School autonomy: getting the balance right

The recent Commission on School Reform report, By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education (see, has a lot to say about school autonomy. In short, the argument put forward in the report is that the dead hand of bureaucracy, especially as exemplified in rigid local authority structures, is stifling innovation and preventing the meaningful implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. While the report needs to be treated with some caution (for example, it is weak in its coverage of research literature), it offers a detailed analysis of current trends (over 100 pages) and sets out a large number of recommendations for improving the current situation. It is thus worth a read.

The question of whether schools should be more autonomous is an interesting one, and an issue on which I have some sympathy for the Commission’s views. However, it is far from unproblematic, and needs more nuanced consideration than that given in the Commission report. One question lies in what we mean by autonomy. We might ask: autonomy for whom? For headteachers? Or more broadly for all teachers? Autonomy from whom? The Commission advocates freeing up schools from local authority control, and appears to advocate an English-style model of diverse provision, comparatively free from central control, but kept in line through inspections and data management systems (i.e. the use of attainment data, target setting, etc.).

There are serious questions here about whether this is autonomy at all. For a start, uniform local authority control in many English Academies has been replaced by a potentially more capricious control by sponsors and other local parties. It is difficult to argue in many cases that teachers are more autonomous in these schools, and indeed they may have less freedom.

Another, potentially more significant issue lies in the balance between different types of regulation. Policies such as England’s 1989 National Curriculum, and to a lesser extent Scotland’s 5-14 Curriculum, sought to control what happened in school by prescribing content. Michael Gove’s reconfiguration of the National Curriculum, with its emphasis on cultural literacy, seeks to achieve something similar. There has been some recent policy development designed to prescribe methods for teaching. Regulation of schools by some Scottish local authorities follows this pattern through, for example, prescription of content presented via local authority schemes of work, or teaching methods (notably Assessment is for Learning [AifL] techniques such as sharing learning intentions). This type of regulation can be referred to as input regulation (Nieveen & Kuiper, 2012).

The second type of regulation can be referred to as output regulation (ibid.). This comprises mechanisms such as the evaluative use of attainment data; in Scotland, this invariably draws upon Higher results, compiled into Standard Tables and Charts (STACS) and used annually to judge the performance of individual teachers and their schools. While there is no official use of league tables, as in England, local authorities compare similar schools using comparator league tables. A second facet of this output regulation lies in the use of external inspections. Scotland employs a softer inspection model than its English OFSTED counterpart, but inspections still have real teeth, and the consequence of a negative inspection is serious for any school. Moreover, local authorities tend to mirror inspection techniques in their audits of school effectiveness, adding a separate layer of output regulation

According to educationist Gert Biesta, output regulation has done more to erode school autonomy than did any prescriptive curriculum. Such mechanisms produce cultures of performativity in schools. They have been shown in study after study to lead to perverse incentives, hoop jumping, game playing and even cheating, as schools seek to maximise their performance against what is measured, even where such tactics are detrimental to their students. As American educator Michael Apple suggests, there has been a ‘subtle shift in emphasis … from student needs to student performance, and  from what the school does for the student to what the student does for the school’ (2001, p. 413).

All of this is not to suggest that autonomy is some sort of panacea. Nor do I suggest that we do not need curriculum regulation. Instead, we need to think far more carefully about the appropriate balance between input and output regulation. In England the National Curriculum imposes strong input regulation, and this is accompanied by strong output regulation. As a result, schools’ autonomy is limited. In English Academies, input regulation is weak, but output regulation is very strong. Arguably, these schools are also not autonomous. In Scotland, input regulation from the centre is comparatively weak, but there are reasonably strong forms of output regulation. Removing the influence of local authority regulation may not then increase school autonomy.

My point here is that it is not sufficient to call for more autonomy. We need to decide where autonomy is [un]desirable, and what forms of [de]regulation are necessary to maximise teacher agency in the areas that matter. This calls for an intelligent balance between input and output regulation, and careful consideration of the effects of these on teachers’ educational practices. I would suggest that we have still not got this balance right.


Apple, M.W. (2001). Comparing neo-liberal projects and inequality in education. Comparative Education, 37[4], 409-423.

Nieveen, N. & Kuiper, W. (2012). Balancing curriculum and freedom in the Netherlands. European Educational Research Journal, 11(3), 357-368.

Milkmen or educators? CfE and the language of delivery

Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence is widely claimed to be transforming education in Scottish schools. This is, of course empirically debateable; centrally mandated curriculum development on this scale is notoriously difficult, as shown by decades of research literature on educational change. As Larry Cuban reminds us, schools change reforms as much as reforms change schools. In the case of CfE, these difficulties have been compounded by design and implementation issues (see for example and Nonetheless, many would agree that the new curriculum is aspirational, with honest and well-intentioned goals of making such a transformation. Many would agree that CfE has a worthy aim of bringing the school curriculum up to date for the perceived needs of the 21st century – for citizenship and the workplace.

Such goals are clearly evident in the recent series of briefings published by Education Scotland to facilitate schools’ engagement with the new curriculum ( Leaving aside the question of whether these briefings are helpful (they vary in quality and most are rather bland), I am struck by their continual use of what I consider to be unhelpful language. My view is that this language is both antithetical to the spirit of CfE and detrimental to its development. I refer here to what I term the language of delivery (something I mentioned briefly in a previous blog post – see

Analysis of the goals and espoused methods of CfE would suggest that the new curriculum is inherently developmental, experiential and constructivist. There is a strong emphasis on enquiry-based methods. For example, the most recent briefing, Learning about Scotland, states that CfE ‘gives children and young people the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of Scotland and to explore issues, solve problems and reflect on the country in which they live and how it relates to the rest of the world’. The document stresses the importance of learning through engagement with outdoor contexts, suggesting that ‘it is only through engaging with what is around us that we can compare and contrast with other areas of Scotland and other countries’ (see

And yet, these documents, and other CfE publications, continually employ the language of delivery. For example, briefing 8, Curriculum Planning at the Senior Phase, states that ‘schools and their partners are exploring how to ensure they deliver the aims, purposes and entitlements’. It talks about delivering literacy and numeracy (see Briefing 9, takes this a step further by saying that learning about Scotland provides opportunities for ‘applying learning coherently across the curriculum’.

I believe that this language is extremely problematic. It constructs education as a product to be delivered, rather than a process with clear goals. Education thus becomes something that is done to people. It potentially encourages box-ticking behaviour in schools, hard-pressed as they are, as they engage with the plethora of new approaches and ideas promoted by CfE. It perhaps reflects the implicit transmissionist philosophy of many teachers (see, and indeed reinforces such views.  The notion of education as a product jars with the developmental, experiential and constructivist philosophy of CfE described above, and sends mixed messages about the goals of CfE and the best methods for achieving them.

I vividly remember an occasion in my own teaching career, in the early 1990s, when my Headteacher, faced with documentation for new GNVQ courses (replete with the language of delivery), said ‘what are we, bloody milkmen or something?’. That he found it worthy of comment, and that the language of delivery is largely unchallenged today speaks volumes about the extent to which the discourses of business have penetrated education in recent years. They are not helpful in my view, and they obscure the real business of education. So let’s dump the language of delivery, and let’s start thinking like educators rather than milkmen.