Autonomy without accountability will not raise school standards

By Jonathan Clifton

| 05 January 2012

Yesterday Michael Gove gave an impassioned defence of his programme to convert more schools into academies. This has been the biggest shake-up of the English school system for decades - with 1,529 secondary schools now being free from local government control and many primary schools following suit.

The idea behind the academies programme is that giving schools more freedom over their day-to-day management will raise standards. Academy schools have more autonomy over how they spend their budgets, employ their staff and choose their curriculum, and local authorities have less power as a result. In his speech, Gove quoted evidence from international studies such as PISA, which show that when countries give their schools more autonomy they tend to perform better.

Gove is right that giving schools more autonomy can help to raise standards. The thing that he has failed to grasp is that this only works if there are the right checks and balances in place to ensure schools use their freedoms to good effect. In this respect, schools are just like any other service or business. They need someone to hold a mirror up to their performance, give them a prod, and help them to keep improving. 

The international evidence that Gove cited in his speech is absolutely clear about this. Contrary to what he claimed yesterday, PISA does not show that school autonomy on its own can help raise standards. If he had finished reading the Forward to the report, Gove would have seen it draws attention to the finding that school autonomy works "when combined with effective accountability systems".

And this is where the government's education reforms begin to look a little shaky. Because in the process of setting nearly half of England's secondary schools free from local authority control, they haven't thought through who will hold all these individual schools to account for their performance. Who can keep an eye on the performance of these schools and encourage them to improve?

The perverse result of removing local authorities is that the Secretary of State for Education himself is left with this job. If an academy school were to fail, Michael Gove would personally have to intervene. Such a centralised system - where Whitehall is responsible for monitoring and driving improvement in thousands of schools - is unworkable and will be bad for standards.  We urgently need a new model of local accountability for schools.

The best way forward would be to create powerful new schools commissioners at the local level, an idea recently endorsed by the new head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw.  Schools commissioners would not be involved in managing schools, but instead act as local champions for standards, monitoring the performance of all schools in their areas, whether academies, free schools or local authority schools, and intervening where schools were failing or coasting. In this way, they would be more visible champions of standards for local parents.

Jonathan Clifton is a Research Fellow at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter: @jp_clifton


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