One Education
Sponsored research from the CfEE

Optimising Autonomy

At One Education, we believe it is important to support and contribute to education debate. Our sponsorship of research develops our identity as influencers of education policy and practice.

One Education have sponsored a paper, entitled 'Optimising autonomy: a blueprint for education reform'.

One Education & CfEE

Our first sponsored research report with the Centre for Education Economics was launched in June 2016, entitled 'Taking a lead: how to access the leadership premium'. Written by the Centre’s Executive Director, James Croft, the paper reviewed the field of school leadership studies and the models of educational leadership that were supported by measurable evidence. One of the most challenging findings of the paper was that when we discount the anecdotal and only look for the evidence, we find out we don’t know very much at all.

'Optimising autonomy' will be our second piece of sponsored research from the CfEE.

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The Background

Despite the English school system moving in the direction of greater autonomy over several decades, there is a strong tendency towards central government direction and prescription of how that autonomy should be used. This has resulted in a set of arrangements that lacks coherence and in which incentives are often undermined or misaligned to the desired outcomes. Attentiveness to coherent system design has been lacking for some time.

In recent years, discussion about the long-term viability of academy policy has made little progress. In 2014, the Education Select Committee called for lessons to be learned from academisation achievement and impact. Challenge also came from the NfER (2015) for the government to become more articulate about its theory of change, its strategic goals in relation to improving teaching and learning, and to be clearer about the mechanisms proposed for effecting change. Meantime the education sector has gone round in circles on the basis of methodologically poor comparisons of academies and maintained schools. Theoretical and international evidence for autonomy reform is persuasive. Additionally, evidence of the impact of pre-2010 sponsored academies in England is known, and now research from the LSE provides indicators around converter academies post-2010 and the differential impacts of ‘Outstanding’ converters (which show steady and sustained improvement post-conversion) and Satisfactory/Inadequate converters (which don’t).

So Academy performance appears variable, but research exploring why is limited. The project we are sponsoring proposes a thorough consideration of what may lie behind these disparities – drawing together work CfEE has done to date in this area, and breaking new ground, to encompass issues of system and policy design; oversight and accountability; different institutional responses to autonomy; effectiveness of governance and leadership; teacher turnover, motivation and effectiveness; and curriculum.

As the government seeks to accelerate the pace of academisation to address a persistent long tail of underachievement; regional, rural and coastal inequities; and complacency among ‘coasting schools’. This project will seek to clarify:

  • Where and how present arrangements may be helping or hindering system-wide improvement?
  • Whether the balance between autonomy and accountability is right?
  • Whether regulation and the wrong incentives are detracting from improving standards?

In the light of the 'Schools that work for everyone' Green Paper’s proposals for unlocking a new supply of ‘premium’ sponsors from the independent sector, from HE, grammar school groups, and faith communities, we also consider the disruptive potential of these reforms for choice and competition, educational equity, and human capital development.


James Croft is Executive Director of The Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education and the author and co-author of several of its reports, including 'Taking a lead: how to access the leadership premium' (2016).

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