OECD Education Director Says ‘Autonomy Can Work Against You’

The deputy director for education at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher, has warned that “autonomy can work against you” by reducing collaboration between schools. He says that academies – independent public schools in England – risk reducing co-operation between schools and creating a wider gap between the best and worst performing schools.

“There are several challenges involved and I don’t think there are yet convincing answers to those,” he told the Times Education Supplement last week. “How do you encourage effective sharing of ideas?”

“How do you get the most talented teachers into the most challenging classrooms; get the best principals into tough situations? Where I think the academy system works positively is that it enables a lot of innovation at the front line, but how do you get it (to spread) into the system?”

“I think that is going to be a big challenge. There’s also the question whether you can counter the trend towards growing disparities that is inherently linked with such a choice.”

Mr Schleicher added that while academies had promise, “a lot of things need to happen to create incentive structures for people to give back and contribute to a system”.

He expanded on his comments in an article for the Huffington Post, an on-line newspaper. He observed that knowledge is “very sticky” in education:

“Knowledge about strong educational practices tends to stick where it is and rarely spreads without effective strategies and powerful incentives for knowledge mobilisation and knowledge management.”

He said that “professional autonomy needs to go hand in hand with a collaborative culture, with autonomous schools working in partnership to improve teaching and learning throughout the system.”

This means that systems with autonomous schools need to work at spreading knowledge around. He said that England “may have to think much harder about how they will actually shift knowledge around pockets of innovation and attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classroom and to get the strongest principals into the toughest academies.”

School collaboration is an essential component of school and system improvement. But, as Schleicher says, “this collaborative culture does not fall from the sky and needs to be carefully crafted into policy and practice.”

He said that there are models to draw on. High performing systems like Denmark, Finland, Japan, Norway, Shanghai or Sweden have a good history of teamwork and co-operation. Schools in these countries really form networks and share resources and work together to create new and innovative practice.

He gave the example of Finnish municipalities where school leaders also work as district leaders, with one-third of their time devoted to the district and two-thirds to their own schools. “In this way they align schools and municipalities to think systemically in order to promote a common vision of schooling and a united school system.”

This is something Australian governments are going to have to consider as they extend school autonomy and create more independent public schools. We could be seeing the demise of school collaboration and increasing difficulties for disadvantaged schools in attracting and retaining high quality principals and teachers. Governments must take action to support more school collaboration and to spread knowledge and good practice across the public education system.

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