'A self-improving school-led system is possible'

But first, we need to redefine 'autonomy' and embed a smart and stable range of accountability measures

Tip toeing

Do we genuinely have a self-improving school system? While opinion may be divided in the sector, it is clear that we are at an important crossroad. If the sector wishes to continue down the path of a self-improving school system then it is critical that it seizes the opportunity created by the secretary of state for education’s announcement on 4 May 2018 outlining high-level principles for a clear accountability system. When making his announcement, the secretary of state made a commitment to work with the sector over the coming months to refine the principles published and to then consult in the autumn on detailed proposals.

There are many important facets to a self-improving school system – none more so than autonomy and accountability. These were two key areas of discussion at the recent roundtable hosted by Browne Jacobson where a range of key stakeholders from across the sector considered where next for the self-improving school system.  

Autonomy

A key ingredient of a self-improving school system is the concept of autonomy. However, what does ‘autonomy’ mean?

At a system level, while the government set out with a principle of autonomy being provided to schools along with high accountability, over time this principle seems to have been eroded, through both its practice (particularly in response to high-profile failings in the system) and its policies in other areas (such as curriculum and assessment). When you look at the OECD research, the core ingredients identified for a highly autonomous system which impacts positively on student outcomes are a focus on decisions about curriculum, assessment and resources. Do these ingredients exist in sufficient quantities in the current system?

At school level, it is clear that autonomy has become a loaded phrase. For multi-academy trusts in particular it can be extremely difficult to tread a line between ‘autonomy’ and ‘standardisation’.

The sector therefore needs to redefine and create a consensus as to what is meant by autonomy and what it is for. Similar to the concept of the ‘servant leader’, the concept of autonomy in our schools system should not be about protecting the rights of adults and institutions. Autonomy should be exercised on behalf of, and in the best interests of learners.

Perhaps subsidiarity would be a better term. This is the principle that decisions should be taken closest to where they will have the most impact. Subsidiarity involves the sharing of powers between several levels of authority, creating an inter-dependence or sense of shared responsibility for the outcomes of all learners across a group of schools.

This is something that we believe you can start immediately at your own organisation by discussing the issue amongst your governing boards and leadership teams.

Accountability

One of the areas the roundtable explored was what the system needs to be doing to equip our children and young people with the knowledge, skills and qualities needed to truly succeed in the workplace post Brexit and beyond 2030. Two key issues came up – the impact of the recruitment and retention problems on the curriculum combined with the impact of the accountability system as currently operated.

The reality on the ground appears to be that the twin pressures of funding and accountability measures may be influencing leaders and governing boards to believe that they have no option but to cut their offer to the core. Arguably, it is the potential or perceived impact rather than accountability itself that causes the problems.

Government does have a mandate to set an accountability framework for state education. If only because of the amount of public money invested, the government is accountable to the taxpayer for the outcomes of the state education system. At a system level, we believe there should be a slim, smart and stable range of accountability measures.

As ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving System states, The highest form of accountability is the individual’s professional accountability for the quality of her or his own work and to the people whom the profession serves.”

This means schools and groups of schools would see their primary responsibility in terms of accountability to the community or communities they serve.

Perhaps we need to flip the perception of accountability – rather than accountability being perceived as something that is externally imposed by the government or Ofsted, we could shift it in the direction of accountability being internal to a school or trust.

Governing boards, trustees/governors could be explicit and eloquent about their vision and the measures that will evidence success. This will need to include the government’s performance measures, but need not be constrained by them. In other words, this involves a move to measuring what we value in our school or group of schools.

If we could harness the power of autonomy as interdependence – a collective effort to secure good outcomes – alongside a shift in our accountability system towards internal ownership, we may finally have the conditions in which a self-improving school system could flourish.

Nick MacKenzie is a partner at specialist education law firm Browne Jacobson and Leora Cruddas is the CEO of Freedom and Autonomy for Schools (FASNA)

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