Australians rightly expect each of our schools to provide an excellent and enriching education. But giving schools the support they need to deliver on this expectation has proved difficult.

While Australia has many exceptional schools, it has struggled to spread success to all. Indeed, one in three Australian students fall short of learning expectations in the key areas of reading and numeracy, according to NAPLAN assessments. Too many children are treading water in schools that struggle to improve academic performance.

Running a highly effective school is hard. On their own, most schools are too small to marshal the specialist expertise and operational nous needed to meet the expectations we place on them.

Australia relies too much on “superhero” principals to improve schools, one at a time, which leaves many principals feeling isolated and overwhelmed. Likewise, teachers frequently find themselves in workplaces that lack the resources to provide the sound training and career development essential for a strong profession.

State education departments have the organisational heft to tackle many of these problems, but struggle to provide each of their schools with a clear vision for improvement, and precise and practical operational support.

The advice they do provide is not always compatible with the day-to-day realities inside the school gates. And regional government support and collaborative peer-to-peer school networks – intended to provide more hands-on help – have limited levers to drive real improvement.

Even Australian secondary schools, which have about 70 teachers and just over 800 students on average, still struggle to muster the resources needed to address the breadth of the secondary curriculum and the complex challenges they face.

The result is a system in which schools are expected to provide an outstanding education, but often feel poorly equipped to do so. And when schools fall short, it is unclear who should bear responsibility, and who has the capacity to turn things around.

Establishing multi-school organisations could help. Multi-school organisations are strong “families” of schools, bound together through a united executive leadership that is accountable for students’ results.

Multi-school organisations are an important feature of several education systems overseas, including England and the United States, and have been integrated into government, Catholic, and independent school sectors. Grattan Institute recently investigated six high-performing multi-school organisations that provide high-quality education, including for some of the most disadvantaged children in their school systems.

Multi-school organisations can increase the odds of school improvement. Leading strong families of between 10 and 100 schools, the multi-school organisations we investigated had a clear mandate to maintain high standards and were accountable for doing so. Each had a blueprint for running an effective school, and the authority to enact this blueprint across their schools.

These multi-school organisations were able to extend the impact of exceptional leaders and equip teachers with high-quality curriculum and assessment resources, and targeted professional development. They also provided practical support with recruiting and inducting new staff, and specialist support to students with complex behavioural or learning needs.

This freed up principals to focus on instructional leadership and community engagement. and allowed teachers to focus on their students. They also helped mitigate the negative impact of teacher inexperience and turnover, common in schools serving disadvantaged communities.

The “Goldilocks” size of these multi-school organisations helped too. They were small enough to understand and “own” the specific challenges their schools faced, but big enough to marshal the resources and expertise their schools needed.

Multi-school organisations can also provide benefits to the wider school system. In England, for example, multi-school organisations play an important role in supporting initial teacher education and professional development.

Learning from these innovations overseas, Australian governments and large Catholic dioceses should trial multi-school organisations. Each trial should start with a high-performing “beacon” school, and gradually build to a family of 10 or more schools within a decade, with further growth possible.

New schools could be earmarked to join trials, while existing schools could be invited to opt in. Over time, multi-school organisations should be supported to help turn around struggling schools.

Trialling multi-school organisations is affordable. We estimate that each trial would cost less than $10 million over the first four years – a tiny fraction of the nearly $80 billion recurrent government expenditure on schools each year. The federal government should offer start-up grants for each trial, to encourage states and territories to test the approach.

While the structure of multi-school organisations gives schools a clearer shot at improving, it does not guarantee it. Internationally, some multi-school organisations have performed poorly or been mismanaged. Australia should learn from these mistakes and set clear expectations for – and carefully regulate and publicly evaluate – the trials.

Despite lofty commitments, such as the 2019 Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration, Australia does not yet provide an excellent and equitable education for all. Multi-school organisations could provide the powerful boost schools need.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Dr Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economic policy.