Whispers from Westminster

25th March 2016 at 00:00
Autonomy: following the White Paper trail

Let’s be honest, birthdays are better than Christmas. They’re more exclusive. Everyone else is carrying on as normal, but for you this is a magical day, where frenzied anticipation finally explodes into reality.

I feel the same way about education White Papers. This has been a happy fortnight for me.

I wanted to highlight a little-noticed but important shift in the intellectual narrative around “supported autonomy” in last week’s schools White Paper.

If one were to characterise the Department for Education’s theory of improvement between 2010 and 2015, it would be: the government sets high expectations for every child and school regardless of circumstance, and gives schools autonomy to achieve those through (almost) any method that they choose, with the government only caring about outcomes.

This autonomy is what gives schools in all circumstances the capacity to improve.

This White Paper, however, includes a subtle but unmistakable shift in the plans through to 2020. It makes absolutely clear that “greater autonomy on its own will not lead to excellence everywhere. It isn’t enough to set school leaders free if they can’t access the resources and expertise they need to make the most of that freedom.”

In other words, simply being autonomous doesn’t necessarily lead to the improvements the system wishes. The government, under this theory, has a role in supporting that autonomy – actively helping to ensure that resources, expertise and people are available for all schools in all areas.

The maps in the White Paper also identify “cold spots” of need. Rather than just mapping areas where lower numbers of children achieve below-expected standards, the map identifies cold spots as low levels of performance and low levels of access to things that could help schools to improve. Government focus is now just as much on the process as it is on the outcome.

A philosophy student might note that this moves the government away from the classic definition of liberty (or autonomy) – the absence of constraints – to a more modern definition, which recognises the need for capability to exercise that autonomy. Or, to take an even more unusual lodestar for this government, towards that of Lenin, who famously said: “Freedom, yes, but for whom? To do what?”

It is, on balance, unlikely that this government would call itself Leninist. But on a more practical basis, this narrative might well lead to a shift towards more active engagement by government in education policy – more willingness to market make, in economic jargon.

The National Teaching Service, to take a very practical example, attempts to correct the issue of autonomous teachers choosing not to work in cold spots by creating a central scheme that actively moves some people there. The decision to proceed with mass academisation, although unlikely to be seen in this way, also recognises the risks of a laissez-faire system of conversion actually widening performance gaps between different geographical areas. In time, this intellectual shift may prove to be more significant than many of the individual policies announced.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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