Schools aren't using new freedoms – but Labour criticism is still wrong

 
James Zuccollo
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AT THE heart of the coalition’s education reforms is a move towards greater school autonomy to allow more innovation and, ultimately, better results. The idea has its critics. They contend that school autonomy will diminish the quality of education. The shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt has expressed concern that it will lead to “a competitive, atomistic school landscape where every school is an island.”

This view is misplaced. The OECD’s respected international Pisa rankings show that the best systems make schools autonomous and accountable. Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s education expert, appeared before the Education Select Committee last week to endorse the direction of the academy programme and commend “a high level of autonomy and discretion at the front line.” But schools must be able to meaningfully exercise their freedoms for autonomy to be beneficial.

To understand how new freedoms are being used, Reform and the education body SSAT conducted the largest survey of academies to date. A fifth responded – a broad cross-section of the academy population. More than half of respondents indicated that increased autonomy was their main reason for becoming an academy. Yet fewer than half have exercised their freedom to change the school day, the curriculum, or employ teachers without qualified teacher status.

This should serve as a wake-up call to ministers, who must ask why it is that academies feel unable to exercise their freedoms. One reason may be that most academies are still young. Their numbers have increased 28-fold over the past five years, from 132 in 2009 to nearly 3,700 today.

More worryingly, the remainder of the school system constrains academies’ actions. For example, academies are permitted to depart from the curriculum, but their children often sit the same GCSEs and A-levels as pupils in maintained schools. Similarly, academies are allowed to change the school term and school day, but it is difficult to move away from the structure used by the vast majority of other schools. Last July, the academies’ minister Lord Nash said: “I want academies and free schools to make full use of these freedoms.” To enable that, the system around them must change.

Hunt’s concern is that academies may have insufficient support to effectively use their freedoms. The survey should allay his fears: over half of academies are already supporting a vulnerable neighbouring school, and over 80 per cent have strengthened or maintained their relations with local schools. The same holds for relations with local authorities. Relations have worsened for fewer than a fifth of academies. Nearly half of schools still rely on local authorities to provide services like human resources and legal advice.

The autonomy enjoyed by academies could lift educational standards across the country. Over half of academies in the survey have already seen their students’ results improve. The challenge for the government now is to spread the innovative approach of leading academies to the rest of the system. That will require ministers to lead from the front and grant those freedoms to all schools.

James Zuccollo is senior economist at the think tank Reform. The full survey Plan A+ 2014: An unfinished revolution can be found at www.reform.co.uk