Those who consider increasing school autonomy should take a look at the academies programme in England. Global educational comparisons such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) show consistently that schools in high-performing education systems tend to have considerable discretion with regard to their academic direction and how they manage resources. But far less is known about the dynamics involved - that is, to what extent increasing school autonomy will lead to improved performance.
One thing the Brits are doing well is awarding academy status contingent on schools' demonstrating excellence first. What is less clear is how academy status will be tied to continued school success. If the reform becomes a one-way street, where a one-time effort gains you lifetime independence, the UK may end up in a situation where, years down the line, the scope for effective policy intervention is very limited.
Everyone knows that the quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its individual teachers, so the focus on teaching and its impact on learning will be key to bridging the gap between the vision for academies and the reality in classrooms. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Develop- ment (OECD) data also show that teachers' participation in professional development goes hand in hand with their mastery of a wider repertoire of pedagogical practices. We see a close relationship between professional development and a positive school climate, cooperation between teachers and teacher job satisfaction. And our analysis shows that effective professional development needs to be ongoing and include adequate feedback, appraisal and follow-up.
So where do the English authorities plan to get this expertise from? The idea is that improvement can and needs to come from the best knowledge and understanding among academy teachers. That means professional autonomy needs to go hand in hand with a collaborative culture, with autonomous schools working in partnership to improve teaching and learning. The best teachers and schools need to provide the expertise and resources for all teachers to update their knowledge, skills and approaches in light of new teaching techniques, circumstances and research. Teachers should help one another to develop effective improvement strategies.
But knowledge is very sticky. Knowledge about strong educational practices tends to stick where it is and rarely spreads without effective strategies and powerful incentives for knowledge mobilisation and knowledge management. That means you will have to think much harder about how you will actually shift knowledge around pockets of innovation and attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms and get the strongest principals into the toughest academies.
It is certainly not impossible. Schools in Denmark, Finland, Japan, Norway, Shanghai and Sweden have a good history of teamwork and cooperation. They often form networks and share resources and work together to create innovative practice.
Helping each other
But this collaborative culture does not fall from the sky and needs to be carefully crafted into policy and practice. In Finnish municipalities, for example, school leaders also work as district leaders, with one-third of their time devoted to the district and two-thirds to their own schools. In this way they align schools and municipalities to think systemically in order to promote a common vision of schooling and a united school system. For school leaders to take on this larger system-level role, leadership is distributed, with leadership teams assuming some of the school leaders' tasks.
Or take Shanghai. If you are a vice-principal of a great school in Shanghai and you want to become principal, you can get there, but only if you show that you can turn around one of the lowest-performing schools beforehand. One thing the city is doing is subjecting all schools to a stringent inspection theme - in my view one of the most professional in the world. And it plans to judge a school to be outstanding for leadership only if it can provide evidence of its contribution to system-wide improvement.
But more may be needed. Our Pisa data show that if you have a school system in which knowledge is shared effectively and you are in a school with significant autonomy, your pupils are likely to perform better on Pisa tests than pupils in a school with limited autonomy. But if you are in a system without a culture of peer-learning and accountability, autonomy can work against you.
The Brits are also working hard to ensure that an increasingly academised system is fair and accessible to children from all backgrounds. Here, OECD data shows that school choice may work against fairness, which means that efforts to avoid increasing school segregation need to be boosted. One thing being explored is a requirement on each academy to publish comprehensive data about who applies and who is admitted. Heads are also trying to ensure that academies demonstrate their professionalism by providing accountability to pupils, parents and other stakeholders.
There are lots of question marks, but it seems that the reform holds significant promise for system-wide improvement. The biggest hope is that it will create a shift from the prescriptive and industrial work organisation of schools to a truly professional work organisation that builds on professional autonomy within a collaborative culture, with the status, professionalism and high-quality education that go with professional work. And that is what we should expect from 21st-century school systems.
Andreas Schleicher is deputy director for education and special adviser on education policy to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's secretary general.