How far has autonomy contributed to school improvement? The Academies Commission found that the autonomy linked to the introduction of academies had “provided much-needed vitality to the school system” but were more equivocal about the gains in attainment.
How far has autonomy contributed to school improvement? The Academies Commission found that the autonomy linked to the introduction of academies had “provided much-needed vitality to the school system” but were more equivocal about the gains in attainment. This caution is borne out by the DfE’s own analysis for 2011 and 2012 which shows that results in sponsored academies were marginally higher than in a group of similar schools and improved at a faster rate, but were lower when GCSE equivalent qualifications were excluded from the analysis.1
Reaching definitive conclusions on this issue is difficult because it is hard to disentangle the value that academisation specifically adds, given that often academies also access more general school improvement programmes. And some previously poorly performing schools in disadvantaged areas have done just as well as those that went down the academy route. In addition, academies are not a homogenous group: there are sponsored academies, those that are in chains or federations, and stand-alone converter academies, all working with varying degrees of autonomy.
However, two trends are worth mentioning. First, sponsored academies tend to deliver greater levels of pupil progress, as measured by value added scores, the longer they have been open – though given their lower starting point for improvement they arguably have the potential for making greater gains. Second, there is considerable variation in performance between academies – with some sponsored academies making good progress in terms of improvements in attainment and some being declared inadequate by Ofsted. As the Academies Commission put it, the move to academy status itself is not “an automatic route to school improvement”.
Variation in performance also characterises the performance of academy chains – overall they outperform free-standing sponsored academies but there are big differences both within and between chains. This variability is also a feature of charter schools in the United States of America (US), which operate on principles similar to academies but have been established over a longer period. Figure 1 compares the performance of charter school students with comparable students educated in traditional public schools (TPS) in 27 states of the USA. The results in the table represent an improvement on a similar analysis conducted in 2009 and show that in some areas charter schools are performing more strongly than comparable local schools but this is far from being the picture overall. Freedom by itself is not a sufficient guarantor of school success.
Figure 1 The performance of charter schools compared to their local markets in 27 states of the USA
than comparable students
Progress no different
from comparable students
Better progress than
Reading 19% 56% 25% Mathematics 31% 40% 29%
Source: Centre for Research on Education Outcomes, 2013, National Charter School Study, Stanford University
This chimes with the message from research more generally, which suggests that autonomy needs to be accompanied by other factors if it is to be an effective lever of school improvement4 including:
- the publication of external tests and exams at key points so that schools are held to account for how they use their autonomy
- providing school leaders with access to training, support and guidance to help them to use their autonomy to innovate in a disciplined and effective way and
- the distribution of leadership responsibilities, particularly in respect of the business management of schools, so that principals and other senior school leaders can stay focused on leading teaching and learning and avoid the role overload that increased autonomy might otherwise generate
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) analysis of the 2012 PISA results also makes some important points about the value of autonomy. The OECD has always been clear that high levels of school autonomy correlate well with system success, providing that there is robust accountability and transparency in terms of performance data for schools. The 2012 analysis adds two further conditions for autonomy to be successful in raising standards.
First, there needs to be strong understanding across the system of what is required to attain a given qualification in terms both of content to be studied and level which needs to be reached. Second, autonomy is most successful when teachers in schools have a strong sense of involvement in the educational management of the school, are involved in educational decisions and understand the issues behind them. It would be possible to argue that in the UK we have the high levels of accountability and the transparent availability of data, but we do not yet have that widely shared understanding of standards nor the strong levels of teacher participation which more successful autonomy-based systems enjoy.
Phase III: Structures, admissions and accountablity
What should the balance between autonomy and external control look like?
There is a tension between encouraging school autonomy on the one hand and promoting academy chains on the other. What can be done to mitigate the risk that some academy chains may inhibit innovation by locking down the system into rigid structures?
Has the emphasis on schools and school leaders being free to run their own affairs, overall, been a good thing for students? Has it generated more advantages than disadvantages?
If it has, what has made the difference? Is it a specific freedom or the general sense of being in control and being responsible?
Are there enough checks on how schools use their freedoms? Should they be more accountable to parents and local people?
Is it possible for competition and collaboration to be happy bedfellows in the education system? Can we better balance giving schools responsibility for their own performance with encouraging them to work together to raise standards for all the children in an area? If so, how?
Should the government fund for-profit schools?