The school autonomy debate won’t go away – nor should it

Chris Husbands

It’s one of the most difficult questions in education policy: how much autonomy should publicly-funded schools have. The debate has been re-ignited by Labour’s newly appointed shadow secretary of state for education, Lucy Powell, and the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw. Lucy Powell, looking ahead to 2020, argued that there was a strong case for local authority oversight of schools, something the left of the Labour Party have held dear; Michael Wilshaw was sharp in his condemnation: this would “return schools to the middle ages: the horse has bolted on that one”; local authority responsibilities, he maintained, should be confined to admissions and safeguarding.

Long before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron argued that improving standards depended on giving real power to schools. In fact, of course, politicians’ enthusiasm for school autonomy tends to be focused on schools’ autonomy to do as they are expected. This was beautifully illustrated elsewhere in Sir Michael Wilshaw’s remarks, where he pointed out the contradiction between the government‘s championing of greater school autonomy and the Conservative manifesto commitment to make the English Baccalaureate all but compulsory.

And of it doesn’t stop there: the government believes in school autonomy, but it also wants all schools to teach systematic synthetic phonics, to build grit and resilience, to teach Mandarin, to be forbidden to allow children holidays in term time and, apparently, to ban mobile phones. There’s also the intriguing new development as academy groups and chains develop, as a result of which individual schools may find that they have much less autonomy than in a straightforwardly devolved school system.

The idea of autonomy for publicly-funded schools is relatively new. The foundation text was Spinks and Caldwell’s The Self-Managing School, published in the early 1980s. For some reason – a spurt of commitment to professional development in the most unlikely of places – I found myself reading Spinks and Caldwell on the beach (I don’t recommend this). For Spinks and Caldwell, the self-managing school was, at root, a school which took charge of managing its hard won resources: everything else – staffing autonomy, curriculum autonomy, admissions autonomy – followed. Their model was a model of a self-managing school – the idea of a self-governing school came later.

In more recent years, politicians in England, from the Prime Minister down, have drawn on OECD data to bolster the arguments for autonomy. But the OECD’s arguments need to be handled with some caution, and are, inevitably, rather more subtle than politicians’ use of them allows for. In most countries examined by the OECD, the starting point is strongly centrally managed education systems: teachers are often government employees, textbooks are mandated, and so on. Against this background, the arguments for more autonomy for schools are all but unanswerable. Even so, there are shades of grey, essentially summarised in volume 4 of the OECD commentary on the 2012 PISA: “Relationships between school autonomy and performance within countries are…complex, and the relationships vary according to the extent of accountability arrangements that systems have”. In policy briefings, the OECD develops the argument in a sophisticated way: “in countries where schools account for their results by posting achievement data publicly, schools that enjoy greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to show better student performance than those with less autonomy. In countries where there are no such accountability arrangements, schools with greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to perform worse”. In other words, the relationships between autonomy and performance depend on the overall policy context: more autonomy can lower, as well as raise standards. The English government, with its long list of performance measures for schools, all publicly reported, would seem to have taken this finding on board.

Importantly, the PISA data also allowed the OECD to consider something which is rarely addressed in the noisy debate about autonomy: what sorts of autonomy appear to be most important in securing improvement. Their conclusions are interesting:

“School systems that grant schools greater discretion in deciding student-assessment policies, the courses offered, the content of those courses, and the textbooks used are also those systems that show higher reading scores overall. This association is observed even though having the responsibility to design curricula is not always related to better performance for an individual school. In contrast, there is no clear relationship between autonomy in resource allocation and performance at the country level.”

On this point, the English government is less aligned with the OECD’s conclusions.

The debate about levels of school autonomy and oversight won’t go away, and it’s not really desirable that it does: for all the arguments about local decision-making and the freedom of schools to decide how they run, all these autonomous schools are spending public money. However, a more productive set of arguments, for politicians and regulators, might be about what sorts of decisions need to be made at different layers of the school system, and how these interact.

This post also appears on the SecEd blog

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Posted in curriculum & assessment, Education policy, Evidence-based policy
4 comments on “The school autonomy debate won’t go away – nor should it
  1. Leora Cruddas says:

    Fascinating blog Chris. I wonder if the concept of subsidiarity takes us further than autonomy? It may help to address the fundamentally important issue you identify: what sorts of decisions need to be made at different layers of the school system? Subsidiarity in my view helps us to focus on where decision making should happen to secure the best outcomes for children, young people and the community. Autonomy seems to me to be about institutional interest – and perhaps even institutional self-interest.

  2. Melanie Ehren says:

    This reminds me of a distinction a Dutch colleague of mine, Jaap Scheerens, would make in locus, modus and domain of decision-making (http://doc.utwente.nl/92869/1/Amelsvoort97policy.pdf). Somehow the debate always talks about autonomy in a general sense (even the OECD does so), while there is so much difference in what type of decision-making is decentralized..

  3. educationstate says:

    This post by Pasi Sahlberg raIses the issue of its relationship with teacher autonomy:

    Do teachers in Finland have more autonomy?
    https://theconversation.com/do-teachers-in-finland-have-more-autonomy-48371

  4. Xavier 1953 says:

    It is steering at a distance or controlled decontrol by the centre. It is not a pure education market with school leaders able to act with absolute freedom nor should it be but let’s not pretend as many politicians do that it is. Strategic intent from politician’s is fine but can it be implemented with strong leaders for 20,000 plus secondary and primary schools?

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