Autonomy vs Accountability

18 Apr

For as long as I can remember, education has been vexed with the twin rivalries of autonomy and accountability. They appear to be in constant strife with each other.   There was a time when the nation accepted that educationists, especially teachers, knew best, and left them to get on with the job of educating our children – i.e. to be autonomous.   However, there were problems.

I           The downside of autonomy

All was not well in “the secret garden”.  This unease was given body during an epic moment when the late Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, in 1976, spoke at Ruskin College, Oxford.  He referred to “legitimate public concern about trendy teaching methods, to “unease felt by parents and others about the new informal methods of teaching, which seem to produce excellent results when they are in well-qualified hands but are much more dubious when they are not”.    In other words, Callaghan wished to introduce a measure of accountability.

His speech sparked off the Great Debate.  Parents were to be given more information and rights.  Ultimately the national curriculum for England and Wales was imposed on schools and central government began to assume considerable educational powers and control on what was taught, including the pedagogy deployed, and how the impact was to measured.

Central government acknowledged that it needed local authorities to police the system.   Some LAs, such as Haringey and Brent, abused their powers leading to the creation of the Education Reform Act of 1988, which ensured that they (the LAs) were side-lined.  The Department of Education and Science took over their powers – prescribing a national curriculum and testing regimen.  School governing boards and headteachers (through LMS – the Local Management of Schools) were authorised to deliver in ways they thought fittest the national curriculum.

There were unintended consequences. The country was down on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) league tables.   So, government turned the screws on schools by creating the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) and appointed Chris Woodhead – the teachers’ bête noire – as the Chief Inspector.  Examinations were reformed and then reformed again.

However, schools were offered the opportunity to flee the local authority nests (which some described as cages) and allow them to become grant maintained.  The freedom they were given, they soon discovered, was severely circumscribed – i.e. just larger cages.  Ofsted continued to bring down the cosh on schools – local authority and grant maintained ones – that failed to perform well.  With LMS, schools realised that they were in the marketplace.  They had to perform well in the league tables and with Ofsted otherwise parents would not opt for them.  Parents would withdraw their children and schools would lose money as children came with “prices on their heads”.

Ex-Education Secretary David Blunkett tried to do what he could to lift the sights of those schools that were failing by creating academies and bestowing on them dollops of money. This led to limited improvement.   However, it was not until Michael Gove took up the educational reins and enabled all schools to become academies did the education system truly open up.  There was a Gadarene-like stampede as some headteachers (governors were led by their noses and exercised little influence, it appears) led the charge out of local authority control because at the beginning there was considerable money in the conversion.

Academies spawned Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs).  Government’s covert rationale behind this move was to weaken the powers of the LAs by freeing schools from their controls.   However, not only did Ofsted identify some academies in large MATs failing but also that Chief Education Officers (CEOs) in MATs were manipulating their trust boards to pay them salaries two or three times that of the Prime Minister.

In 2017/18, Sir Dan Moynihan of the Harris Federation Trust (which runs 44 academies) has an annually salary of £440,000.   (The Prime Minister’s is £150, 402.)

Warwick Mansell, the journalist, wrote in November 2017 that in 2010/11 on average, a local authority’s children’s services director was paid £132,000.  S/He was responsible for (on average) nearly 50,000 pupils.   For the same number of pupils (in 2015/16) in eight MATs, on average, the CEO was being paid £143,000.  Put another way, the LA director was costing the nation £2.67 per pupil compared to £23 per pupil for a MAT CEO.

The autonomy given to MATs – deregulation by another word – meant that there was no cap on the salaries of their leaders.  This resulted in large salaries for relatively small numbers of pupils.  Mansell added that the academies’ programme “has had the effect of vastly increasing the number of organisations overseeing state-funded schools”.  In addition to the 152 local authorities there were now more than 3,000 MATs each needing a leader.  If MAT leaders were paid similar salaries to the Directors of Children’s Services, the overall bill to lead such organisations would be much higher.   In the event, tax payers are having to cough up more and, more seriously, our children are given fewer resources.

Schools and academies are today finding their budgets severely constrained.   Yes, the government has turned off the resources tap, but are CEOs contributing to financial shortages by drinking deep of the budget wells?

Tensions between accountability and autonomy continue.  Ed Dorrell, the Deputy Editor of The Times Educational Supplement (TES), describes this situation as “an impossible paradox”.   He states the issue has political connotations. This, I would add, is because of two factors.

First, the funding of education comes from tax-payers – you and me.  We elect our political leaders.  Consequently, it is right and proper that control has to be political.

Also, education, unlike medicine, is not a precise science.   Consequently, from time immemorable, there has been debate of what is the best education we can give our children.   The NHS is lucky in this respect as it’s prescriptions for good health are rooted in unbiased research.

II          Problems with accountability

Both, former education secretaries, Kenneth Baker in 1988 and Michael Gove in 2010, legislated to give headteachers and governors more freedom, but not freedom for its own sake.  The thrust was to weaken the powers of LA and the teacher unions.

Nick Gibbs, Schools Minister, averred (from one side of his mouth) that he wanted to give headteachers and governors more freedom through academisation.  However, from the other side of the mouth he promoted a set curriculum and a model of pedagogy that resonates with the one captured by Charles Dickens in Hard Times. In a passage, a visiting official asks Thomas Gradgrind’s pupils: “Suppose you were going to carpet a room. Would you use a carpet having a representation of flowers upon it?” Sissy Jupe, a student, replies, ingenuously, that she would because, “If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers.”

“And is that why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?”

“It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, sir. They would be pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy…..”

“Ay, ay, ay!  But you mustn’t fancy!” cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point.  “That’s it! You are never to fancy.”

“You are not, Cecilia Jupe,” Thomas Gradgrind solemnly repeated, “to do anything of that kind.”

“Fact, fact, fact!” said the gentleman.

“Fact, fact, fact!” repeated Thomas Gradgrind.

Ministers interest in school/academy autonomy is ingenuous.  Witness Gibb’s obsession with phonics and times tables, which today hold so much sway over what primary teachers do in their classes.

The government, in one sense, is keen to increase the number of MATs giving CEOs, headteachers, governors and trustees more powers.  On the other hand, while academies are not required to follow the national curriculum, they ignore it – especially those elements that lead to good test and examination results – at their own peril.  And as for finance, that is another story where there is never enough.

In many cases, the constrictions on powers has impacted negatively on schools and academies. Equally, where freedom has been given wings, schools and academies have gamed the system with off-rolling difficult pupils.   Also (as mentioned earlier), the CEOs of MATs have run riot on the salary front, and some governors/trustees have engaged in financial transactions which have been unethical if not dishonest. A few have ended up in the courts.

III        Have educational reforms worked?

The English education system has gone through two decades of reform.   Young people are more literate and numerate. There is no place for a failing school/academy to hide.  Parents know about the poor performance of schools/academies – through both, inspection reports and examination and test results, and they are savvier about what works in the classrooms.

But Tony Blair’s strategy of “naming and shaming” downgraded the status of the teaching profession.   It smacked more of the reformation of medieval miscreants who were condemned to the stocks.  Failing schools/academies need both, challenge and support, not naming and shaming.  Teachers have been driven out of the profession. There are now more teachers in other professions or teaching in other countries than ever before.  This has created a national shortage.

There is no doubting the government’s good intentions.  However, this is often the way to hell.  There are so many variables in education, the chief of them being the children who are unique and deserve the best.   What is good for one child and works for her/him may not be suitable for another.  Good teachers, consequently, keep adapting their methods of passing on the wisdom of previous and the current generations to the next, to give children the best education possible, rather than stuff them with “facts, facts, facts”.

Also, as many people as there are on this planet who are associated with education – teachers, headteachers, parents, governors, trustees, politicians – so many opinions are there about what constitutes a “good education”.   The upshot has been that the problems associated with Brexit takes a poor second place when considering what makes good education for young people fit for the 21st century.

The last words must be those of Dorrell when he wrote: “Teachers must first embrace the political and then help to develop, and project, a collective voice – one that is loud and proud – in the political bun-fight that is education. They must be powerful protagonists in the fight, rather than trying end it.

“Perhaps then the profession can push back against the worst excesses of political meddling and help to build an accountability model – make no mistake, there will always be one – that is as near to fit for purpose as possible. Such steps forward might, for example, help to arrest the hemorrhaging of senior staff from leadership as part of the heavy-handed and knee-jerk phenomenon now known as “football manager syndrome”.

“As always with education debate, when one drills down into it, this is largely about the failure, over generations, to build a profession bursting with self-confidence and self-efficacy.

“Schools and teachers will always have politicians watching over them, prodding them, using accountability to direct them. But instead of this being done to them, perhaps we can reach a situation where it is done with them.”

Prior to Callaghan’s Ruskin’s speech, the English education scene was dominated by high autonomy and low accountability.   Over the last 40 years, the balance has tilted so that we now have high accountability and low autonomy.  There have been many benefits that have flowed.  But one of the serious downsides has been an exodus of teachers and a shortage of trainees coming through the system.

Ultimately, education needs both, autonomy and accountability – bringing about the right tension – like the wire on a violin to enable the maestro to make good music.

Changing the metaphor, autonomy and accountability are two sides of the same coin.  Freedom – of which autonomy is an aspect – is not licence to do whatever one wants to do, but rather, within an educational context – doing what is right for the child.   That calls for accountability.  Autonomy and accountability are not incompatible, but complementary – and that’s as it should be.

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