School Autonomy in England Fails to ‘Unleash Greatness’

The UK Government promised to ‘unleash greatness’ in English schools with its radical school autonomy plan to convert all schools to independent academies. A new comprehensive review of the experience with academies shows the plan is failing. It concludes that academies are an imperfect way to address the challenges faced by struggling schools and their students and that school autonomy has clear limits as a school reform strategy.

Academy schools in England have autonomy in matters such as admissions, the hiring of teachers, curriculum, and salaries. Each academy is established as a charitable trust and funded by, and directly responsible to, the UK Secretary of State for Education rather than to a local education authority.

There are two types of academies. Sponsored academies were introduced by the previous Labor Government and were limited to struggling secondary schools. Converter academies were introduced by the UK Coalition Government and expanded the academy option at both the secondary and the primary levels. All schools were invited to convert to academy status.

In addition, the Government promoted a new type of school – free schools – that would be established from scratch to meet the perceived needs of ethnic minorities and other groups that wanted their own schools. For all practical purposes, free schools are the same as academies.

The total number of academies has grown to over 5,000, and about two-thirds of them are converter rather than sponsored academies. There are now over 300 free schools. Academies are far more prevalent at the secondary level, where they represent 60 per cent of all secondary schools, than at the primary level, where they account for only 15 per cent of a far larger number of schools.

An education white paper issued by the UK Government earlier this year proposed to increase the number of academies to 20,000. Its rationale is similar to that for the establishment of Independent Public Schools in Australia:

We believe that the fastest and most sustainable way for schools to improve is for the government to trust this country’s most effective education leaders, giving them freedom and power, and holding them to account for unapologetically high standards for every child, measured rigorously and fairly.

The white paper also said that the Government will encourage all academies – and require many of them – to join chains of academy schools called Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). A MAT is a charitable trust that supports its member academies by providing them with central office services such as financial accounting and professional development that were previously provided by local education authorities.

Paradoxically, the new system also involves considerable centralisation. Academies enjoy a great deal of operational autonomy, but they surrender a good deal of this independence when they join a MAT. Moreover, while devolving significant powers from local education authorities to autonomous schools and MATs, the new system at the same time requires significant centralization of supervisory functions and the establishment of new bureaucratic structures controlled by the central government. In effect, the white paper concedes that autonomous schools acting in isolation cannot achieve the goal of self-improvement.

The review of this ambitious school autonomy program by Helen Ladd, Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Duke University in North Carolina, and her husband Edward Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times, found that “there is no strong and compelling evidence…. that an academised system supported by MATs will constitute a strong education system” and that “full academisation with MATs is a risky strategy to pursue” [p.17-18].

It found little evidence of improvement in student performance. It cites two studies published in 2014 and 2015 by the Sutton Trust that found academy chains vary greatly in their success with disadvantaged students. The 2014 study reported that only nine of the 31 chains performed better than mainstream schools on a weighted measure of secondary school outcome measures in 2013. Although a somewhat higher share (18 out of 31 chains) featured more student improvement between 2011 and 2013, the variation across chains remains the dominant feature.

The studies found that a few academy chains have been highly successful against a range of measures. However, Fiske and Ladd note that they were aided by the fact that they had “financial and human resources at their disposal that are unlikely to be duplicated across a fully academised system” [p.38]. A far larger group of low-performing chains are achieving results that are not improving and may be harming the prospects of their disadvantaged students. Moreover, the 2015 study found that the contrast between the best and worst chains had increased since the 2014 study. It concluded that this subsequent analysis “provides further evidence that sponsorship is not a panacea for improvement”.

The review found that success rates of MATs is mixed at best, especially with regard to disadvantaged students. It notes that reviews of MATs by the UK Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted) raise clear concerns about the failure of MATs to provide the necessary supports to their academies and to challenge them to raise student achievement. Although some of them are showing some signs of improvement, Ofsted is generally critical of their overall performance. Ladd and Fiske state that these reviews “demonstrate that academy status, even academy status supported by MATs, is not a panacea for solving the problems of struggling schools” [p.38].

The review’s own analysis of the performance of primary schools in local education authority schools questions the need for major structural change towards school autonomy. It shows that the performance of primary school students has increased in England as a whole and in each region. It concludes that this improvement “belies the argument that declining pupil performance – either overall or in some parts of the country – justifies a major structural change of the system” [p.18]. Indeed, the review suggests that the central government could well bear some responsibility for the low quality of some local authority schools because the lowest performing local authorities have far less funding than many other local authorities.

We conclude that while some local authorities are decidedly weak, it is hard to make the case that the basic system of local authorities is failing. Moreover, some local authorities, including many in London, have done an outstanding job of assuring high-quality schools for most of their primary school students. [p.23]

The review also found very little evidence of innovation in education by academy schools. It cites a report in 2013 by the Academies Commission based on extensive input from various stakeholders and policy makers that concluded that the amount of innovation shown by existing academies was limited and at best piecemeal rather than comprehensive.

Another issue identified by the review is that the replacement of local responsibility for local schools with national responsibility under an academy system inevitably brings with it a significant loss of community control. The reduction of local control inherent in academisation has created situations in which decisions affecting local schools are now made by officials who lack working knowledge of challenges facing local communities. In addition, it has left citizens without local authorities to whom they can direct comments or complaints.

The English school system has traditionally been described as a “national service locally delivered.” In practice, this meant that policy and funding originated at the national level, while individual schools operated under the authority and discipline of local authorities with their democratically elected councillors. Schools played a central role in the life of social, economic and cultural life of their communities. They were responsive to – and gave voice to – local concerns. Communities in turn felt pride and a sense of ownership of their local schools.

Under a fully academised system little stands between the Secretary of State for Education and the individual academies or MATs. The result is a widespread weakening of channels for local community input into the schools, including those that operated through the locally elected council members.

The review also found that parental input and voice is directly diminished. In the past, parents exerted direct input into school policies through their role as member of school governing bodies, but under the white paper proposals parents will no longer be allowed to serve as member of academy boards.

In addition, parents may have reduced school choice. Although they will continue to be able to express preferences for a number of specific schools, the process of allocating children to schools will inevitably remain somewhat opaque because there is no guarantee that all the academies and MATs, who legally are their own admissions authorities, will participate in community wide assignment processes.

In conclusion, the review draws three key lessons from its analysis of the experience with academies and academy chains in England:

Lesson 1
Although they can be helpful in some contexts, academies are an imperfect way to address the challenges faced by struggling schools and their students. [p.37]

Lesson 2
School autonomy has clear limits as a school reform strategy serving the public interest. [p.38]

Lesson 3
An all-academy system (with MATs) reduces local input and weakens communities. [p.40]

These are valuable lessons that also apply to Independent Public Schools in Australia. They need to be recognised by education ministers and their departments.

Trevor Cobbold

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