Should we call time on the cult of school autonomy?

Ever since 1988, successive governments have promoted the view that school autonomy is an unquestioned good thing. The 1988 Act established schools with their own budgets, management and governance. For many years local authorities were told to leave successful schools alone. The academies programme then formalised this by taking many schools out of the local authority framework.

The core rationalisation for all of this was that if schools were left to themselves, improvement would follow almost automatically. The “dead hand of bureaucracy” was all that was holding them back. This was accompanied by the cult of the super-head who would turn round a failing school virtually single-handed.

In most local authorities, that dead hand is certainly gone. A combination of academisation and savage budget cuts have stripped capacity out of many local authorities. Many maintained schools are effectively as much on their own as converter academies. In quite a few cases, schools are clustering together in new voluntary groupings as a way of replacing missing local support and services.

Occasionally, it has been pointed out that sponsored academies have the least autonomy of any kind of school. As long ago as 2012, NCSL described in some detail the management structures of chains. It was clear then that the level of central control was substantial. This picture was confirmed by the RSA Academies Commission. And just this month, Ian Comfort, head of the AET chain said that:

“headteachers of maintained schools have more freedom and autonomy than their peers at schools in multi-academy trusts. A headteacher that joins a multi academy trust really has given up a lot of direct control over their own school.”

For the most part, this is presented as a bad thing. The DfE clings to the mantra that “thanks to the freedoms provided by academy status, these schools are driving up standards across the country.”
Increasingly though there is evidence that less autonomy may be associated with better performance. We’re not talking here about more bean counting. Nor are we talking about the Kemnal approach where sacking the head seems to be the main school improvement strategy.

Rather we’re talking about chains that have developed a consistent educational approach with developmental programmes in place to make sure it is applied across all its schools. The best examples of this are the Ark and Harris chains. Recent Sutton Trust research ( ) shows them as consistently amongst the most effective chains. The last issue of the SEA journal, Education Politics, included a detailed account of the work of Ark ( There is clearly here a serious attempt to create a rich educational infrastructure focussing on developing pedagogy and leadership.

One suspects the culture of Harris is somewhat different and it certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But what is undeniable is that there is a clear brand with a determination to establish consistency across the whole chain.

This is not intended to be a defence of academy chains as such, nor indeed of the particular approaches followed. But it is a suggestion that school autonomy is not all it’s cracked up to be because these two chains are clearly amongst the most successful.

It’s entirely possible to find the same thing happening outside the academy sector. London Challenge was all about saying that there is something bigger than the individual school. It was designed to promote growth and improvement across the system. It was mostly done with consent, but there was some sacrifice of individual autonomy.

Something similar can be said of the National Strategies programmes run by the Labour government. These programmes brought schools together around a common approach to a wide range of issues. Many criticisms can be made of the actual contact of some programmes but the key point is that schools worked through the issues collectively, supported one another and could draw on expertise from beyond their own walls. And taking part was not optional.

Going back further, some will still remember that extraordinarily rich infrastructure created by the ILEA. It was based firmly on a shared culture through which English education first began to pay attention to issues of diversity and inequality.

And of course we can look abroad to the much admired systems of Asia. Does anyone doubt that these systems have a strong shared culture and a systematic approach to school and teacher development. Would any of them leave this to chance?

There are persistent rumours that the DfE has come to the conclusion that the day of the free standing academy is over and that multi-academy trusts are the future. We can perhaps agree with the first point – there is such a thing as too much autonomy. Schools do need to be part of a broader system or they won’t ever be able to access the expertise and structured programmes that they need. Refusing to be part of something like that should not be an option.

But if we expect this of schools, we need to provide the framework. Leaving it to individual initiatives is not enough. An example of this is the teaching schools programme – it’s been demonstrated that schools in disadvantaged areas have very little access to teaching schools.

There is hard thinking to be done on the left about how to make sure that there is a developmental infrastructure that every school is part of. There may well be lessons from chains about what does and doesn’t work but it is now clear that the successes amongst chains are the exception rather than the norm. It will need a much more comprehensive approach with proper accountability.

But we should now be clear. Letting every school do its own thing is no longer adequate – and indeed never has been. If we do, a few will go seriously off the rails but more will simply fail to develop as well as they could for want of proper outside stimulus. And too many will seek to manipulate procedures(such as admissions) in their own self-interest.

The Regional Schools Commissioner in the West Midlands recently justified ignoring the opposition of 92% of respondees to a decision about a school in Redditch by saying:

“It is government policy that we have a school led system where headteachers are trusted to make the appropriate decisions”. So in effect everyone else – other schools, governors, parents, teachers – doesn’t matter.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that this does not deliver the best results. Schools should not be atomised units pursuing their own narrow interests. They should be part of a collaborative system recognising some limits on their independence. Heads should not be (in Wilshaw’s words) “the lone warrior, fighting for righteousness”. Wilshaw’s hero, Clint Eastwood, is actually more likely to turn into Fred Goodwin. Not quite the role model we want for our school system.