But autonomy works only within a robust accountability framework


In 2007 a Sutton Trust report ‘Blairs Education’ found that the degree of autonomy that a school enjoys does have a direct effect on pupils test scores, according to the OECD Pisa report. It stated ‘Independent schools tended to do better than government schools, across a range of countries, even when the social background of pupils is taken into account’. Similarly, government funded private schools tended to do better than  government run schools and   the report concluded that the likely explanation for this was ‘the relative freedom schools enjoy from  government control’

The  later OECD report (Pisa 2009) again found that in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, the students tend to perform better.

But accountability and the regulatory regime are important. Autonomous schools must work within an accountability framework to be effective. Autonomous schools operating within an unregulated or poorly regulated system are almost certainly  not,  based on the evidence, the answer to raising standards.

In countries where schools account for their results by posting achievement data publicly, schools that enjoy greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to show better student performance than those with less autonomy.

However, the report found ‘in countries where there are no such accountability arrangements, schools with greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to perform worse. At the country level, the greater the number  of schools that have the responsibility to  define and elaborate their curricula and  assessments, the better the performance  of the entire school system, even after  accounting for national income’.

The World Bank also stresses the importance of autonomy with accountability. The book ‘Making Schools Work New Evidence on Accountability Reforms Barbara Bruns, Dean Filmer, Harry Patrinos; World Bank;2011 drawing on new evidence from 22 rigorous evaluations in 11 countries, examines how strategies to strengthen accountability relationships in school systems have affected schooling outcomes. The authors   provide a succinct review of the rationale and impact evidence for three key lines of reform: (1) policies that use the power of information to strengthen the ability of students and their parents to hold providers accountable for results; (2) policies that promote schools’ autonomy to make key decisions and control resources; and (3) teacher incentives reforms that specifically aim at making teachers more accountable for results.

A report this year from CFBT Education Trust ‘A Thousand Flowers’ looked at schools that are government funded and privately provided, around the world,  and how policy makers and providers operate successfully within  the context of  recent supply-side reforms. The authors found that among the key characteristics for effective systems that host these  private, government funded providers  were ‘accountability structures that set high standards and have the capacity to intervene where there is underperformance’ and ‘ highly autonomous schools with the freedom to innovate’.

So, taking into account evidence from the OECD, World Bank and the CfBT report the bottom line is: Autonomy and accountability go together: greater autonomy in decisions relating to curricula, assessments and resource allocation tend to be associated with better student performance, but this is particularly the case when schools operate within a culture of accountability.