Review by Mark Lehain

21 Jan 2018, 5:00

Inside the autonomous school: Making sense of a global educational trend, by Maija Salokangas and‎ Mel Ainscow

I’ve worked in schools since 2002, and to say that the changes we’ve seen since then have been significant would be an understatement.

While some of these were driven by local circumstances, this book is a timely reminder of two things: 1) most of the really big developments have been pushed by national government, and 2) this is a global phenomenon.

Outside Michael Gove’s brain, you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger advocate for school autonomy than me.

I’m a passionate believer that heads should have the freedom to do whatever they feel they must to meet the needs of their kids. That could mean longer days, shorter holidays, different curriculums and staffing arrangements, whatever; they should be left to get on with it, and judged by the outcomes for students.

However, it’s still relatively early days, and no-one can deny that the evidence school autonomy is definitively better for everyone is still patchy. We need to keep testing and revisiting even cherished views, and Inside the autonomous school certainly helped to do this for me.

This book takes a neat approach to the topic of school autonomy

In a democracy, education will always be politicised, and in most places it’s been a slow move back towards freedom for state-funded providers. In England, most schools are still getting to grips with the amount of power they have over how they do things, which isn’t surprising when you consider how constrained they were for so long.

This book takes a neat approach to the topic of school autonomy: it starts by describing trends at the global level, zooms in to give more detail to the reforms in England, and then spends the rest of the book detailing how these have played out over time at a particular (anonymous but real) school it calls “Parkside Academy”. This makes the whole thing very readable, and really helped to bring the issues to life.

For instance, there is a compelling case for how early idealism at Parkside was constrained and undermined by the accountability regime and the need to deliver “results” quickly.

There is also a chapter dedicated to how the school’s leadership team fell apart as it struggled to cope with its principal stepping up to run the wider trust. I found myself nodding along to lots of it – we have seen this kind of thing happen all too often in our schools.

That said, while it flows from the general to the particular with ease, I worry that it ends up overexaggerating the role of the reforms in reality.

I worry that it ends up overexaggerating the role of the reforms in reality

A lot of weight is placed on their role in the specific problems Parkside faced. However, I can think of any number of maintained schools that have seen their leadership, and thus performance, collapse when the head took their eye off the ball.

Gaming and cramming the life out of a child’s curriculum is not the preserve of academies.

Unpicking exactly what part academy freedoms or qualification reform played in Parkside’s rise and fall would be tricky – one could just put it all down to weak leadership.

The recommendations the authors draw could have been made at any point in the last 70 years – “ensure clarity of purpose”, “encourage schools to collaborate” and so on. These are all worthy considerations, but I still need to be convinced they have greater relevance in a system of more autonomous schools.

That said, I really enjoyed the book. I read it over Christmas, and it provided an easily digestible alternative to the usual routine of turkey, ham, schlock fiction and television.

Whether you favour or are against the direction of travel of recent years, it provides an accessible but rigorous examination of the existing literature, and will challenge your existing point of view.

In my new role I’m encouraging more schools to make the most of the autonomy they already have – and it certainly got me considering how we ensure lessons are learned from earlier days of reform.

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One comment

  1. Martin Matthews

    I would be interested to know if this book addresses the basic question “Are academies more autonomous?” There are many discussions to be had around that and given the position of schools within a MAT it could be hotly debated.