PARENTS will have the power to formally assess how principals perform and school councils will get new authority to shape the way classrooms are run, under a controversial shake-up of the education system.
With three months before the state election, the government will today unveil sweeping reforms for school councils, amid fears that too many students are being hindered by a "19th-century system" of governance.
Under the changes, school councils will get financial incentives to merge into "federated" boards that oversee two or more schools, in a bid to streamline the way they are managed.
Membership will be broadened to discourage "token teachers" being appointed simply to represent their peers, in favour of staff with wider expertise, business leaders and community members.
And school councils will also get a bigger say in the way education is delivered,by shaping the curriculum, for instance, or choosing subject specialisation.
The government considered giving school councils full authority to hire and fire principals, but decided against it, averting a major backlash ahead of November's poll.
But in another move that has already proved contentious, council presidents – who are usually parents – will be able to take part in the performance management of principals, advising the education department on how they are faring and what could be improved.
School councils will also provide feedback on the delivery of the school strategy, a move critics fear could lead to some principals being unfairly punished if there are personality clashes with council members.
Education Minister Martin Dixon said the changes were needed if Victoria was to achieve its aim of being in the "top tier" of education systems in the world.
"You can't have a school governance model which is nearly 19th-century when you're educating kids for the 21st century," he said. "We've got a range of school councils that are extremely effective, but their actual governance … is actually very shallow. So we're giving them a deeper role in a whole range of educational aspects in the school."
But some principals were outraged, having previously told the government they would not tolerate "any involvement" by school councils in the performance management of principals. Australian Principals Federation president Chris Cotching warned that allowing parents to have formal input would cause deep divisions in schools, "particularly if pressure is brought to bear on a regional director to remove the principal."
"This is madness and idiocy in the extreme," he said.
School councils usually compriseparents and teachers, and can also include business and community leaders. Collectively, they have three broad responsibilities: overseeing the school budget, strategic planning, and implementing policies. But the way they operate varies depending on the school and the level of expertise on each council.
The federated council model, currently used in Britain, will allow schools to "opt in" and get financial assistance and support to merge their boards. Under the model, struggling schools could end up sharing the same super council with high-performing neighbouring schools; small rural schools could end up with the same governing board, or high-performing schools may join forces to excel further.
In the border town of Wodonga, up to 10 of the local schools are currently considering joining forces with one federated school board. Each school would retain their council, but the overarching board's role would include prioritising capital works programs between the schools, getting better value for money on student support programs, or overseeing ICT programs.
"This could provide a better way of making sure principals could focus on their core business – teaching and learning," said Wodonga Senior Secondary School principal Vern Hilditch.
Victorian Council of Schools Organisations president Nicholas Abbey welcomed the government's renewed emphasis on the "strategic role" of school councils. "For many years there's been greater focus on leadership and management, but governance has often been neglected as an area," he said. "You really have to have all three working together."
The changes come after two long-awaited reviews looked into the role of school councils in Victoria: a Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission report, signed off last week by Treasurer Michael O'Brien, and an education department study commissioned by Mr Dixon. Both reports will be released today.