AUTONOMY AND SCHOOL ACCOUNTABILITY
Concerns emerging about lack of strategic oversight and democratic legitimacy
Research suggests that school autonomy is a good idea (OECD, World Bank, etc) but only if placed within a secure and robust accountability framework.
McKinsey research has shown that the highly successful school systems in the world have a middle tier, between central government and the individual school.
There is an on-going debate about how the government’s structural reforms, creating autonomous state schools (academies and free schools) have affected accountability. Academies and free schools are basically accountable directly to the Secretary of State, through funding agreements (which vary) which are contracts with the Secretary of State .These together with the academies financial handbook provide the accountability regime for all academies which includes the requirement to produce annual audited accounts. But can the SOS really hold so many schools directly accountable to him, given that over half secondary schools are now academies and there are going to be further cuts to his staff.
Meanwhile, the government argues that academy schools are ‘independent’ schools. But how independent are they, if they are directly accountable to the SOS, (and the provisions of the funding agreement)? The SOS can ,if he sees fit, vet the appointment of an academy trustee. How would any normal charity feel (academies are ‘exempt’ charities) if a Minister could veto the appointment their trustees? Certainly academies are not as independent as private sector schools, including those with charitable status (although academies are supposed to have inherited their DNA!).
Critics point out that there is no middle tier that can help identify and support problem schools early on. Some say that academy chains help provide a middle tier. For schools in this situation, the headquarters of the chain has become the new middle tier. But, of course, not all academies and free schools are part of a chain.
The latest contribution to this debate comes from Ron Glatter who is the emeritus professor of educational administration and management at the Open University and Susan Young is a freelance education journalist. In the Guardian (13 November) they argue that despite the growing power of central government, the dominant rhetoric has been about autonomy, independence and liberation from bureaucracy (read local authorities) and this focus has persisted and grown stronger over the years. The driving factors behind this include the commitment to free market ideology, England’s highly centralist constitution, and the symbolic power of the elite independent school sector. But they say that ‘paradoxically, despite the persistent and growing emphasis on autonomy, most school practitioners consider themselves constrained by government requirements to a far greater extent than their forbears in 1975. Schools have many more responsibilities and the centre has been transformed from a trusting referee and resource provider to a demanding and impatient managing director with frequently changing identities and priorities.’
They conclude that ‘The biggest change since 1975 has been the progressive disempowerment of the intermediate tier of governance which international research has shown is a vital element in system improvement. This looks likely to result in a highly unstable framework, marginalising the community and local dimensions. Unsurprisingly, many schools appear to find the stand alone model uncomfortable and are clustering together in various groupings such as academy chains and co-operative trusts. From the point of view of pupils and their families, the likely collapse of any local strategic co-ordination and community governance could have serious consequences and raises major questions about democratic legitimacy. A key challenge in the next few years will be to create an effective and legitimate multi-level system of educational governance that is fit for purpose and can command the trust of the public and the profession.’ This requires addressing a question, they claim, that is as crucial and unresolved now as it was in 1975, and which has become even more pressing: “To whom should schools funded by the public purse belong?”
Local authorities believe that they should be this middle tier, again. But one of the key drivers behind the academies programme is the proposition that schools were being stifled by local authority bureaucracy and interventions and needed much greater freedom to manage their resources, as they saw fit.This is less ideology, than common sense. And, arguably, while local authorities provide accountability, in the sense that councillors have to face periodic elections, (unlike their officials) in rather too many cases this has done little to improve schools under councils control. So this ‘long accountability’ looks to be insufficient, because far too many children, and particularly the most disadvantage have been let down. There are other ways, of course, to create this middle tier that might go some way to satisfying key stakeholders and which dont revert back to local authorities and the status quo ante. The Financial Times suggests that the middle tier role should be filled by regional commissioners, accountable to the local community and able to act on grievances quickly. The commissioners could also foster collaboration between academies: for example, by co-ordinating exchanges of teachers and organising training.
This is an important debate that will run and run.