Schools' best hope lies in real freedom
As the evidence shows, giving schools greater autonomy can boost pupils' results. Successive governments have responded to this by introducing policies that promote independence, from grant-maintained schools to academies. Under the coalition, more schools have been given more freedoms than ever before.
Yet despite acknowledging the benefits of autonomy, governments have insisted on tempering schools' freedoms with national prescription, making it hard for academies to use their flexibilities. The continued existence of national pay and conditions creates difficulties for schools who wish to vary their staff's salaries. Ofsted's framework discourages academies from deviating from the national curriculum for fear of falling foul of inspectors.
This is a problem because central prescription doesn't work. The mere existence of centrally set rules, regulations and guidance takes responsibility for the quality of what schools do away from the schools themselves and gives it to the state. If pupils leave ill-equipped for work or university, it's the fault of the exam system or the national curriculum. If teachers underperform, blame the Department for Education's training plan and teacher standards. If a school is failing, it's Ofsted's job to step in and sort it out.
Is there an alternative to a nationally guided system? How about a state school system without the state? School autonomy implies and requires school responsibility. In the current system, responsibility and accountability lie with the state. How about giving responsibility for the quality of education to schools and teachers and the real lever of accountability - choice - to parents?
The coalition is moving in this direction. More schools are getting academy freedoms. Chains and federations, as well as new initiatives like Teaching Schools, are putting more responsibility and accountability in the hands of schools. The publication of more data is improving accountability. Yet the national framework governing the operation of the school system persists.
What would real freedom look like? It would involve a radical change to where responsibilities lie in the education system, with government no longer determining what schools do and how they do it. This would mean the end of government dictating the size, shape and pay of the teaching workforce. The end of government setting the curriculum and the number, frequency, content and structure of exams. The end of inspections, targets and floor standards. An end to allocating places and decreeing which schools should be built where and who can go to them. No more "strategic" commissioning by local authorities, which has succeeded only in ensuring a shortage of good schools.
The inevitable objection is: "If government doesn't do these things, who will?" In fact, some trailblazing schools and headteachers are already showing what is possible. These schools are networking and collaborating on an unprecedented scale - sharing best practice, working together on teacher development and assessing one another's performance. This points the way to the real prize: a genuinely self-led, self-improving school system in which schools replace government activity in these areas themselves. This kind of inter-school support will become increasingly important in breaching the limits of what can be achieved through government prescription.
These ideas would take teaching as a profession to a new level. Rather than Ofsted determining that a school is under-performing, its peers will identify areas for improvement. Rather than Whitehall laying out minimum standards for teachers, clusters of schools will decide for themselves what is important and work to ensure that their teachers meet those goals. Rather than the local authority imposing support for struggling headteachers, the best heads in their network will help them to address their weaknesses.
The challenge is to spread this activity from the few pioneers throughout the whole system. Ultimately, the school system responds to incentives, so the incentives must exist in the system to make schools seek support, engage in networks and collaborate to improve the quality of what they do. The driver of genuine school choice is needed to make it in every school's interest to work in this way. Whether it happens depends on whether government is willing to give parents the power to demand it.
Dale Bassett is research director at Reform. A version of this essay appears in The Next Ten Years, published by Reform.