The riddle of autonomous schools: how will researchers crack the code?

Chris Husbands

The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Margalit Fox’s hugely readable account of the deciphering of Linear B in the 1940s and 1950s tells the story of half a century of frankly obsessive work by utterly determined individuals. Some 2,000 clay tablets unearthed at the Cretan Palace of Knossos at the turn of the century were covered in a script the like of which no-one had ever seen. The challenge to deciphering them was that they were written in an unknown language in an unknown script about unknown topics.

The story is ultimately a triumph of research: a combination of mind-numbingly patient transcription, comparison and analysis, with flashes of interpretive genius, before, in 1953, amateur scholar Michael Ventris cracked the code.

The real fascination of Fox’s book is not in the outcome but in her account of the research process. The hero is Alice Kober, a now almost forgotten classicist in New York who, in a series of technical papers in the 1940s, identified the nature of the script, unlocked syllabic patterns and pointed the way to a solution – a solution which was frustratingly just out of reach when she died age 43 in 1950. Times were tough times for research. Kober’s communication with other scholars depended on a slow transatlantic postal service. Paper was scarce: when Kober could not get notebooks, she began hand-cutting two-by-three-inch cards from any spare paper she could find: backs of greeting cards, examination book covers, library checkout slips. It was in this unprepossessing environment for research that the breakthrough was made.

Here is another riddle: what – if anything – is the connection between Margalit Fox’s fabulous book and the autonomous world of schooling in which we now find ourselves? I’ll give you a clue: complexity. As the experiences of Kober and Ventris demonstrate, complexity is good for research, and a fecund ground for the imaginative development of practice: in complexity there is a great deal to be explained, much to be studied. Autonomy brings opportunities. Autonomy creates spaces in which differences can be explored and evaluated.

A key feature of the autonomous school system which has emerged since the 2010 Education Act is the school group, or chain. There are now something over 500 such groups — a genuinely new feature of English publicly funded schooling – a (normally) non-geographic cluster of schools with integrated management an financial arrangements and, in some cases, strongly corporate approaches to school leadership and teaching.

Autonomous schools can become autarchic schools, looking inward and concerned with their own practices and development. One of the arguments elaborated about the school system being created following the 2010 Act is that it is inter-, not in-dependent: schools are being encouraged to collaborate one with another. And there is some evidence that a consequence is an inward focus within the group or cluster. Where collaborations have a formal and legal form, some of its details are tightly protected.

So we find school clusters or groups developing distinctive curricula, pedagogies and approaches to professional development — and the best of collaborative innovation is structured, coherent and researched. But where concern with branding and commercial intellectual property issues begin to predominate in schooling, researchability can take second place. Not all innovative practices are open to scrutiny. Moreover, autarchic schools could begin to operate as closed systems, drawing together a strongly coherent but strongly protected set of arrangements where the defined pedagogy and practices are unexplored and unevaluated.

The tendency for autonomous institutions to face inwards, to be concerned with developing distinctiveness and in some cases protecting that distinctiveness calls for new and distinctive relationships between academic research and practice. We need to develop practitioner-researchers who can work in schools to diagnose issues and synthesise evidence to support initial teacher education and school improvement. This work needs to be linked to researchers who can stand back and make sense of the bigger picture.

Individual universities can do some of this, but we also need more thinking on how the education research and development infrastructure needs to develop. What might an education equivalent of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence look like and how might a member-led Royal College of Teaching operate? Isolated, separated researchers did solve the “riddle of the labyrinth” but it took them a long time – 50 years from the excavation of the tiles to a solution. That’s too slow. Educational researchers, and universities who employ them, have shown great inventiveness in finding ways to get close to schools. In an autonomous school system, it will be a highly prized skill, and a huge amount may depend on getting it right quickly.

This post is adapted from Chris Husbands’s address to the British Educational Research Association Conference earlier this month

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