The bitter fruits of autonomy

In his speech on 12th November, schools reform minister Nick Gibb restated some of the key themes of this government’s education strategy and expressed his delight at seeing the ‘full fruits of autonomy in all their vivid abundance.’ To those of us who have to consume them, those fruits taste distinctly bitter.

It would be churlish for a sixth form college principal to deny that autonomy has brought institutional benefits. Devolving curriculum, staffing and financial decision-making to heads and principals has been broadly positive. But without any coherent system to work in, we exist in a planning vacuum where the market is the only logic and where there is every incentive to be more selective, whether overtly or covertly. By being accountable directly to the secretary of state, thousands of English schools and colleges are effectively disconnected from any local democratic structures with no opportunity for local debate or consensus-building about the type of system local people want. The new Regional Schools Commissioner system with its Headteacher Boards are an example of the unaccountable new education state and I have discussed this further here.

In Nick Gibb’s view, the government’s reforms have ‘unleashed a previously untapped educational idealism within English civil society’. They have certainly unleashed market forces, with competition between schools and colleges now the norm and young people themselves being treated as commodities rather than powerful consumers and every provider is shopping for the ‘best’ students. In many cases idealism has given way to sharp business practices and increased marketing. I describe some of the effects of the market on education in a series of short posts in the #marketmadness series here.

Nick Gibb also devotes 2 paragraphs of his speech to celebrating the fact that a 16-19 free school in Newham has helped to ‘channel the brightest pupils from London’s most deprived borough into top universities’ with 68 pupils from its first cohort gaining places at Russell group universities, when the local sixth form college actually sent more in the same year. More background on this is available here. With all the hype surrounding such new providers it’s hardly surprising that the ‘fruits of autonomy’ sometimes turn to sour grapes.

There is an alternative. An alternative speech about structural reform would emphasise the need for schools and colleges to work together to take responsibility for the education of all young people in their area, turn away from selection and share resources and ideas. It would invite idealistic people to get involved in developing their local education system and propose democratic means for this. It would value all subjects and all young people equally and it would celebrate the achievements of all students in all settings rather than those of a favoured few.

This alternative speech is crying out to be made and I suspect it would be very popular, but who will make it?

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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