More autonomy turned out to be mere rhetoric
The rise of academies promised more power for schools – but, with government still clinging to the reins, heads haven’t been able to raise standards as expected. However, this system may yet deliver – if ministers ring the changes, writes James Croft
THE ACADEMIES Act of 2010 purported to take school autonomy to a new level. The jury is still out on whether this could make a difference for pupil outcomes, but doubts have, justifiably, begun to emerge.
While there is evidence of a positive impact in pre-2010 sponsored academies, recent research from the London School of Economics finds no trace of post-conversion improvement in previously “good”, “satisfactory” or “inadequate” converters, as well as a concerning degree of heterogeneity.
Meanwhile, the reality seems to be dawning on headteachers that the new autonomy promised does not amount to much. Responses to the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey revealed a widespread perception that, when it comes to resourcing and curriculum decisions, there’s no real difference in the degree of autonomy between academies and maintained schools.
In a new report, Optimising Autonomy , published recently by the Centre for Education Economics, I consider what may lie behind these findings.
In 2010, the Conservatives brought to government far-reaching plans for education, involving supply-side reforms and significant changes to curriculum and qualifications. But while the political rhetoric emphasised academy freedoms, the emphasis of the legislation, and of academy funding agreements, shifted to underscore the conditional nature of schools’ autonomy, and the powers of intervention afforded the secretary of state in the event of things not going according to plan. The result has been that “autonomy reforms” have steadily given way to a more centralised and interventionist approach.
In consideration of present arrangements, the report says that the current accountability framework offers little reason to believe that significant innovation and improvement will ensue from the reforms undertaken since 2010.
Competition is blunted because success is overly determined by league tables and other accountability measures that focus on too narrow a range of subjects.
The government’s nationalising approach to curriculum and qualifications reform, while predicated on solid research on knowledgeled, traditional teaching methods, looks past other research on the effectiveness of some modern methods for developing reasoning skills, and the fact that we do not yet know what the balance of skills required in the future job market will be. Schools and parents have been largely excluded from having a say over the trade-offs involved in decisions about curriculum content and qualifications.
Without parent choice to harness and discipline it, competition is prone to go awry, and even more likely to do so in the kind of certification and accountability regime that we currently have in England. GCSE scores cannot provide adequate data for assessing institutions – or national-level improvement – because the “comparable outcomes” approach taken by Ofqual to awarding effectively puts a cap on overall attainment.
This is why we need international assessments like Pisa and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss), and the National Reference Test, for benchmarking and corrective purposes, to help us detect the learning gains that GCSES cannot.
As things stand, however, the pressure that accountability goals place on GCSE certification leaves teachers and heads demotivated and vulnerable to short-termism, gaming, and worse.
These problems are exacerbated by a poorly designed system of intervention that cannot be other than weak in relation to the potential for rent-seeking and cronyism. The essentially network-based nature of brokering, therefore, has negative consequences for competition. It also, and more profoundly, runs the risk of poor sponsor fit.
The report makes a number of recommendations for improvements. Changing our approach to general certification by resetting the national curriculum requirement to a minimum standard, leaving Ofsted to assess curriculum quality on the basis of what we know from evidence and introducing a Usstyle secondary school diploma to place greater emphasis on institutional quality would be a good starting place. Though safeguards