Autonomy in schools drives up standards – Michael Gove is clear. And he’s right. But there’s no need to look to the United States for autonomous schools – they’re here in England and they’re not just academies.
It’s a myth that only academies have freedom. In 2009, international research
found UK schools were among only four countries that gave the greatest autonomy to schools. And in 1996 a report on grant-maintained schools
which, like academies, were independent of local authorities (LAs) and received funding directly from Whitehall, acknowledged that “powers and responsibilities” given to the governors of GM schools were also available “though to a lesser extent” to the governing bodies of LA schools under Local Management for Schools (LMS). The report stressed that LMS resulted in LAs delegating "a high proportion of budget and all management responsibilities" to the governing bodies of all schools.
The “lesser extent” comprises those “freedoms” which academies have. They are:
1. Freedom to opt out of the national curriculum
. But a report in March 2012 by the Schools Network and Reform
conceded that two fifths of academies believed the National Curriculum already allowed them sufficient freedom to innovate without needing to convert. As far as opting-out was concerned, one head said: “Freedom from the NC is somewhat illusory when Ofsted are likely to judge us on it.”
2. Freedom to vary teachers’ pay and conditions
. The Schools Network/Reform report found two thirds of academies had not altered staff terms and conditions and had no plans to do so. The OECD found that UK teachers were already working “fairly long” when compared with other countries. Attempts to increase teacher work load could back fire if teacher burn-out results in high levels of absence or teacher turnover.
3. Freedom to change the length of the school day, week or year
. All schools could vary the school day – but LA schools needed to consult which is only reasonable. Non-academy schools in the same LA usually have the same term dates which minimises problems for parents with children in different schools. And steps to increase the compulsory school day
in a Great Yarmouth school have been unpopular and raise questions about how schools can enforce attendance above the statutory entitlement.
4. Freedom to spend the small proportion of their budget previously retained by local authorities
to pay for back-room services. Academies still have to pay for these services.
5. Increase the number of pupils allowed into the school
. There are warnings
that academies, rather than accepting more pupils, could refuse to take extra pupils. This would leave equally-full LA schools having to cope with an increased demand for school places.
UK schools, whether academies or not, already enjoy a high degree of autonomy. And the extra freedoms available to academies have to be balanced against extra legal and administrative responsibilities. In any case, these extra “freedoms” may not necessarily be in the best long-term interests of academies and pupils.
But Gove perpetuates the myth that it is only by becoming an academy that schools can be free. But UK schools have had considerable autonomy for over twenty years. And far from spreading autonomy, academies in chains could have less freedom
than when under LA control.