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‘It will soon be untenable for the government to argue that autonomy is the answer to school improvement’

England’s schools already had a lot of autonomy by international standards – even before the creation of the academies programme. Ministers' fixation on this will not help to drive up standards

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The prime minister is poised to carry out his promise to "turn every school into an academy" and "make local authorities running schools a thing of the past". This decision is largely driven by a belief that when schools are given freedom from local government oversight they will be able to improve educational outcomes. But what if the government has learned the wrong lessons about school autonomy? Should it really be relying on expanding school autonomy as a vehicle to improve standards? 

The government’s unwavering belief in giving schools more autonomy is derived from the influential Programme for International Student Assessment studies, and the international league tables that follow. These studies show that high-performing systems such as in Shanghai, Singapore and Finland tend to give schools a large amount of freedom over curriculum and pedagogy, and then hold them to account for their outcomes. The government’s decision to expand academies in 2010 – and today’s announcement to expand this to cover all schools – are an explicit attempt to mirror the success of these other countries.

But delving deeper into the Pisa studies reveals that England’s schools already had a lot of autonomy by international standards – even before the creation of the academies programme. According to Pisa, England's schools ranked as the third most autonomous in the world in 2009, when there were just a handful of academies open. This is largely because all schools in England – even those that fall under local government oversight – were given large amounts of control over hiring staff, managing their budgets and choosing exam boards back in the late 1980s, long before the creation of academies. The uncomfortable truth for the government is that England has had an autonomous school system for a very long time – that job was done by a previous Conservative government under Kenneth Baker. 

Although it is still early days, there is little evidence that granting schools even more autonomy by converting them into academies has had any impact on standards. Analysis by Chris Cook, previously of the Financial Times, now of the BBC's Newsnight, shows that it is not possible to identify any discernible pattern in the performance of converter academies and local authority maintained schools over recent years. This mirrors studies by Becky Allen, of Education Datalab, of grant-maintained schools (which were the last attempt to allow schools freedom from local authorities back in the 1990s and appeared to have no substantial impact on standards). 

What's wrong in England?

In this light, the interesting policy question to ask is: why don’t England’s schools perform better on Pisa, despite having high levels of autonomy and accountability? Why has the formula of expanding school autonomy and accountability not worked to drive up standards in England in the same way as it has in other countries?

The answer probably lies in the fact that many of the world’s top performing countries don’t just give schools more autonomy – they also make sure that schools are given the tools they need to do the job. Places such as Singapore, Shanghai and Finland are able to give their schools more autonomy because they ensure they have great teachers coming into the system for them to hire, great textbooks and assessment materials for them to draw on, and great development programmes for leaders to enrol on. One leading system, in Massachusetts, allows the creation of Charter Schools which are free from local governance structures – but it exerts very strict quality controls on who is allowed to set up a new school. Such systems regulate and invest in the inputs going into the school system – which in turn means they can be more hands-off with the management of individual schools.

This is very different from the approach taken in England, where the government has interpreted school autonomy to mean it can deregulate the system and simply focus on the outcomes that are produced. Policymakers have assumed they can take a relatively laissez-faire approach to what goes on within schools, with interventions focused only on those schools which fall below a performance threshold.

So we have seen academies being given the freedom to hire unqualified teachers; the assumption that academies should provide their own recruitment, leadership and development programmes; central funding for school improvement services being cut; and the bar being set too low for new providers to enter the system – with a number of free schools being allowed to launch and subsequently failing. Meanwhile, the government’s regional schools commissioners wait to intervene in school improvement only once they are deemed to be performing poorly.

As the number of academies expands, it will become increasingly untenable for the government to argue that more autonomy is the answer to the challenge of school improvement. Policymakers and professionals will have to create the right conditions for a system of autonomous schools to flourish – and that will involve them focusing on improving the inputs and processes in the school system as well as its outcomes. 

Jonathan Clifton is associate director for public services at the IPPR thinktank. He tweets as @jp_clifton

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