February 2014


  • Sense of direction?
    A new special needs code of practice is being heralded by the government as ‘the biggest shake-up of special educational needs (SEN) in 30 years’. Jonathan Fawcett looks at what leaders can expect and sees some potential problems looming. More
  • Market forces
    In the third topic in the Great Education Debate (GED) series, Robert Hill explores the roles of autonomy and diversity, the twin pillars of reform. More
  • Behind the headlines
    Bad news stories about the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results don’t give the whole picture of how our schools compare internationally, says Ian Bauckham. Nevertheless, PISA contains important messages that we cannot afford to ignore. More
  • Talking cures
    Access to professional counselling for students in school can help prevent deeper problems emerging later on, enabling students to realise all of their potential, finds Karen Cromarty. More
  • Warning signs
    Teacher recruitment is already down alarmingly in key subjects, says John Howson. So is 2014 set to be the year the teacher shortage becomes a full-blown crisis? More
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In the third topic in the Great Education Debate (GED) series, Robert Hill explores the roles of autonomy and diversity, the twin pillars of reform.

Market forces

Thirty years ago everyone used to use British Telecom (BT) for their phone service (unless you lived in Hull, which had its own network). It was an era of monopolies when the local gas and electricity board supplied your energy, the government owned British Airways (BA) and the council ran the buses.

At that time, nearly all state schools were in the control of the local authority (LA) or the church, apart from 160 or so grammar schools that were directly funded by the government.

Today, as marketisation and consumerism have taken hold in public life and public policy, the picture is completely different.

The market plays less of a role in education than it does in some other services. However, two big themes that have underpinned the market reforms in other sectors have been applied to education: greater freedom and autonomy for those leading and running schools and colleges; and increased diversity and choice for parents.

Although increased autonomy remains an education priority for all parties, there is a notable tension between autonomy on the one hand and accountability m measures on the other. Many school and college leaders and other stakeholders are beginning to question to what extent the current reality of autonomy matches the political rhetoric.

Some argue that Ofsted’s most recent inspection policy has led to a reduction in autonomy, compounded by increased pressure from the Department for Education (DfE), academy chains and governors to improve results quickly. They would also argue that the government’s manipulation of performance indicators and floor targets to drive practice has reduced autonomy in regards to curriculum design and classroom practice. This is leading to questions about the extent to which schools really have increased autonomy, or whether they in fact now have less autonomy than in previous years.

The current government sees academies as the main vehicle for providing schools with the freedoms they need to innovate, organise learning and improve educational outcomes in the way they think best.

At the end of 2013, about two-thirds of secondary schools were academies – or planning to become academies.

Verdict on academies

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.

Reaching definitive conclusions on this issue is difficult because it is hard to disentangle the value that academies specifically add. However, two trends are worth noting.

First, sponsored academies tend to deliver greater levels of pupil progress, as measured by value-added scores, the longer they have been open – although 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.

Variation in performance also characterises the performance of academy chains. Overall, they outperform freestanding sponsored academies but there are big differences both within and between chains.

Impact of autonomy on improvement

Research in this area generally suggests that autonomy needs to be accompanied by three factors if it is to be an effective lever of school improvement:

  • There needs to be publication of external tests and exams at key points so that schools are held to account for how they use their autonomy.
  • School leaders need to be provided with access to training, support and guidance to help them to use their autonomy to innovate in a disciplined and effective way.
  • There has to be a 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.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation 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.

Increased diversity

The move towards schools becoming more diverse started with the creation of City Technology Colleges (CTCs) in 1989 and has continued through initiatives such as specialist schools.

The coalition government has placed even more emphasis on school diversity with free schools, studio schools and university technical colleges (UTCs).

Champions of greater diversity argue that it is bringing innovation and dynamism and making education providers more responsive to parental concerns and wishes. Competition will force poor educational providers to up their game or depart the scene.

They also highlight how studio schools and UTCs are drawing universities and employers into working with schools and so strengthening the links between education, employment and higher education.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that diversity leads to fragmentation of the school system with the inevitable result that while some schools may thrive, others will struggle. Children’s education, they believe, should not be at the mercy of market forces, and schools should be incentivised to contribute to improving all schools in a locality.

And critics of the 14-19 initiatives say that 14 is too young to be leading young people down educational routes linked to specific employment sectors. 

Have your say on the third debate

We want to know your views on all of the issues discussed in this article. Here are a few questions you may like to consider:

  • Has the emphasis on schools and school leaders being free to run their own affairs been, overall, a good thing for students? If so, what has made the difference?
  • Are there enough checks on how schools use their freedoms?
  • Is it possible for competition and collaboration to be happy bedfellows in the education system?
  • Should the government fund for-profit schools?
  • How far has diversity brought welcome innovation and competition to the system?
  • Should there be more controls on the quality and operation of free schools?
  • Should the education quasi-market be better regulated and, if so, how?
  • Post your views at www.greateducationdebate.org.uk

ASCL wants to know your views on all of these issues and questions. Here’s how you can get involved:

Host a debate in your school or college and capture everyone’s views by video or by taking notes and email them to info@greateducationdebate.org.uk

Join us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/GreatEducationDebate

Tweet us @GreatEdDebate and also use the hashtag #GEDebate

Join the discussion and post your views on the website www.greateducationdebate.org.uk where you can also download a resource pack.