Ofsted 2014 – Standards: does school autonomy make a difference? Here’s some evidence…

Launching Ofsted’s 2014 report, England’s Chief Inspector for Schools, warns secondary school progress has stalled.

Sir Michael Wilshaw supports school autonomy but dismisses arguments over school structures – academies vs. local authority – as “sterile”. It’s strong leadership, good pupil behaviour , good teaching and strong governance and oversight which count, according to HMCI.

Does the greater autonomy enjoyed by free schools and academies help raise standards? Expert academics set out some evidence:

Professor Alice Sullivan of the UCL Institute of Education:

“Parental choice and increasing school autonomy have been the dominant themes of British education policy since the 1980s, but there is no evidence to show that these are effective ways of improving the educational attainment of children from poor backgrounds.

There is no robust evidence that any particular school structure or type -such as academies, free schools, faith schools – is beneficial for improving the performance of poor pupils.

It is often argued that the existence of competition between schools drives up standards overall. However evidence suggests that competition from self-governing and faith schools has not driven up standards in neighbouring schools.

It may be that the focus on school structures has been misplaced, with a greater emphasis needed on school and classroom processes.”

Professor Mel Ainscow CBE, Professor of Education at The University of Manchester, said: 

“The Chief Inspector’s report suggests that, in its present form, the emphasis placed on school autonomy – academies and free schools – is not working.  Greater autonomy does create space for innovation.  However, as Sir Michael explains, what is needed is effective coordination, something that cannot be achieved from Westminster.  Specifically, this requires a rethinking of the roles of local authorities.

“Our research indicates that successful local authorities monitor the progress of schools, including academies and free schools, leaving headteachers responsible for the overall management of improvement efforts.  They also broker school-to-school support.  In these ways, local authority staff position themselves as the conscience of the system: guardians of improved outcomes for all young people.  This involves ensuring that the success of one school is not achieved as a result of the failure of others.”

Comment from Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, Research Director, Centre for Market Reform of Education, Affiliated Researcher, Research Institute of Industrial Economics, Sweden:

“There is evidence to suggest becoming an academy can mean better results for pupils, but only among schools that were LEA maintained prior to conversion. In addition, the research findings only apply to schools, mainly in disadvantaged areas, which became academies under the previous Labour government’s scheme.

The research, the latest and most rigorous in England, shows that Labour-established academies had a large impact on GCSE results among pupils who attended LEA maintained schools at the time of conversion. Three years afterwards, these pupils performed the equivalent of 40 PISA points better than they otherwise would have done.

At the same time, pupils at schools that already had greater control of their own affairs, such as voluntary aided ones, showed no improvement due to academy conversion. In other words, only significant increases in autonomy appear to be linked to better results.

While changes in leadership are related to the improvements among pupils in LEA maintained schools, they can’t explain the effects in isolation since schools that were more autonomous at the point of conversion also saw similar leadership turnover.

However, it is very important to note that this research only applies to the academies policy under the previous Labour Government, which particularly focused on disadvantaged schools and areas. The results can’t be extrapolated to post-2010 academies, let alone English free schools, for which we have no direct evidence at the moment.

Nevertheless, the international economic research suggests a small-to-medium positive impact of schools similar to post-2010 academies and free schools – including on countries’ performances in PISA – often by providing competition for state schools. While it’s again difficult to say with confidence that these results can be extrapolated to England, it does indicate that autonomous schools may bring benefits also to pupils not attending them.”

Comment from Toby Greany, Professor of Leadership and Innovation, UCL Institute of Education:

“Recent research with heads of schools judged Good and Outstanding by Ofsted who have been able to take advantage of Coalition reforms such as academy conversion, indicates they see it as inevitable that strong schools will get stronger and weak schools weaker under the Coalition’s reforms.

These reforms are broadly aimed at increasing school autonomy, whilst retaining strong accountability.  Today’s Ofsted report provides an important indicator of the impact of these reforms four years on.

This raises the question of what we know about the impact of autonomy and accountability more widely?

Research indicates that increasing the autonomy of schools to make decisions over key aspects of their operation does lead to an improvement in pupil outcomes, but this impact varies between countries, and the kinds of freedoms schools have will also make a difference.

Schools in England were already among the most autonomous in the world before the Coalition came to power.

Some high performing countries, such as Finland and Korea, have medium to low levels of school autonomy, suggesting that it is not the only route to success.

Both the DfE and OECD agree that autonomy must be combined with accountability to be effective.

Research suggests England’s model based on Ofsted inspections does have some strengths compared to others, because it clarifies expectations and incentivises self-evaluation by schools.

However, there are downsides to high stakes accountability models, such as England’s: they can flatten the very freedom and autonomy that governments want to encourage; schools can teach to the test; they can second guess what inspectors want rather than what the evidence tells them; and they can game the system by changing the social backgrounds of their intake or by massaging their exam performance through various subtle tricks.” 

Professor Alan Dyson, Professor of Education at The University of Manchester, said: 

“We need to be very cautious about taking Ofsted’s comments at face value. There are real doubts about the robustness of findings on individual schools. And comments about whether the school system as a whole is improving or getting worse need a lot of unpicking. The framework Ofsted uses for judging schools changes regularly. This means that a school that is judged ‘good’ or even ‘outstanding’ at one point can be judged as ‘requiring improvement’ next time the inspectors call. The consequence is that we have no reliable way of knowing what is happening to school standards overall.

“We also need to be cautious about assuming that educational achievements are simply a result of how good schools are. There is overwhelming evidence that factors beyond the school make a huge difference. Some children get lucky in terms of the families they are born into, the income their families have, and the places where they live. Others are less lucky. This is why the outcomes of our education system are so unequal – not the minor differences between individual schools. We need to stop leaving this to luck. Any incoming government needs to develop a strategy for making sure that all children have the right resources and support out of school. Strategies for tackling the ‘social determinants’ of inequalities are beginning to emerge in health, but education is lagging behind.”

Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics, University of Bristol:

“The headlines in the Ofsted Report are about the number of schools judged to be ‘Outstanding’ or ‘Good’ versus those at the other end of the scale in Special Measures.  It’s good news on primary schools, less good for secondaries.

But the statistics are not straightforward to interpret. For example, it is impossible to inspect each school every year so the overall numbers of schools in different categories include some inspection results that are years old.

A simple bit of maths shows that if the delay in re-inspecting the best schools is extended, then this will by itself increase the fraction in the top category.

Similarly, it is not obvious how to judge the outcomes of the inspections carried out this year: to a degree they reflect real changes in schools, and to a degree they may reflect changes in which schools were chosen for inspection.”

Note to Journalists: The research mentioned by Gabriel Sahlgren in his first paragraph is by Andrew Eyles and Stephen Machin

Professor Greany draws on these research sources in his comments: Coldron, Crawford, Jones and Simkins (2014). OECD, PISA in focus, (2011/9).  OECD TALIS, (2014). Hanushek, Link and Woessman (2013). OECD, PISA 2012 Results.  Woessman, 2007.  Jensen, B., Weidmann, B. and Farmer, J. (2013). OECD TALIS 2009. Caldwell and Spinks (2013).  Baxter and Ehren (2014). Waldegrave and Simons (2014).  Dunford et al, (2012). Sahlberg (2008).  Gilbert et al, (2013) Reform/SSAT (2014).

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