So says a new report from Grattan Institute, which proposes every Australian school system should establish trials of ‘multi-school organisations’ (MSOs) – school ‘families’ united under a shared leadership that work to lift underperformers and deliver ‘big benefits’ to educators and students alike.

Released yesterday, researchers lay out a case for why MSOs, like some in England and New York City, are ‘school improvement specialists’ and ought to be piloted in every jurisdiction across the country.

Running highly effective schools is incredibly hard, the report suggests, and our principals are straining under the weight of expectations.

“Those principals who do manage to improve their schools significantly, often do so at great personal cost. This can leave principals burnt out by the effort and reluctant to do it again,” the report notes.

And while education departments do possess the ‘organisational heft’ to drive improvement at scale, they struggle to offer every school with a clear vision for improvement, as well as the practical operational support they need, researchers say.

“And the advice they do provide is sometimes incompatible with day-to-day realities on the ground,” the report flags.

“The pressure to balance competing interests and avoid political risk can lead to conflicting policies, a watering down of advice to schools, or a reticence to provide any advice at all.

“This can hamper principals’ school improvement efforts.”

Teachers, meanwhile, find themselves in workplaces that lack the resources and expertise to provide crucial training and career development, the report notes.

“Too often, school improvement relies on the ‘superhero’ efforts of individual principals.

“Australia has tried other approaches to school improvement, but none has led to the system-wide improvement needed.

“As a result, school quality and student results vary widely across the country. Australian students – particularly those in poor-performing schools – deserve better.”

Dr Jordana Hunter, Grattan Institute Education Program Director, says while Australia has many exceptional schools, it has battled to spread enough success to deliver on its promise of educational excellence for all children.

“And when schools fall short, it is unclear who should bear responsibility, and who should take charge of turning things around,” she says.

In case studies on successful MSOs in England and New York, researchers found these ‘strong families’ of between 10 and 100 schools are highly accountable for student results, have the power to mandate and maintain high standards, and better the odds of school improvement.

“Each has a clear blueprint for running an effective school, and the authority to enact this blueprint across multiple schools.

“This includes turning around schools that have under-performed for decades, as well as helping already good schools become great.

MSOs are also able to learn from every school they improve, so that knowledge is accrued on how to lead a school turnaround – the result is a seasoned group of principals who have ‘done it before’, the report adds.

State and territory governments, large Catholic dioceses and independent schools should all now look at working with others to trial MSOs, the report urges.

A high-performing ‘beacon’ school should kick off each trial, with a ‘family’ of 10 schools built up over the course of a decade, it advises.

"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," Hunter adds. 

But success is not guaranteed, researchers warn, with some international examples showing cases where MSOs have not performed well or have been prone to mismanagement.

“Australia should learn from these mistakes and set clear expectations for the trial MSOs. Governments should also establish a robust regulatory framework for the trials, including rigorous public reviews,” the Institute says.

Nevertheless, Hunter says Australian schools and teachers are in need of a lot more support, and that MSOs “offer a powerful way to give schools the boost they need”.