Autonomy important but so is collaboration and interdependence


Andreas Schleicher, from the OECD, was at the public launch last week of the Academies Commission report and for a subsequent academic seminar. Schleicher sought to place  the report into an international context. Yes, he said, the world’s best school systems are those with high levels of school autonomy. But he also pointed out, some of the world’s worst school systems are those with high levels of school autonomy. Autonomy, in short, is no guarantee of success. Autonomy delivers quality only where independence is accompanied by an incentive system and a culture which embeds collaboration and so engenders school inter-dependence.

Professor Chris Husbands, one of the report’s authors,  remarked on  a striking phrase at the launch from Schleicher  who said ‘ “knowledge in education is sticky” – it does not move around the system. So arguably the challenge posed by the Academies Commission is how an autonomous school system can build knowledge about success.  Husbands says “We will not achieve the vision success for all if academisation simply produced archipelagos of excellence. One of the report’s recommendations is that no school should be eligible for an Ofsted “outstanding” rating for leadership unless it can demonstrate success in helping other schools to improve. This, at least, would incentivise collaboration.”

The importance of schools helping each other to improve is not, of course, a new idea. Academies and new Free schools are supposed to demonstrate how they will work with other schools to improve outcomes.This is whats termed a self-improving school system. Back in 2010, Steve Munby, then head of the National College for School Leadership, (now the Chief Executive of CFBT Education Trust) said  “ I believe that school to school support is central to the future of school improvement. We have clear evidence that this approach not only achieves improvement where it is needed but also raises the bar at all levels of our system”

On the autonomy issue Harry Patrinos, the lead education economist at the World Bank group has some interesting observations.  In a blog on the  OECD findings  last year  he wrote:

‘students tend to perform better in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed. Similarly, schools that enjoy greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to show better student performance than those with less autonomy. However, interestingly enough, in countries where there are no such accountability arrangements, schools with greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to perform worse.’  So Patrinos is stressing that autonomous schools must be embedded within a meaningful accountability framework to improve outcomes. He continued ‘ We find that it is the alignment between autonomy and accountability that is important, and not necessarily the levels of education system development that are important in explaining superior academic performance,.. It is not autonomy on its own – or in any way accountability on its own – that produces superior results’.

We have written  before  about the Finnish education system , and why it is so  successful. Finnish schools  receive full autonomy in developing the daily delivery of education services. The ministry of education  believes  that teachers, together with principals, parents and their communities know how to provide the best possible education for their children and youth. Except for guidelines for learning goals and assessment criteria, The National Board of Education (taking care of curriculum development, evaluation of education and professional support for teachers) doesn’t dictate lesson plans or standardized tests. School can plan their own curricula to reflect local concerns. But they also  collaborate closely too.Finnish educators  have been keen to   find ways to help schools and teachers come together and share what they have learned about productive teaching techniques and effective schools. This has resulted in the  creation of multi-level, professional  ‘learning communities’ of schools sharing locally tested practices and enriching ideas, and matching the needs for local economic development


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