How Important is School Autonomy for School Leaders of the Future?

During my career in education countless structural changes have been and gone. There is no doubt in my mind however that the most significant ones were those that gave schools autonomy and real control of our destiny.

Prior to the introduction of Local Management of Schools in the 1980s headteachers had minimal control over the strategic decisions of their schools. Apart from a small budget for textbooks even the smallest decisions about staffing such as the employment of a part time teacher for an additional half day or the the promotion of a promising teacher to a first post of responsibility were made by the local authority.  The new autonomy was a liberation. We were able to create our own ambitious vision for our school and turn it into a reality.

Nevertheless these new freedoms were controlled by a robust national framework of legislation and guidance, a national curriculum, the introduction of Ofsted and performance tables and tighter governance. Accountability was a key aspect of the Education Reform Act of 1988 which was probably the most far reaching of all of the many bills and acts that have passed through parliament in recent decades.

The natural development of this autonomy was the controversial introduction of Grant Maintained status.  Leaders of those were most definitely in control of their destiny with responsibility for just about every aspect of school management and leadership. As someone who was in the leadership team of one of these schools where the head really understood these new responsibilities they were undoubtedly halcyon years where his leadership enabled him and our team to  transform just about every aspect of our school for the better. But that is the nub of it. Increased autonomy needs increased, different and improved leadership capacity. That was not universally the case in GM schools. Some schools were ill prepared for these new responsibilities and got themselves into deep water.

The option to convert to academy status was promoted by the coalition government as an opportunity to enjoy new autonomies. I would dispute the extent to which these autonomies are any greater than those that GM /Foundation schools already had and I would also reject the myth often used that LEAs ‘controlled’ maintained  schools.  However I am quite clear that, if still a head I would have wanted the school I led to be an academy. I would have wanted to retain the freedom to choose where we purchased our services from and how we shaped the school’s destiny.

Nevertheless at that time I voiced concerns to the Secretary of State and officials about the absence of the kind of support and detailed guidance that schools converting to GMS had been given. Although many converter academies have been highly successful others have not to the detriment of their students. Conversion of the status of a school is not a panacea and does not in itself guarantee improvement or higher standards. Only great leadership can do that. Added to this, autonomy can only be beneficial if schools have the capacity to take advantage of it. As they struggle with dwindling budgets that capacity is under immense pressure.

I guess that the very public failure of some schools and the big variation in standards coupled with the increasing fragmentation of the school system has been a significant driver of the growth of the Multi Academy Trust movement. It is not the only game in town and, like the structural changes that preceded it is not a panacea. Nevertheless MATs are definitely in vogue and there are good reasons for this. Schools cannot work in isolation and there are enormous benefits to the kinds of partnership they can enable with the right leadership including the following:


  • It can lead to better progress and attainment for pupils.
  • It can help to spread expertise and share challenges
  • It can help to address the recruitment crisis. It is easier to share specialist expertise including business management etc.
  • It can help with succession planning.
  • It can provide professional development via responsibility across group of schools.
  • It can reduce teacher workload through shared planning.
  • It can broaden the curriculum/CPD offer and create economies of scale
  • It can break down the artificial barriers between primary and secondary sectors and foster excellent curriculum continuity and transition practice
  • It can enable governors to share strategic planning


But most recently there has been a highly significant change which Jon Coles rightly describes elsewhere on this website as a ‘policy tension’. The term autonomy has all but disappeared from government discourse. Quite rapidly there has been a change of direction in parts of the system which believes that a reduction in autonomy is a reasonable price to pay for the support a trust can provide.  Some trusts have highly centralised systems and structures, others are much more ‘arms length’ and give the individual schools and their leadership teams the real capacity to take their schools forward. As the new leadership role of CEO has come into being many schools are now being led by ‘Heads of School’ whose role in some MATs is much closer to that of a pre LMS head than a post LMS one or a deputy head in a maintained school.

It is too early to draw firm conclusions about whether this is a good thing or not and it is likely that , as in individual  schools, the leadership style a trust adopts will be highly dependent on the circumstances of that school.

What I am seeing however is that many prospective first heads are positive about leading a school in a MAT. When I ask their view on this they cite the support they would receive from the trust as a reason why this is attractive to them. That support could well be a key to addressing the real difficulty so many governing bodies are having in recruiting headteachers and coping with the enormous challenges that accompany the vast range of current reforms. If that support encourages people to step up to headship that has to be a good thing. I hope that it does and that this turns out to be part of a  career route which gives schools the capacity they need.

My top three issues I would recommend anyone considering such a role to investigate are as follows:


  1. 1. Choose your MAT carefully. What is its vision of education and could you sign up to that? Where are the other schools and would it be practical to work with them? Whilst I see numerous examples of trusts which really help their schools some seem to be more of a constraint than a liberator. Will the trust be part of the solution or will it be distant and unapproachable?


  1. 2. Explore exactly what the role would entail and where the boundaries lie. For example how are performance targets set? Will this be a collaborative, evidence informed process using your expertise or will completely unrealistic ones be imposed without any consultation or attention to available data. Will you be allowed and empowered to lead your school or will they micromanage you?


  1. 3. Investigate the governance structure and find out how it relates to the local governing body, what input you will have into strategic decisions. To what extent (for example) will you be able to shape the vision for your school’s future development?


Finally, part of this will depend on the way CEO /Executive Head roles evolve. These roles are still very new and they are certainly not for everyone. The skill set required to fulfil this kind of role is very different from headship and it does not follow that a successful head will be a successful CEO or even find this a fulfilling role. It is good to see various programmes being put in place to prepare people for these new roles but some of the high profile disasters we have seen recently highlight the desperate need for a mandatory national programme of the kind provided in the past by the National College.







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