, and they are more than able as a group to exercise it.

This is just as well. For in a system that contains a great many heavily- subsidised private and denominational schools, Victoria's public schools do not compete on an even playing field. Some are well located and expert at what they do. They have grown. Others serve the poor and vulnerable. They often lose their best pupils to the non-government sector. Devolved management in a "mixed" system creates big risks.

Upmarket academic schools have built up a strong resource base. Their parents all pay levies, they enrol international students (full fees), they attract all the specialist staff they need, and scale economies give them a large margin of resource flexibility, releasing teachers from the timetable to deliver other services and programmes.

Downmarket schools often struggle to maintain their rolls. They have the least flexibility, despite having the most demanding pupils. Finding the right staff is difficult, and those who do join them may not be well trained or experienced. It is one thing to have the freedom to choose staff, another thing to have well-trained staff to choose from.

Poorer schools pay the price for subsidised private schools. For these absorb the funds that are needed to compensate for deprivation and also absorb many cultural resources (pupils and their parents) from other schools. Self-management would work much better if the school system as a whole were less open to strategies of private advantage and corporate domination.

This is a risk all systems face, including those like Scotland that have only a relatively small private sector. For while devolution is intended to boost quality and equity through localised management (and possibly governance), it also enables schools and their most influential parents to exploit locational advantage, narrow the curriculum, select the most academic children and reject the rest for other schools to manage.

The state government in Victoria has recognised that self-management alone will not reduce the marked achievement gaps which separate rich and poor. It has strengthened regional administrations (in the absence of a local government role); it has created district networks to pool experience and support; and it has invested significant additional resources in schools, networks and regional offices. It has gradually recovered some of the leverage it lost with devolution. Today, there is tougher accountability. Autonomy now has to be "earned". But there is also more support, including more dedicated or targeted support.

Scotland is a different system. Should it devolve management and governance? That depends on the problems which have to be solved. Governments tire of running systems which don't work. If only systems would work well all by themselves, what relief for politicians. Responsibility is like energy: it cannot be destroyed, only exchanged. Since communities have transferred responsibility to government to create efficient and fair systems, they must wonder why it is returning to them now, especially when resources are being withdrawn, as if this too were a law of physics.

Their bewilderment must surely be greater, seeing that Scotland's schools do work well. Or was the list of strengths that the OECD examiners provided false? Solutions are a great embarrassment when they cannot find their problems. What is devolution meant to solve in Scotland and how will that happen? Is Scotland so impatient to import not only solutions, but the problems that go with them?

If there are many lessons to be learnt from how self-managing systems work - and for whom? - there is one that is unforgettable. A school is responsible not only for its own pupils, but for those in other schools. It must not injure them through the liberties that devolution creates. No school is an island. All are exposed to the actions of others.

Devolution must not turn into a licence for predatory behaviour. Education is a public service, which means we have collective responsibility for every child, not only those in our immediate care. If there can be no orphans in education, there can be no orphanages in an education system.

Richard Teese was rapporteur for the 2007 OECD study of Scottish schooling. He is director of the centre for post-compulsory education and lifelong learning at the University of Melbourne.

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