Autonomy-what autonomy?
Is it time to revisit funding agreements and get the balance right between autonomy and accountability ?
At a recent meeting one head of an Academy Trust suggested that Academies have no greater autonomy now than maintained schools. Adding ,with a hint  of melancholy, that this hadn’t always been the case. He looked back at the start of the original Academies scheme, when there was more meaningful autonomy and much more cash available .( which might go some way to explaining why research shows that the initial academies programme had positive effects on attainment, whereas subsequently results have been more mixed)
The Funding agreements, that is the agreements between the Secretary of State and the  respective Academy Trust, vary considerably. Effectively they  amount to a contractual relationship telling the Trust what it can do with public money. So, in theory, as someone pointed out to me the other day, if the Secretary of State is  determined that all schools in a particular Trust should use green ink , and it has to be a particular shade of green, and that is  written into the agreement then that is precisely what they have to deliver, no ifs nor buts.  No wonder that more and more Trusts are beginning to worry about the trajectory of structural reforms.

One has to wonder, under present arrangements, what the incentives might be for Trusts to get involved with lower performing schools, particularly those in rural and coastal areas where the government is particularly keen to see quick transformation. If you look at the ‘best performing chains they were very careful about the schools they selected from the start and in what areas. (ie look at Ark and Harris). The Trusts that are struggling most, by and large,are those who  took  on the most challenging schools . Its not rocket science.
Not only do Trusts have to adjust to differing Funding agreements but much of their management time , maybe as much as 40-50%, is spent managing relationships with the DFE, Regional Schools Commissioners, Ofsted and the respective Local Authority. (yes local authorities still have a role). Compare and contrast these obligations with what private schools have to put up with. An academic at a recent event looking as school choice, suggested that academies have as much freedom as independent schools. I pointed out this was nonsense on stilts. Their freedoms  are  much more limited .
Of course, with public money involved and given the importance of education it is vital that academies, and the trusts that run them ,are held robustly to account. OECD research also reminds us that autonomous schools are only effective at raising attainment if they sit within an effective accountability framework.
But ,  if you believe in the importance of real autonomy and the galvanising effect this can have on schools, innovation ,enterprise  and pupil attainment, it is clearly important to get the balance right between autonomy and accountability . It was claimed that, too often, the old Local education authorities imposed burdensome bureaucracy on schools denying them real autonomy and the ability to make decisions for themselves.  But ironically the  worry now is that the respective, prescriptive Funding Agreements and an ever expanding and increasingly complex  accountability framework, will have the same deadening effect over time on academies.

So, there are grounds for worrying that the balance between autonomy and accountability  is now out of kilter. It could well be time to examine the relationship between DFE and academy trusts and the impact the fast moving accountability regime is having on the ability of these nominally ‘autonomous’ schools to have a transformative effect, throughout the system and to improve, radically, student outcomes, which ,its sometimes forgotten, was the purpose of these reforms in the first place. Maybe the relationship between DFE and Trusts needs to be re-set.
A report out this month, from the left leaning IPPR think tank, says ‘ While most commentators have focussed on the implications that ‘academisation’ will have for the role of local authorities in the school system, less attention has been paid to the growing difficulties with the legal framework that governs schools – specifically the fact that an increasing proportion of schools are now governed through individual contractual funding agreements with the secretary of state for education, rather than through legislation.
This, it notes, ‘ cuts to the heart of debates about school autonomy, and is integral to the way in which the government manages the education system. Contractual funding agreements set out the combination of freedoms and constraints that are placed on individual academies, but have proven unable to provide a consistent set of freedoms across schools, and have a number of drawbacks:
they don’t always protect autonomy
they have created a large bureaucratic burden on government and schools
they have created an inconsistent and contradictory set of freedoms among different academies
they risk tying academies to poorly performing chains
they are subject to less parliamentary scrutiny.
The IPPR suggests that a system based on legislation and common statute, by contrast, would have the potential to allow all academies, regardless of the timing and circumstance of their creation, the optimal balance of autonomy and accountability necessary to deliver a first-class education to pupils.
The IPPRs proposals may not be to everyone’s liking but the fact that the IPPR thought it necessary to publish a report on the issue now, indicates that this issue, simmering in the background for many months, may slowly but surely be getting up a head of steam.
Academy trusts are very cautious about airing their concerns in public, lest they are used to attack the government, upsetting the delicate relationships they have to manage with the DFE and other key stakeholders , while potentially undermining confidence in the whole academies programme, but these issues need to be addressed sooner rather than later by Ministers,
IPPR Report- A legal bind: The future legal framework for England’s schools


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