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Optimising autonomy: a blueprint for education reform

The English school system has ostensibly been moving in the direction of greater autonomy over several decades, but having been apparently taken to a new level in 2010 with the introduction of free schools and broader offer of academy status, doubts have begun to emerge as to whether these most recent reforms have made any real difference to student outcomes. While the theoretical and international evidence base for autonomy reforms is persuasive, and there is evidence of positive impact in pre-201Sponsored Academies, recent research from the London School of Economics finds no trace of post-conversion improvement in previously 'Good' or 'Satisfactory'/inadequate Converters and a concerning degree of heterogeneity. At the same time, head-teacher responses to the 2015 PISA survey reveal a widespread perception that there is no difference in the degree of autonomy between academies and maintained schools in respect of either resource or curriculum autonomy.

Optimising autonomy considers what may lie behind these findings. Taking into its purview issues of system and policy design in relation to school autonomy - competition and choice, information provision, accountability and oversight, pupil allocation and funding, different institution-level responses to these reforms, issues of governance, leadership, and management effectiveness, curriculum, pedagogy and testing - the report offers in the process a comprehensive theory of change indicating where and how present arrangements may be helping and/or hindering the cause of system-wide improvement.


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Download a free .pdf copy here.

The report argues that reform efforts towards an autonomous, school-led, and ultimately parent-accountable education system have faltered, giving way to an increasingly interventionist and public-accountabiliy approach. In assessing the functioning of the system, the report finds that:

  • Competition is inadequately supported bychoice, and success overly determined by league tables and other accountability measures that conflate student and school performance in too narrow a range of subjects.
  • The current ‘comparable outcomes’ framework set by Ofqual, which determines the acceptable distribution of high, pass and fail grades at GCSE based on the performance of previous cohorts, places a cap on overall student attainment.
  • At the institutional level, because of the very high degree of correlation between the overall Ofsted inspection verdict and that for ‘achievement and standards’, this means that success may shift around, but cannot grow significantly, or in any sustained way.  This leaves school improvement vulnerable to short-termism, gaming and worse.
  • These problems are exacerbated by a system of intervention that is vulnerable to rent-seeking and cronyism. The present, essentially network-based, nature of brokering has negative consequences for competition, and more profoundly runs the risk of poor Sponsor fit.

Download a free .pdf copy here.

The report makes a number of recommendations for how autonomy reform may be better supported by:

  • Changing our approach to general certification to place greater emphasis on institutional quality, general education, and competency, supported by a new research informed approach to inspection that rates schools primarily on the basis of evidence-informed practice.
  • The introduction of a national SAT test at 16 for benchmarking purposes.
  • Retention of GCSEs but wider scope for exploration of different subjects and pathways, trial and error.
  • Properly rigorous value-added measures that take account of progress by pupil profile and in school context.
  • An open tendering framework for deciding which Sponsors/MATs, and/or other kinds of providers (including privatised local authority education services), should take-over existing schools – or indeed introduce new provision.
  • Follow through on commitments to implement the new National Funding Formula, to be followed by further differentiation in the Pupil Premium, setting funding for disadvantaged pupils at a level sufficient both to compensate and to attract the right new operators to areas of poor provision. Phasing out the use of additional funding streams and caps to control the growth of sponsor capacity and extension of chains
  • Rationalisation of MAT governance and funding to support the effective functioning of reputational mechanisms in schools.
  • Greater attention to market accountability mechanisms, including the introduction of an actual voucher, opening admissions, simplification of the admissions code via the introduction of lotteries for oversubscription, and investment in the development of the school transportation system.

Download a free .pdf copy here.