Autonomy, adaptability and academies: Gove speaks to the Schools Network

Janet Downs's picture
“In countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better,” Mr Gove told the Schools Network, the renamed Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT). Mr Gove is quoting correctly from the OECD Pisa in Focus 9 but he should have read further on.

Pisa in Focus 9 discusses the relationship between school autonomy and accountability. The report uses findings based on information gathered during the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. OECD, the organisation that administers PISA, wrote: “The Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the partner economy Macao-China grant the greatest autonomy to schools – not only in allocating resources but also in making decisions about curricula and assessments.”

The Coalition is selling the academy conversion/free school policy on the premise that English schools need to be set free from heavy-handed control, but the OECD says that UK schools already had considerable autonomy in 2009 before the Coalition came to power. And despite UK schools having been bludgeoned with centralised initiatives and curricula changes since the National Curriculum was first introduced, secondary head teachers were still able to tell OECD researchers that they felt they had considerable freedom over resource allocation, staff recruitment, the school budget and what exams and courses to offer. Yet Mr Gove tells the same heads that they need to embrace academy conversion to get these freedoms.

Mr Gove repeated claims made at the Conservative Party Conference about how recently-converted academies were benefiting from their new status. A Freedom of Information request found that apart from two factors, these claims were based on flimsy, even non-existent, evidence.

During the speech Mr Gove cited the “landmark assessment of the academies programme” by the London School of Economics (LSE). What he didn’t say, of course, that the report was based on academies established by Labour from disadvantaged and poorly-performing schools. The LSE report noted that Coalition academies are mainly formed from schools that perform well, and more time was needed to come to an authoritative conclusion. Neither has he considered criticisms of the LSE report that raw result indicators will often not show the whole picture of what has been going on in these pre-Coalition academies.

To Mr Gove, however, these academies “generate significant improvement in pupil performance”, but he omitted to say that this improvement was from a low base. Mr Gove said the improvement was not because the early academies were “scooping up middle-class pupils from nearby schools.” There is no mention in the LSE report of “middle-class pupils”. However, it did say that these early academies experienced “a sharp and significant increase” in the quality of their intake. And the report concluded that the significant improvement in GCSE results in early academies “is driven by the relatively more advantaged pupils attending the academies as compared to the predecessor school”.

And if Mr Gove thinks individual academies are marvelous, then he rhapsodizes over academies in groups. These “are collaborating on a scale that has never been witnessed before”. Perhaps Mr Gove should reflect on what is happening to the 16-19 sector as schools, particularly academies, are opening sixth-forms. The Principal of Lancaster and Morecombe College, quoted in TES*, said, “The market distorts numbers and undermines the rational use of resources. I think schools and colleges are finding that they are the victims of poor policy making… This isn’t the best thing for the young people and it isn’t the best thing for the local area… When you are talking about young people’s lives, you can’t afford to have losers.”

*”By hook or by crook”, 9 December 2011, TES, not available on-line, discusses how FE colleges and school sixth-forms “using fair means or foul… are battling to attract as many post-16 students – and the associated funding – as they can.”

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Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 10/12/2011 - 21:11

I think Gove is feeling on the defensive because some of his top advisors (including Wilshaw, some of the edu-chains, his civil servants) are all saying that there is a need for a "middle tier" which supervises schools at a local level.

Janet's picture
Sat, 10/12/2011 - 21:35

This is on par with the Social and Health Care Bill, and they're trying to slip it under the radar. We can't let that happen!

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 11/12/2011 - 08:55

I think we need to be careful about Wilshaw's vision of a middle tier which seems to revolve around extending Ofsted's infulence to the point where managers are encouraged to act like Ofsted inspectors in their own schools instead of managing them.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 11/12/2011 - 11:31

My concerns about the speech revolved around Mr Gove's repetition of information that isn't true, in particular assertion that, in order to attain autonomy, schools need to shed LA support (this is always portrayed as getting free of LA "control"). Yet in 2009 heads were telling the OECD that they already had considerable autonomy. For example, heads were asked who determined course content: 77% said "principals and/or teachers", 20% said "principals and/or teachers and "regional and/or national education authority", and only 2% said that principals and teachers were not involved. When asked about selecting teachers for hire, 90% said "principals and/or teachers". On formulating the budget, 95% said it was again "principals and/or teachers".

I could go on. There are other questions which overwhelmingly said that in 2009, before the Coalition came to power, "principals and/or teachers" made the decisions (for data see pp 33-34 OECD linked below).

But Mr Gove keeps saying that such autonomy only comes with academy conversion. At the same time he is putting forward policies (eg EBac) which will restrict what is taught in secondary schools, and it is now a legal requirement for teachers to use synthetic phonics as the main means of teaching reading. Whether one is a fan of this method or not, it raises the question of whether politicians should dictate how subjects are taught.

Also in the speech he repeated claims which could not be substantiated or which relied on a selective reading of research. Unfortunately, Mr Gove's statements are published in the media without checking whether they are accurate. has concerns about newspapers generating articles based on unchecked press releases, a practice known as "churning", which can be read here:

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 11/12/2011 - 13:23

On the subject of whether politicians should dictate teaching methods, the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, has waded into the argument about the use of calculators in maths. I presume Mr Gibb used a calculator when he was an accountant and didn't rely on his fingers, but he's decided that English school children use them too much. He's forgotten that England scored highly in the TIMSS tests 2007 even though he quotes TIMSS. He says:

"the TIMMS study of maths in 2007 shows that pupils in Massachusetts, Singapore and Hong Kong go on to out-perform pupils in England in international league tables at age 10 and age 14."

Massachusetts! Why Massachusetts? Why didn't Mr Gibb compare England with the US as a whole? That's because England outperformed the US at ages 10 and 14 and Mr Gibb is desperate to show England in a poor light.

Mr Gibb goes on: "The international evidence is also clear. High-performing jurisdictions around the world limit the use of calculators in the primary maths classroom." But English pupils were among these "high performing jurisdictions". In the Maths test, English 10-year-olds were 7th out of 36 countries (and top of the Europeans), and English 14-year-olds were 7th out of 48 (second in the European League). But Mr Gibb's mission, like Mr Gove's, is to portray English education as failing. And he uses the disputed OECD PISA 2000 data again - but then he does that in almost every speech he makes.

Academics and teachers have rebuffed Mr Gibb's claims about calculators:

The question is, however, will he decide that he, a non-teacher, knows best and make it illegal for primary school children to use calculators?

And just in case you're wondering why Massachusetts came to be assessed as a separate entity, the State was on of 8 "benchmarking entities" which took part in TIMSS 2007. Further information here:

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 11/12/2011 - 17:41

Thoughts on the MPs discussion the use of calculators:

I suspect the key insight is in the post script.

Samuel Morris's picture
Mon, 12/12/2011 - 19:30

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 07:53

Samuel: thanks for the link to the Association of School and College Leaders (representing 15,000 member, including secondary heads and college principals. It's worth quoting the General Secretary:

“Benchmarking the UK education system against international standards is a valuable exercise and PISA and TIMSS are a useful tools for doing this. However, they come with a large health warning. As this report clearly shows statistics must be used carefully and in context. ASCL strongly supports evidence-based policy but that does not mean cherry picking international statistics to justify a particular policy direction, as this government has tended to do in the past.”

“Misleading comparisons and alarmist sound bites about us plummeting down league tables do the British teaching profession a great disservice and undermine public confidence in our good and improving education service. At a time when high quality education is a priority for our economy and the wellbeing of our society, we cannot afford to be distracted by misinterpretations of the data.”

That's what has been said on the site since its inception.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 11:36

One of the most ludicrous distractions is, of course, Gove's simultaneous criticisms of the UKs's PISA scores (which explicitly test functional skills through applied questions) and his attempts to eliminatefunctional skills from the National Curriculum. I gather the National Curriculum review isn't going very well at the minute as his efforts to find a credible person in education to write a curriculum which excludes functional skills aren't producing results at the minute.

International comparisons should be used to define the need for and stimulate the exploration of deep research which provides real insight into the differences in teaching between the UK and high performing countries, such as Ma's research which I explore here: and on subsequent blogs and the TIMMS video study by Stigler et al explored from p43 onwards in this excellent book:

Samuel Morris's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 19:56

Well don't worry Janet. Just because international comparisons don't stand up, you can always fall back on the fact Academy Schools will enhance Parental Choice just like Charter Schools are doing all across the USA!!!!!!!!!

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