School Improvement

Optimising Autonomy Bitesize

By Jane Sowerby on 31 Aug 2017


On paper, the English school system is moving towards greater autonomy but the perception on the ground is that there is no difference in the level of autonomy.

Research suggests that there is no improvement for academies that were good or satisfactory/RI prior to conversion. The Centre for Education Economics (CfEE) argues that autonomy is the silver bullet for raising standards but that it has been compromised and here offers an evidence-informed theory of change for the future.

The author, James Croft, CfEE Executive Director, has consulted research extensively to consider every dimension of the blueprint for reform and gives us all the opportunity to reflect on the findings; challenge his ideas for resolution; and explore our own beliefs and values.


This is One Education’s bitesize read of the CfEE’s full research report. There are some real nuggets of wisdom from current research; advocacy for sensible actions such as clarifying the roles of Ofsted and the RSCs or listening to the views of schools, parents and pupils; and there are some radical ideas that take us out of our comfort zones such as for-profit schools, and lotteries for place allocation.


School autonomy

Autonomy should make space for schools to think differently and innovatively about how to improve pupil performance. Evidence suggests that to improve pupil outcomes, schools need discretion over: the curriculum; the way teaching and learning is organised; pay and conditions; and how resources are allocated.


This devolved decision-making ought to encourage competition between schools which, research suggests, yields improvement in standards. We don’t yet know if post-2010 academies and free schools have been successful at increasing competition, but the small scale of free schools is unlikely to have significant impact.

The CfEE suggests under-supply is a problem and that the resolution would be allowing for-profit involvement in public services, citing research that shows for-profit and not-for-profit schools are equally successful at raising standards.

School choice

Competition is not an end but an enabler and is linked to choice which, the CfEE argues, is compromised by tight central government control and the system of comparable outcomes which ultimately caps overall achievement. Additionally, as current accountability measures do not distinguish between school and student, short-termism prevails and institutional change becomes challenging; made worse by the government’s tendency to pick winners largely based on absolute achievement measures.

The CfEE argues that uncompromised choice is essential but there are current constraints on choice: the community schooling allocation framework; transport policy; and selection practice in school admissions.

Information provision for parents and the public

School accountability measures are critical to how parents interpret quality. Research suggests that improving information for parents affects choices, and therefore outcomes, for the better. The information must be accurate and intelligible to parents. Being able to differentiate school quality from pupil quality and compare pupils in schools of similar intake is essential, as is using measures of quality other than test scores.

The CfEE supports inspections that go beyond test scores and suggests the possibility that sometimes teachers may be doing the right things but not getting the outcomes expected, rather than automatically concluding that the teaching is inadequate.

The approach to determining the curriculum and the qualifications that pupils should take does not provide a basis for judging quality. The CfEE suggests that there needs to be a new approach to general certification, a wider range of indicators of education quality, and a wider choice of qualifications for students.

Pedagogy, curriculum and qualifications

Curriculum and qualifications autonomy is critical to education quality. The CfEE cites research demonstrating that generic skill development via pupil-centred learning is not effective for raising achievement. Traditional teaching methods are the most effective for raising test scores but modern practice is best for ‘reasoning’. Young people need the freedom to explore and then to specialise in other areas of learning, and to discover and demonstrate strengths and aptitudes.

Getting the balance right is the issue and the CfEE asserts that listening to the views of schools, parents and pupils about the trade-offs must replace government over-prescription.

Pupil allocation mechanisms and funding

As well as the right information to support choice, funding and pupil allocation need to support autonomy. The current proximity-based system is inequitable as it advantages the wealthy who can afford to buy themselves into the catchment area. Academic selection is inconclusive in its academic benefit for those selected and has a unanimously adverse effect on equity. The CfEE argues that a choice system with lotteries for oversubscription benefits lower socio-economic families.

The CfEE supports a national fair funding formula, weighted to account for disadvantage and incentivising providers to take schools with disadvantaged intakes.

Governance, leadership and management

Governance reform provides a new division of leadership, with the potential to create a focus on which specific leadership decisions and practices are likely to have an impact on pupil outcomes. Research demonstrates that leadership vision and imparting a strong sense of shared mission are related to teacher effectiveness. Additionally, mission and goal-setting functions; setting of the curriculum; and provision of instructional guidance for teachers, are all ways in which leaders can be influential. Research suggests that ‘federations’ explicitly focused on improving pupil attainment, within a coherent outcomes-focused structure are the most successful.

Accountability and oversight reform that supports autonomy

Accountability makes most sense when school leaders can directly influence outcomes. The accountability and oversight system, the CfEE argues, therefore needs to respect school autonomy, and support the innovation, research and development that makes it work. Research in this area is new and therefore limited, but given that, a more distributed approach and the construction of a range of measures assessing performance in different ways is likely the best way forward.


There is clearly a balance to be struck between public accountability and freedom to innovate. Academy funding agreements post-2010 were designed to underscore the conditional nature of school autonomy. Since 2010, the Secretary of State has been legally directly responsible for academy outcomes leading to negative consequences, with an approach heavily invested in picking winners and vague arrangements for system oversight.

Local authorities have an impossible set of statutory obligations and the CfEE believe they should be reconceived as assurers of equity, building social and economic capital and community cohesion including:

convening forums to help schools identify matches with academy sponsors and school improvement providers

assistance with school bussing to support parent choice

support for teacher supply through housing policy

brokering support from local business around careers guidance and work experience

retaining administration of the preference system

Responsibility for standards should sit with schools not local authorities, it argues. Responsibility for monitoring and inspecting schools, holding them to public account for the standard of their provision, and identification of areas in need of improvement, is Ofsted’s.

The RSCs intervene on the basis of Ofsted’s judgements when new leadership is required. The Office should anticipate need and oversee the evolving landscape of future provision, but first must resolve its relationship with transparency through open tendering and move away from merely short-termism and cronyism in order to avoid poor sponsor fit or financial impropriety. To do this, the CfEE argues that the Office must de-politicise and be re-classified as a non-ministerial department under the Crown, accountable to Parliament, independent of the DfE and therefore better able to take on full responsibility for place planning and procuring new supply. Provision for insolvency and transfer of assets and assumption of liabilities would also help.

The CfEE argues that incentives for MATs to take on schools in difficult contexts are currently inadequate, and the discretionary funding RSCs have to support regional academy growth only serves to deliver high variability in the funds paid to sponsors. The CfEE argues that withdrawing centrally dispersed funding and raising pupil premium funding to a sufficient level to attract the right new operators within a tendering framework, may offer a solution. The importance of strengthening MATs by funding going directly to the MAT before being distributed to member schools; by giving MATs greater control over the assets of their schools to enable them to raise finance for development; and of the government resisting legislation for a member school’s right to secede, are all favoured by the author.

Additionally, the CfEE cites research indicating that governance should be further rationalised at MAT level but that this, along with matters of ownership and organisational structure, should not be legislated for as freedom widens participation. For the same reason, the CfEE advocates the same approach to local authority reforms, including removing the restrictions for authority-owned education services to participate in tenders for new schools and takeovers.


Choice mechanises the competitive dynamic and creates a market demand for better information. It is argued that the growth and complexity in regulation has rendered the representative role of parent governors impractical, as well as presenting worrying consequences for governors carrying a legal responsibility to hold senior leaders to account. The CfEE prescribes professionalising governance and separating the roles of representation from decision-making through parent councils; ‘parents do not need to be on the governing body to have a voice but they do need to be empowered as consumers’.


“The indicators are that if choice is supported in this way, with information that empowers consumers, in the pupil allocation system, and the ways schools are funded; and if schools are given adequate autonomy in matters of governance, leadership and management, that they might actually respond to competitive incentives; and if we can achieve a framework of intelligent accountability and suitably distributed oversight, then there are real gains to be made.”

“Overall, the current system is not one which can produce transformational change…What we need is to invest in optimising autonomy by resetting and better supporting reforms already in train.”

Authored by Jane Sowerby

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