Seven stories of autonomy and centralisation

by Loic Menzies, 27 March 2023
Graphic of 2 couples on a tandem bike, cycling in opposite directions

In my last blog I argued that when mapping the way to educational equity, policymakers should be clear, not just about the evidence for their chosen approach, but also the underlying rationale behind it, including the values and preferences that underpin it.

This was partly prompted by an interview with a former senior civil servant who argued that one of the problems with recent education policies has been a failure to reconcile tensions in the underlying theory of change.

On one hand, the Conservative party campaigned in 2010 based on a manifesto claiming that autonomy, combined with accountability would lead to a higher performing, more equitable school system. On the other, there was a belief that teaching and learning needed to pivot towards academic rigour, including a knowledge-rich curriculum and a shift towards more teacher-directed pedagogy.

These approaches proved hard to reconcile, as one of my interviewees explained:

“If you read the Importance of Teaching white paper now, and particularly if you read the evidence document that goes with it, it’s all about autonomy and accountability… That sounds like a strategy doesn’t it… ‘we believe we should set the best leaders free and give them wider responsibilities and then we should enable and grow that’… The problem comes when all the barnacles get added…

If you put alongside that, ‘we're also going to reduce your curriculum flexibility, push the Ebacc, we're going to introduce phonics tests, multiplication, times table tests, introduce an approach for inspection which reduces your freedom to make different choices about anything’ - these two things are in tension.”

There may be ways of reconciling these priorities, and as this civil servant explained “the process of making policy is always contingent and messy.” However, his view was that although these tensions “were noticed and discussed”, policy decisions were made “in the heat of the moment,” leaving the tension unresolved.

This resulted in incoherence.

Perhaps that’s why politicians ended up investing valuable political capital in major reforms of the National Curriculum, whilst at the same time exempting academies from having to follow it.

One of the fun things about interviewing policymakers is that you get to probe them on things like this, so recently I’ve been going through my interview transcripts pulling out four individuals’ explanations of how they navigated this tension.

Their accounts reveal seven different ways they’ve tried to juggle autonomy and central direction:

  1. Autonomy - combined with accountability (tight but loose)
  2. Autonomy - combined with nudging
  3. Autonomy - combined with national priorities
  4. Autonomy - except where the evidence is overwhelming
  5. Earned autonomy
  6. Control through conditionality
  7. Support alongside accountability

Quote 1

“There were some things that ministers felt very strongly about, and there was a huge amount of prescription, particularly on phonics. But given that the reading wars had been going on for decades; that it's so important that children can read well to access the rest of the curriculum; and that ministers were convinced that their evidence base was really strong on this, they felt confident of being very prescriptive. So they put the accountability in by introducing a phonics check to see if pupils could decode. But then over time, they've got more and more prescriptive, only funding approved schemes.”

Here, the starting point is: ‘autonomy except where the evidence is overwhelming’. We then move back to ‘tight but loose’ before once again, acknowledging a drift towards ‘control through conditionality’.

Quote 2

“There was a sense that the state was not the right person to mandate specific approaches. It was very much about empowering the frontline, you hold them accountable for outcomes, you give them a set of options, you nudge them towards the one that you think might be right. But ultimately, you respect their right to do something differently if they don't want to. If you look at the broader Gove reforms, they took one of two directions. So they were either incredibly prescriptive or incredibly loose. It was ‘either get rid of government-set assessment levels at primary school, we do not care at all what you put in their place.’ Or it was incredibly prescriptive, with phonics put into funding agreements.”

This example begins with a straightforward statement of the ‘tight but loose’ strategy, but then shifts towards ‘nudges’, before acknowledging incoherence, as policies shifted towards ‘control through conditionality’.

Quote 3

“I do think that we should give the profession more autonomy… but autonomy always has to come with accountability. …politicians have to look at Britain and say, ‘well, what does Britain need?’... If brain surgeons used a mallet and a chisel to crack open somebody’s head and perform brain surgery and most died, and yet we knew that in other countries they used very sophisticated drills and hygiene, shouldn’t ministers be making speeches about the drill and hygiene rather than the mallet and the chisel…There comes a point when ministers can intervene in these things.”

Here, ‘tight but loose’ is once again the starting point, but then a new strategy gets introduced - the ‘autonomy with national priorities’ approach. We then shift back to ‘autonomy unless the evidence is overwhelming’.

Each of the examples so far comes from the Conservative (or Conservative-led) era but as my first interviewee pointed out, messiness is nothing new in policy. This is clear in my fourth quote which relates to the Labour government era:

Quote 4

“School autonomy was always part of the agenda but… the way I would tell that story … was: ‘yes we're increasing school autonomy - we're putting more money in school budgets and it’ll be up to you how you spend it. But there are a couple of national priorities...

So we're giving you specific money, and you have to do this....  You do have to train the teachers because you don't know where they're going to go… so we're going to train everybody to do these things and you're going to be held to account for results...

Autonomy is not unconditional… the idea that autonomy is going to work is fine if they're all really good schools… But it's not fine if you're not quite at that point… as a system goes from awful to adequate, adequate to good and good to great, you shift the autonomy.”

Here we see many of the same rationales: ‘autonomy combined with national priorities;’ followed by ‘control through conditionality;’ then ‘support with accountability;’ and then ‘earned autonomy’.

Ultimately there will always be a degree of messiness in these things and blindly following one mantra is pure dogmatism. However, if we want a more coherent approach in future, then surely policymakers need to be clearer about their intended approach and explicit about the trade-offs. Otherwise, it's too easy to end up with drift and contradiction.

Moreover, this isn’t only important when it comes to government policy; as I’ll discuss in next week’s blog, it’s also something schools and trusts need to think about when mapping their own way to educational equity.

This blog was in response to our discussion series 'Mapping The Way to a More Equitable Future for Education' which brings together key voices from the education sector to discuss the barriers to equity in education, and the information policy makers and practitioners might need to overcome them.

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