July 20, 2017 Print

Evidence suggests schools that have greater discretion over the curriculum they teach tend to deliver higher student outcomes. School autonomy reforms are designed to give schools more freedom to act innovatively to improve and enhance student performance. However, some have called this notion into doubt as greater school autonomy has been implemented across the English school system.

The Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education (CMRE) recently re-launched as the Centre for Education Economics (CfEE) to bring its distinctive perspective on education policy into sharper focus and improve public understanding of the importance of economics in education policy.

“Education economics is not a widely understood discipline,” explains CfEE Executive Director James Croft. “In general, although economics and data are increasingly at the heart of policymaking, the most crucial and basic economic ideas rarely make it into the wider education policy discussion at all. There is a pressing need to improve understanding of its role, and to invest in efforts to better communicate the important and often exciting emerging findings from this field. If this can be done, education economics holds great potential as a tool to improve both efficiency and equity in education in England and beyond.”

In its first research report as CfEE, the organization found that reforms toward an “autonomous, school-led, and ultimately parent-accountable education system” have stalled because of poor design and implementation, especially due to the system’s “increasingly interventionist and public accountability-driven approach.”

Throughout the white paper, called “Optimising autonomy: a blueprint for education reform,” Croft uses extensive economic literature on education reform to both review the current system of reform that has been implemented in the English school system since 2010 and explore why that reform agenda seems to have stalled.

Croft offers a comprehensive theory of change exploring the successes and failures of the current program of reform, as well as ideas for system-wide improvement. Among his many findings are that transferring decision rights to schools would encourage healthy competition, and that parents must be provided with accurate, credible and accessible information concerning school accountability.

“While public/government accountability is clearly important, greater attention must be paid to parent accountability,” Croft writes. “Choice mechanizes the competitive dynamic that inheres in the nature of autonomy reform, and ensures that it does not degenerate into cronyism or rent-seeking. It also creates a market demand for better information provision.”

He also notes that a balance must be struck between the freedom to innovate and public accountability.

“If accountability to institutions and regulation is too strict, there is little reason to believe that significant innovation and improvements will ensue from autonomy reforms. Furthermore, if schools are not given sufficient autonomy, they will not be able to respond to incentives to compete in a healthy way.”

Read “Optimising autonomy: a blueprint for education reform”