From the President: Managerial vs professional autonomy
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 124 No 5, 5 July 2019, page no. 7
Governments around the world have spent the best part of the past three decades attempting to “legislate” schools into autonomy when all that is needed is a change of mind – or so it would seem.
The Independent Public Schools (IPS) initiative in Queensland came in for significant criticism in the review conducted in 2018. Immediate changes to the Department of Education’s human resources practices and trials of revised classified teacher relocation and teacher transfer processes are the most obvious results. The QTU is working with other stakeholders in our education system to implement the remaining recommendations of the report, with one key element being defining and reimagining autonomy in Queensland schools.
Perhaps the most significant claim for the success of IPS revealed in the 2018 review is the empowerment principals felt from a combination of admission to the initiative and department attitudes to allowing decision-making and innovation. This claim is counter-balanced by universal acknowledgement that IPS actually have no greater authority or capacity to make decisions than any other school in our system. Why then did they feel empowered?
One concerning trend arising from the IPS initiative was the misinterpretation surrounding roles and responsibilities in industrial relations issues and people management practices. From an early stage, following the defeat of the Newman government, the incoming Labor government codified the IPS initiative into a policy framework which included explicit statements around the obligations of IPS to comply with all legislation, government policy and department policy and procedures, and that IPS were a part of and owed allegiance to the Queensland education system.
The QTU, and other public sector unions active in schools, spent an inordinate amount of resources on challenging bad decisions by some IPS leaders that disregarded this absolute expectation of the employer. In many cases, department managers were reluctant to deal with the consequences, instead relying on a catch-all “they are IPS” excuse.
One key outcome of the trials of changed human resource processes is that all schools in the system are required to participate in those processes equally. The “privileges” of IPS in the human resource sphere have been removed and the work now is to ensure that practice and policy align.
We so often hear certain advocates for a particular type of autonomy argue that it is innately good for schools, and so they must be made to embrace autonomy for their own good. Initial debate at the department’s IPS steering committee veered into dangerous territory by being focused on redeveloping a “legislative” framework to essentially impose managerial autonomy on schools.
The alternative proposition, which is now gaining acceptance, is that autonomy is about professional decision-making – the hard-to-measure attitudes and culture of a system that unlock its potential. How else do you explain the lived experience of schools that have almost no difference in operating principles yet can still claim and demonstrate significant differences in behaviour?
At the core of this idea, and the QTU’s thinking, is the concept of collective professional autonomy. The autonomy to make decisions about the issues that matter to the students we teach within a framework of collective accountability premised on the principles of all public sector entities.
At the outset, the pre-conditions for realising such a change to our system look daunting. We need to be trusted as professionals to make the right choices for the right reasons. The appropriate accountability is to be able to justify those decisions to student, parents, school leaders and the system. Trust in the system is at an all-time low ebb in our profession and many of the workload pressures driving teachers and principals to despair manifest in micromanagement of even simple requirements and the obsession with data.
Recent experiences during our QTU Principal Union Representative professional exchanges in Canada show that there is another way in practice in analogous school systems. Our notions of “letting teachers teach and letting leaders lead” have been mighty close to the mark on this issue and underpin classroom/school practice in several Canadian provinces. More needs to be done to develop these concepts into a new paradigm.
The QTU has led debate on the issue of autonomy for a long time, but almost always from an oppositional standpoint. A major component of the 2019 QTU Biennial Conference was a professional issues panel focused on autonomy. Our purpose was to be inspired by thinkers on the subject of autonomy and then to workshop a framework for developing a comprehensive response by the QTU to the question of what autonomy in Queensland schools should look like.
All that remains then is to change peoples’ minds…