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

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - COMMENT -

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.

Un­healthy com­pe­ti­tion

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

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