When Gove uses words like “autonomy” and “accountability”, does he mean the same as the organisation he uses for backing?

Janet Downs's picture
“But if you look at all of the high-performing jurisdictions, there are certain common features, and the strongest three common features brought out by Andreas Schleicher are: maximum amount of autonomy for principals, strong external accountability and good staff.”  

Michael Gove, Education Select Committee*, 18 December 2013

Gove used Andreas Schleicher, from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to give credence to his reasonable sounding description.  But his definition of the highlighted qualities may not quite match the OECD's.


In 2009 the OECD found the UK was one of only four countries which allowed schools significant autonomy.  The Academies Commission confirmed this: UK schools already had a great deal of autonomy and extra academy “freedoms” didn’t amount to much

This raises the question why Gove should push for more “freedom”.  One possible answer is the classification of academies as “independent” schools.  This, as Policy Exchange made clear before the last election, paves the way for schools to be run for profit. 

Siobhain McDonagh, MP, asked Gove if he thought he would “ever see tax-funded schools run for profit.”  Gove answered, No.  But questions are already being asked about whether Sabres Educational Trust is just a “conduit” used by the Department for Education to pay private equity owned IES for running IES Breckland.  And he’s on record as saying he would be happy for companies like Serco to run schools.   


Andreas Schleicher listed ten factors (see here) which put the pupil at the centre not the system.  And these qualities weren’t all “external” as Gove claimed.

The essential focus of any accountability system is the pupil. Schleicher said there were huge challenges in building effective evaluation.  It was essential that any accountability system did not have “unintended negative consequences” which undermine the quality of learning.

The OECD warned two years ago there was already too much emphasis on test results in England and this risked negative consequences.    Yet Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, calls for more tests despite English pupils being among the most-tested in the world. 


Gove is right: the quality of a school system can’t exceed the quality of its teachers.   The OECD stressed the importance of Continual Professional Development as well as attracting and training the best graduates.  Countries which are successful in PISA tests value their teachers and find ways to improve the performance of weak ones.  They encourage teacher collaboration and share best practice.  But Gove allows academies and free schools to employ unqualified personnel to teach without obliging them to train**.  This has led to unacceptable situations such as:

1         Unqualified staff being left unsupported at Al-Madinah, the free school judged to be in “chaos”.

2         Annaliese Briggs, appointed head of Pimlico Free School despite being unqualified and inexperienced, leaving after only a few weeks of term.

3         The unqualified head of Discovery New School leading a school which was in danger of turning out children unable to read and write

4         A Leeds academy advertising for a teacher with just 4 GCSEs C+ including Maths and English.

So, when Gove talks about autonomy, accountability and good teachers it’s important to remember:

1         English schools already had a great deal of freedom.

2         Accountability is more than high-stakes tests and an inspection system with constantly moving goalposts.

3         Good teachers need to be properly trained and developed.


*NOTE:  The evidence is uncorrected. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

**It’s always been possible for schools to employ unqualified personnel to teach but this is with the proviso they would gain Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) in a specified time.
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