Gradual autonomy needed in schools

Rachel Davies ,  Contributor ,  Sydney   |  Wed, 08/27/2008 10:31 AM  |  Supplement

The process of internationalization of Indonesia’s education leads to many different inputs and methods of bringing about change. One of these is the increasing autonomy that schools can exercise and so the possibility of a school that is based on “school-based management”.

School-based management seems to be a popular concept with many segments of the Indonesian population. Parents are apparently responsive to it, perhaps because they have been frustrated with the way in which schools have been run. Some principals and their teachers are positive about it too, as they see opportunities to better control their work environment and school owners/managers are pleased with the chance that they now have for freedom to act.

Many people are, then, positive and responsive to the possibility of implementing school-based management, but the possibility does not necessarily mean that they have the potential to successfully implement this approach to schools. The possibility of entering into school-based management does not secure the probability of such schools necessarily delivering a better package of education.

The question of readiness is absolutely critical here. How many schools in Indonesia are ready to actually manage their affairs with independence from a supervisory body? The hard but truthful answer is that really very few schools in Indonesia are sufficiently well equipped to handle such a huge responsibility.

In truth also, it should be recognized that all over the world really very few schools possess the levels of knowledge and skill required to be so self-determining and independent of supervision. To successfully implement a school-based management model for a school much expertise is required and most particularly this expertise is required in the areas of human resources.

Again, the truth can be hard to face but the truth is that the vast majority of Indonesian schools lack sufficient human resources under their current circumstances. Putting further responsibilities onto their shoulders would amount to too much weight and they could simply crumble and collapse under the weight and fail students and their parents.

One of the, in theory, most attractive aspects of school-based management is the possibility of schools developing their own curricula and being able to select their own textbooks for use by the students. Obviously the selection and provision of textbooks has been a bone of contention previously across Indonesia, so freeing schools from the burden of having to use a particular textbook that they probably did not want to use anyway could be seen as a good thing.

However, even if we see school-based management as a way of getting away from unwanted collusive and corrupt practices in supplying textbooks that have dogged schools till now, caution is still very necessary. The selection of textbooks is not an insignificant or easy task and collusion and corruption can still be present where schools are entrusted to make their own selections.

Textbooks are very closely allied to the curriculum that a school implements as the backbone of its educational provision and thus the selection of appropriate textbooks must work hand-in-hand with the curriculum. Another feature of school-based management that seems to be appreciated is the possibility of schools developing their own curricula, but this is truly a massive burden.

The level of expertise and breadth, depth and overview of knowledge that curriculum development requires is not something that is going to be commonly held within schools. If schools are to possess this knowledge and expertise they will need time to develop it. A curriculum that has originality and a school can promote as the product of its independence resulting from school-based management, is not created overnight or even in a matter of weeks or months.

The attractiveness and temptation to choose school-based management may lead some schools to suggest that they are opting out of the national curriculum and doing something independently from the state school system, but this is where vigilance is really required. Schools that do get this “freedom” could intentionally or even unintentionally abuse and misuse this freedom. Without a supervisory or guiding authority the school could fail to provide appropriate standards.

Rather than just letting go and allowing schools what could amount to too much freedom, it would be far better to exercise a process of giving schools gradual levels of autonomy. There are precedents for this that show how giving schools greater self-determination while retaining certain levels of control can be the way ahead.

Take the example of schools in the United Kingdom: there the government retains a national curriculum and so a degree of control and standards which is entirely appropriate but schools are being given greater opportunities to tailor their courses to the needs and abilities of their students.

In the United Kingdom the national curriculum outlines, what are known as, “Key Stages” in the learning of school children and progression (graduation) through these Key Stages is determined by a series of national tests in English, mathematics and sciences — at the ages of 7, 11 and 14. This education and testing then precedes the secondary schooling examinations known as the General Certificate of Secondary Education (or GCSE).

But within these Key Stages there is an increasing effort to allow schools and their teachers to administer tests, and so allow progression of students, at different times in the school children’s development in school. Teachers will, therefore, be able to exercise autonomy to assess how their students are doing and test them accordingly.

In this model teachers will be allowed to enter any students that they feel are ready to progress to the next level of the curriculum for testing and this testing can be conducted within more flexible time schedules. Here, then, it can be seen that teachers are getting the chance to work more closely with students; responding more directly to their needs but still doing this within the framework of a national curriculum.

This is the kind of model that may well be applied to Indonesian schools. Some autonomy should be given to schools. The size and diversity of Indonesia practically makes this a logical proposal. There are regional variations that schools and their curriculum ought to be able to take into account but there should not be a rush toward school-based management that ultimately may prove to be a problem and of no real long-term value.

School-based management can be a benefit and competent schools can deliver excellent schooling from such a model of management but competence and readiness are critical. Insufficient numbers of schools in Indonesia are, as yet, ready and competent enough to be self managing. Gradual steps in allowing schools to be more autonomous should come first to create the possibility and readiness for school-based management.

The writer is an education consultant in Sydney, Australia.

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