Is bureaucracy killing autonomy?


Spare a thought for academies and  multi-academy trusts. The idea behind academies is that they are autonomous, freed from local control  and stifling bureaucracy. They have been given new freedoms, over the curriculum,  over admissions (though limited), over term times , over the day to day running of their schools   and  over how they spend their resources.  Heads and governors could and should be more responsive to the needs of their students, New creative and   innovative approaches to learning would be fomented, along with new and better learning opportunities offered to their students. But the reality turns out to be a bit  different. The head of one of the largest academy chains stopped me mid-sentence the other day when I was talking about academy freedoms. He asked what freedoms?  We don’t have  real freedoms, it’s a myth, he claimed.  The governments recent intervention over the  Ebacc is given as one example of the government preaching one thing,   freedom over the curriculum, and doing another ,telling schools what they should do on the curriculum front. So bureaucratic has the system become, a combination of the accountability framework in the form of Ofsted, and the  new  Regional  School Commissioners  combined with central government continuous  interventions and guidance ,  that  those in charge of academies and MATs spend   much  (even most) of their time managing these relationships rather than being focused enough  on  other vital  matters internal to the  respective schools or chains.

Joe Nutt, a consultant, was engaged as an adviser to one of the country’s largest Academy chains, TKAT, on their planning for expansion from 11 schools in 2012 to a proposed 75 in 2015. In his recent written evidence to the Education Select Committee Nutt  gave some insight into pressures faced by MATs. In the words of a board member,  whom  he  interviewed, the relationship between the trust and the department  (DFE) was “classically dysfunctional”. He estimated that the CEO was spending 7/10 her time managing that relationship. As someone whose career had been outside education, he found the situation “unbelievable” He asked Nutt “What on earth is going on?”

Regional Schools Commissioners were invented because of concerns over unaccountability. Academies are directly responsible to the Secretary of State and there was a need, it was argued, for a middle tier to provide an additional layer of accountability.

However,  Nutt notes real  differences in thinking between business and education, differences which lie at the heart of why efforts at performance managing schools by RSCs remains problematic. Nutt identified an urgent need to improve the quality of the chains relationships with both Ofsted and the respective  RSC.

Nutt  also suggests that the government could consider a new way of thinking about measuring the quality of teaching. He writes  ‘At present many teachers regard such measurements as externally imposed, peripheral to their real work and divorced from the children they teach. I would argue that measuring and understanding the quality of their teaching should be self-imposed, routine, at the heart of their practice and directly linked to children’s learning.’  Part of the problem, of course (now widely acknowledged,) has been Ofsted inspectors inconsistency, and therefore the unpredictability built into the system, putting additional pressures on all schools not just academies (a problem that is hopefully now being addressed).

As for the relationships between MATs, Ofsted, RSCs and DFE there appears to be a growing rather than diminishing problem.  MATS may not be keen to go public on the extent of these problems but they are there  . The local bureaucracy represented by the local authority seems to have been replaced by another multi-layered bureaucracy leaving many MATs feeling under siege, with limited freedoms, fearful of the next intervention, and without being able  to exercise  the real autonomy,  to improve outcomes ,that they were originally  promised. Food for thought.



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