March 2014


  • The state of independence
    Autonomy isn’t a new concept for schools and colleges but its success in the long-term depends on everyone being honest about what it means and costs, as well as the provision of safeguards for schools and colleges that get into difficulty, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Be prepared
    Leora Cruddas suggests some key activities for schools and colleges to undertake ahead of changes to the curriculum, assessment and qualifications. More
  • Premium: Make it pay
    The Pupil Premium gives us a huge opportunity to change for the better the lives of poor and disadvantaged young people, says John Dunford. We need to exploit it to the full. More
  • A head for heights?
    The profession needs more outstanding heads but they won’t materialise unless we ensure that teachers can access top-quality development from the moment that they set foot on the career ladder, argues Ian Bauckham. It is up to leaders to seize the initiative. More
  • Meaningful dialogue
    Better parent-school relationships can have a profound impact on pupil attainment, particularly for those in disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, says Professor Sonia Blandford. More
  • Widening the leadership horizon
    Today’s young people are the leaders of tomorrow. We need to help them understand the world beyond theirs and how their lives and roles overlap with other communities, or tensions will continue to arise when cultures collide, says Ken Swan. More
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The state of independence

Autonomy isn’t a new concept for schools and colleges but its success in the long-term depends on everyone being honest about what it means and costs, as well as the provision of safeguards for schools and colleges that get into difficulty, says Brian Lightman.

Are we in danger of removing the scaffolding before the edifice is secure? As someone whose experience was shaped during the introduction of local management of schools (LMS), grant-maintained and foundation status I have always been a great believer in school autonomy. It enables us as senior leaders to set out our vision and turn it into reality without facing bureaucratic burdens or costly intermediaries. It puts us in control and enables us to be responsive and proactive but simultaneously gives us full responsibility and accountability for what we are doing not only in terms of pupil outcomes but in terms of financial and other management procedures.

That is absolutely right. I could never imagine going back to those days when even the most insignificant decision about the need for a tiny increase in staffing or a repair to a toilet was subject to cumbersome decision-making procedures in a remote local authority (LA) department.

However, three popular myths currently abound about autonomy.

A lay reader of some of the current commentaries may conclude that autonomy was something new – a big idea that had not existed before 2010.

Reflecting back on the heady years I have described, I remember introducing a whole range of staffing policies, including performance-related pay, which recognised good work and allowed us to pay our best staff more. The only difference from today was that we could afford a budget to pay for that so anyone who deserved those enhancements got them – but not at the expense of others who were doing a sound but not excellent job.

Wide-ranging freedoms

We also had freedom over the organisation of our school day, our school year and our curriculum and it was completely up to us to organise a coordinated continuing professional development (CPD) programme for all staff.

It is, therefore, no surprise that we saw pupil outcomes in that school rise significantly during those years.

One key difference between then and now, it could be argued, was in the limits to our autonomy. At that time, there were centralised policies, such as a very specific National Curriculum (NC) that we were required to follow. And although we had the autonomy to enhance pay and conditions the national framework applied. In other words, there was a national framework with local flexibility.

During that period we operated, in spite of fierce competition around admissions, in a spirit of partnership and collaboration with other schools in the area. We shared best practice within a consortium that, under the national and quite prescriptive framework of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI), gave access to substantial funding. It enabled us to put in place far-reaching developments to the curriculum in ways that met local needs and held us strongly to account.

The strategy also required vast amounts of school-led staff training, strong monitoring and evaluation processes and a great deal of expertise in the management of sometimes controversial change.

The second myth is that the same lay reader could be led to believe that Britain is following other countries in implementing autonomy. Yet there is no question that England has been well ahead in this aspect of policy. Few countries have had the same degree of delegated responsibility over budget, staffing, premises or many other aspects of schools leadership. For many years others have observed and often emulated our policies.

The difference, therefore, is that, in those days, autonomy, coupled with very strong accountability, sat alongside a tight and strategic national framework. And that, I think, is where the third myth resides.

Many have welcomed the reduction in regulation and centralised statutory guidance and requirements. But many others are questioning whether those requirements have simply been reintroduced via the accountability framework, academy funding agreements and so on. In other words, the level of autonomy enjoyed by academies and that afforded to predecessor institutions in recent decades may not be so very different after all.

The Importance of Teaching: The schools white paper 2010 reflected the thinking that had been going on in the National College and in the writings of David Hargreaves about a self-improving school system. Since then, much has been said about the importance of partnership and collaboration and there are many examples of powerful and innovative practice.

But while many networks and partnerships of autonomous schools and colleges are doing pioneering work, we are also seeing some that are challenged by the removal of the scaffolding that may have protected them in the past.

Risks of autonomy

Autonomy undoubtedly facilitates excellent practice but there are also risks.

There may be variability in outcomes between schools and areas. New schools coming into operation may lack the policies, procedures or quality of governance and leadership that an autonomous institution requires – and it is the ‘unknown unknowns’ that make them particularly vulnerable.

Existing schools that do not have the capacity or institutional understanding to put in place an appropriately ambitious curriculum and assessment model can be equally vulnerable, especially when their local circumstances make recruitment and access to support networks difficult.

A new National Curriculum that applies to fewer than half of secondary schools and is extremely vague in content is bound to lead to enormous variation in practice across the country.

Finally, access to CPD provision may be highly variable, especially in those schools that are working in isolation or not accessing research and developing pedagogies.

I would be the last person to argue the case for a reduction in autonomy but I would argue for three things.

First, there needs to be realism and honesty about what autonomy means. So, for example, telling schools that they are exempt from the National Curriculum and then producing a ‘big fat’ maths GCSE does not make an iota of difference to the degree of autonomy that schools enjoy. Rhetoric that the government is not interested in telling schools how to teach while ministers speak about the detail of how phonics and long division should be taught is totally disingenuous.

Second, autonomy should not be or pretend to be a blank cheque. Schools and colleges are part of an education system that needs a degree of strategic planning. The government has recognised this more and more but a coherent vision of what needs to sit between central government and individual institutions and what entitlements should exist for all teachers and all students needs to be clarified.

Third, we need to ensure that there are adequate safeguards in the system to protect schools from failure by ensuring that early signs of difficulty are identified and support is readily available. Plans that have emerged recently from the DfE and Ofsted’s regional directors may help, although some joined up thinking in their implementation would give us more confidence that this is being coherently planned.

Finally, however, let us not forget that school and college leaders have enormous opportunities in the current environment. A very strong message emerging from the Great Education Debate (GED) is the degree of consensus about the need for a much more rounded education than the one currently emphasised by government.

There is nothing to stop us and everything to gain from designing a forward-looking curriculum that, as well as providing academic rigour and high outcomes in terms of qualifications, ensures that all of our students complete their formal education with a full range of skills, qualities, attitudes and experiences that genuinely prepare them for life-long learning, employment – and, above all, to lead fulfilled lives.

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL General Secretary