Editorial - With delegated power comes great innovation

8th November 2013 at 00:00

Whisper it, but has the backlash begun? Is it possible that the seemingly relentless global march towards greater school autonomy is finally beginning to slow? For years now we have seen the rise of those who are philosophically committed to the likes of charter schools in the US, free schools in Sweden, academies and free schools in England, and partner schools in New Zealand.

But the past few weeks have been among the roughest experienced by those at the vanguard of this movement. In the UK, a near endless stream of stories has revealed mismanagement at free schools, including the "worst Ofsted report ever published" in the case of one and a police investigation into finances in another (see news.tesconnect.com).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, we have this week witnessed one of the most extraordinary elections of recent years, in which a candidate genuinely of the Left has won a landslide victory in New York City; a central policy plank was that he would make life difficult for charter schools.

Although the problems in England could be portrayed by Conservatives as a little local difficulty, and the Labour Party has got itself tangled up over its response (one day backing free schools, the next describing them as a "dangerous ideological experiment"), it is hard to underestimate the importance of what has happened in the Big Apple. Charter schools have enjoyed consistent support from much of the middle ground of US politics. Tuesday's defeat is quite a setback.

Add to this the growing disenchantment in Sweden with the apparent middle- class bias in free schools and one of the country's biggest chains, JB Education, going bust, and things aren't looking rosy for the school autonomy brigade.

Of course, many veterans of the staffrooms of Manchester, Chicago and Malm will shrug and suggest that teaching is teaching no matter what school you're in. And they'd be right. At the risk of repeating my editorial of last week, there is very little evidence that the structure of school systems has any meaningful impact on results.

But the rows around charter and free schools are really about something fundamentally different: delegated power. This is a fight about shifting authority over what goes on in schools as far downwards as it will go, whether that is to the senior management team or all the way to the classroom teacher.

Much of what TES writes about these days is innovative practice at the chalkface or new ways of approaching pedagogy. Making innovation happen is certainly easier with the delegated authority of recent years.

At their best (to be clear, "their best" is far from omnipresent) charter and free schools allow school leaders and teachers to test radical solutions way outside the boundaries of what local government authorities or school boards would have allowed. In London, the progressive work at Peter Hyman's School 21 springs to mind.

So tear up some elements of free schools and charters if you want (I'm thinking back-end solutions such as payroll departments), but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is worth protecting an ever greater right to innovate.


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