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 For a start, uniform local authority control in many English Academies has been replaced by a potentially more capricious control by sponsors and other local parties.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.

3 thoughts on “School autonomy: getting the balance right

  1. Reblogged this on SELMAS and commented:
    Last week’s SELMAS Brainstrust event stimulated lots of discussion on many themes linked to Curriculum for Excellence, notably around school and headteacher autonomy,, the role of the local authority and regulatory controls at national level. Here Mark Priestley elaborates the theme of input and output regulation which he introduced at the forum. PLease add your own thoughts and continue the conversations in the comments threads or on twitter – @MarkRPriestley and @SELM4S.

    1. I agree with you on this. However, the report was limited by the evidence that it received, the need to attempt to secure consensus across a diverse group and the constraints of time and space. These were important issues in shaping the report. The second issue of consensus was seen as being particularly important. The Commission had no real status. It was set up by two bodies who had no brief from anyone to conduct the work. The members were all volunteers who were approached to be involved, rather than being nominees from particular groups. This was reflected in the responses of some significant organisations, who refused to engage with the Commission because of its genesis.
      All of this meant that we had to consider why anyone would read and, hopefully, consider the report. One reason, we thought, was if we were able to gain consensus across representatives of all the political parties represented on the group as well as the other members.
      We recognised that the cost of this might be that the report would be less comprehensive than it might otherwise have been. It also meant that there were views held that were not expressed in the final document. This was part of the reason why we have consistently championed the report as a basis for debate, discussion and future action, rather than a prescription for remedying any weaknesses in our current system. We are delighted that it has had that impact and your own contributions to that debate are particularly welcome.
      That said, there are a number of areas in the report that address the issues that you raise.
      There is a consistent theme that Curriculum for Excellence already offers autonomy to schools and to teachers in terms of curriculum design and approaches and you are right to identify this as a driver for the report. The Commission argues that schools should have the capacity in terms of decision-making to make that autonomy a reality. The argument is not initially about governance, but governance becomes an issue in seeking to deliver the promise of Curriculum for Excellence.
      There is also comment in the report about the issue of the culture of compliance, which you address. You are absolutely right that apparent autonomy in school status offers no guarantee of independence in action if there is a culture of output regulation. I have argued elsewhere that what we are seeing in England is centralisation masquerading as the offer of autonomy, that we are seeing the extension on central government control through exactly the sort of mechanisms that you discuss in your blog.
      This is not what the Commission seeks, hence the focus on the loosening of controls at Local Authority level and the questioning of the role of Education Scotland.
      You are right that these issues need further and more “nuanced” consideration. Our hope is that the report will stimulate that.

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