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Chapter 7: The Autonomous School, the Strong State, the Problems of Education

Since its election victory, the Conservative party has wasted no time in getting on with its education programme—essentially an acceleration and extension of policies developed by the previous coalition government.

Published onFeb 27, 2019
Chapter 7: The Autonomous School, the Strong State, the Problems of Education

Since its election victory, the Conservative party has wasted no time in getting on with its education programme—essentially an acceleration and extension of policies developed by the previous coalition government. Its centrepiece is the attempt to convert most English schools into academies—institutions that are publicly financed but are not accountable to any elected body, other than central government itself.1

In some ways, this looks like a programme of marketization: the creation of a landscape buzzing with the activity of private companies, filled with autonomous schools managed by leaders incentivised to innovate and to discover through experiment ‘what works’ and what can drive standards ever higher. However, this is not the whole picture. Since the Education Reform Act of 1988, the measures of marketization introduced into English schooling have been intertwined with the strengthening of the powers of central government. Making sense of this private-public amalgam—sketching its trajectory and anticipating its problems—is both a complex analytical task and a worthwhile political project. It brings into view the outlines of a dynamic and unstable system, which has had powerful effects on knowledge production and educational work—effects that merit both exploration and challenge.

Towards Academisation

There are around twenty-two thousand state schools in England—about seventeen thousand primaries and 3,200 secondaries. There are a diminishing number of nursery schools—around five hundred—and nearly one thousand special schools. Since 2010, governments have been trying to persuade and in some cases compel schools to become academies. The result of this recruitment drive, which is supported by a special unit of the Department for Education (DfE), is that as of June 2015, there are 4,676 academies of all types open across England (House of Commons Library 2015). Sixty-one percent of secondary schools are academies, as are 14 percent of primaries (DfE 2015a). A school becomes an academy by either conversion or sponsorship. Conversion is a process through which the existing governing body takes over from an elected local authority control over admissions, performance, assets and finances. By this means, billions of pounds of public wealth have been transferred into private hands. With sponsorship, the same ends are achieved through the intervention of an outside agency, approved by the DfE to take over an ‘underperforming’ school. Sponsors can include other educational institutions, as well as ‘businesses and entrepreneurs, educational foundations, charities and philanthropists and faith communities’ (DfE 2015b).

In this variegated landscape—in which the old forms of co-ordination and governance, exercised through local authorities and local representation in governing bodies, are in decline—new forms arise. The multi-academy chain—a group of academies with a single sponsor—is one such form. Under the coalition government, the number of chains increased, as did the number of schools that they controlled. In 2010, Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) managed eight schools; by the end of 2014, the number had risen to thirty-one; the Harris Federation managed nine in 2010 and by 2014 controlled twenty-seven; United Learning, linked to the Church of England, increased from thirteen to forty-one. In June 2014, the DfE listed 192 chains, some running more than fifty schools, the majority only three or four (Hutchings, Francis and Kirby 2015).

The influence of these organisations has spilled over from school management to wider fields of policy. ARK, for instance—closely involved with the financial sector from which it draws much of its funding—has become involved in professional development, teacher training, curriculum and learning strategies development. In the process, it has brought ‘new practices and methods from the business sector to bear upon the education problems it addressed’ and become an ‘active agent of education reform’ (Junemann and Ball 2013). The DfE is keen that this process of agency should be extended and works to achieve the appointment of ‘exceptional business leaders to the boards of multi-academy trusts’ (Morgan 2015). As the influence of business leaders grows, the role of parents and teachers in governing bodies will be reduced.

Government as Co-ordinator

Many aspects of state schooling are thus shaped by private sector influence, and there is profit to be made in many places, from the provision of supply teachers to the maintenance of buildings to consultancy, research and policy advice. But it would be a mistake to see this proliferation of activity as a sign that the future of schooling will be organised along full market lines, with change being driven by competition among private educational entities seeking to maximise their market share. From the supplier’s standpoint, it is difficult to make a consistent profit from a business in which staff costs are so high as a percentage of total expenditure; from the regulator’s standpoint, it is difficult to guarantee standards across the diversity of a fully marketised system. Thus, although policy has favoured private sector involvement in schooling, it has not adopted a voucher-based or ‘user pays’ approach. That decisive step towards marketisation is one that governments shrink away from taking.

The emphasis of policy has thus fallen elsewhere. Both New Labour and Conservative administrations have held on tightly to the role that government was allocated in 1988, a role of steering the system so that it follows procedures and pursues goals that are ever more closely specified by a central authority. It is not to parental demand that the system answers but to the central state—a form of accountability that is stronger now than ever before.

Steering is based on a collection of data about school performance, focused on levels of success in tests and exams. The widely publicised league tables provide one way of presenting the data. Another, more powerful instrument is the Ofsted Data Dashboard, which ‘provides a snapshot of performance in a school’ to which Ofsted inspectors will refer ‘to compare the performance of a school with others with which it is deemed to be comparable’ (Ofsted, n.d.). Likewise, another Ofsted site, Raise Online, provides teachers with an ‘interactive analysis of school and pupil performance data’, intended as a resource for school improvement (RaiseOnline, n.d.). The appeal to the authority of data also underlies the mechanisms that the government proposes for further academisation. Coasting schools—those destined for forced academisation—are defined by their failure to meet targets of pupil attainment and pupil progress (Dickens 2015).

In short, schooling is at many levels ‘governed by data’, subject to what Jenny Ozga calls highly centralised system steering (Ozga 2009). Decisions over such matters as how pupils should be grouped, how teachers should be managed and who should own an academy (Rosen 2014) are arrived at and justified with reference to ‘what the data tells us’. However, although policy-makers continue to believe in the truth of data, the processes through which it is collected and reported on are elsewhere called into question. ‘It’s hard to put numbers on to knowledge’, writes the blogger Jack Marwood, ‘but that hasn’t stopped people trying to do just that’, and since the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988, children have been assessed as being at different levels based on what knowledge, skills and understanding various experts have said they should have. Once possessed of such ‘numbers’, Marwood goes on, government agencies have processed them in statistically disreputable ways—treating schools with very different populations as if they are comparable (Marwood 2014).


Recent research by Merryn Hutchings reports the effects of this data-driven system on pupils. Schools have to maximise their scores, in the narrow range of subjects that policy prescribes. Teachers spoke to Hutchings of a primary timetable ‘dominated by Maths and English lessons, plus daily spelling/reading/mental maths’; year six pupils in one primary school worked on no subjects other than maths and English in the months between their return to school in September and their SATs tests the following May. Secondary teachers made similar comments: ‘Ultimately, if you are going to put in an accountability system . . . you’re going to have other aspects that are not accounted for, and I’m talking holistic development of a child’ (Hutchings 2015, 18). The much-discussed problems of stress and unhappiness among young people stem in important part from the priorities of the school system.

Teachers, operationally central to this system, are themselves under great pressure. Whatever they demand of children is demanded of them first. Hutchings’ report is full of their testimonies: ‘There is a real sense of fear and we are driven by SLT [the senior leadership team] to work harder and harder and push the pupils harder and harder’; ‘I am totally exhausted all the time. I work 60–70 hours a week just to keep up with what I am expected to do . . . Many teachers in my workplace are feeling permanently stressed and demoralised. More of us are looking to leave as more and more workload is being given with no regard to its impact on teachers or the children’ (Hutchings 2015, 32).

For governments, the capacity of management to exert pressure on teachers to improve test scores is central to school improvement. The Conservative government, like every other government this century, has expanded this capacity, with an armoury of incentives and punitive resources. Under the coalition, the national pay system was dismantled, and managements were given greater discretion over pay levels. All pay progression is now linked to performance, in a salary system based on individualised decision. Likewise, there are no effective limits to the working day. Teaching remains one of the most strongly unionised occupations, and unions have in some schools been able to hold in check the demands of ‘senior leadership teams’. However, the overall shift in power is unmistakeable: away from a professionalism centred on notions of expertise and discretion and towards a conception of teachers’ work based on the effective implementation of procedures determined by management.


In the current school system, questions of educational value tend to be non-negotiable. Value is measured in test results, which provide the data for arguments about the respective effectiveness of different types of school, different styles of teaching and so on. The initial training and later professional development of teachers is discussed from a similar standpoint. This is one reason that universities, which historically have been settings in which education has been discussed in wider terms and the meaning of ‘effectiveness’ has been up for debate, are being pushed out of a central role in teacher education. Increasingly, what counts as knowledge is supplied from other sources. The Education Endowment Foundation, funded partly by government and partly by a private trust, is dedicated to ‘extending the evidence base on what works’ and making it available to teachers (Education Endowment Foundation, n.d.). It compiles reviews of largely quantitative research into strategies for improving attainment and rates them for effectiveness. Other organisations—the Teacher Development Trust, the emergent College of Teaching, local Teaching Schools Alliances—convey a similar message: Teachers should ‘draw upon (and contribute to) readily-available sources of leading evidence-based approaches, confidently engaging with high quality research and evaluation’ (Teacher Development Trust, n.d.).


The growing involvement of the private sector and the strengthening of the central apparatus of government are intertwined developments in a coherent reshaping of the governance of English schooling. The logic of the ‘state form’ of English schooling has unfolded over nearly thirty years and now reached a new level of intensity. The lineaments of an early system—based on control of schools by local authorities, with strong teacher influence over curriculum and pedagogy—can no longer be discerned. The powers of the central apparatus to shape educational process through the identification, collection and management of data are stronger than at any point since 1988. Equally unrestricted is the capacity of the school leaderships of autonomised schools to micromanage the work of teachers.

Yet the system that has been shaped by these changes exacerbates rather than resolves long-standing problems of education. Most evidently, it imposes a set of constraints that prevent schools from innovating at any level of depth. The curriculum enforced through tests and exam syllabuses is narrow and in some subject areas flagrantly regressive; it sets aside, for instance, most of what researchers know about language and learning, in favour of a ‘naming of parts’ approach focused on grammatical understandings that were popular early in the previous century (Rosen 2013). An anachronism even at the time of its birth, it is hard to see this codification of knowledge surviving for long.

The rigidities of the curriculum are matched by other features of the system that may well prove equally problematic. Despite the regulatory programme of government, the outcomes of schooling differ considerably among academy chains, and the gap between the best and the worst is increasing (Hutchings, Francis and Kirby 2015). The harsh discipline inflicted on teachers may produce compliance in the short term, but as a means of encouraging engagement in educational improvement it will be ineffective. Likewise, the incessant pressure on students, especially in the upper years of schooling, will not continue to produce generations of diligent exam-takers. Education and training up to the age of eighteen have become compulsory precisely at the moment when the promise that educational success will be rewarded with career security has plainly become impossible to deliver. If it is reasonable to think that the precarity of social life in the long transition between ‘youth’ and ‘adulthood’ will lead to explosive moments of protest, then it will equally be unsurprising if such moments are not also experienced by sixteen year olds. In the school, as elsewhere, the very inventiveness of neoliberalism and its tendency to dissolve the solidities of an established system may now have created tensions that threaten its existence.


DfE (Department for Education). 2015a. “Schools, Pupils and Their Characteristics: January 2015.”

DfE (Department for Education). 2015b. “Sponsor an Academy: Guidance.”

Dickens, J. 2015. “Coasting School Definition Revealed by Nicky Morgan.” Schools Week, June 30.

Education Endowment Foundation. n.d. “Our Approach to Evaluation.”

House of Commons Library. 2015. Briefing Paper “Education and Adoption Bill 2014/15.” June 17, 2015.

Hutchings, M. 2015. Exam Factories? The Effect of Accountability Measures on Children and Young People. London: National Union of Teachers.

Hutchings, M., B. Francis, and P. Kirby. 2015. “Chain Effects 2015: The Impact of Academy Chains on Low-Income Students.”

Junemann, C. and Ball, B. 2013. “ARK and the Revolution of State Education in England.” Education Inquiry 4 (3): 423–441.

Marwood, J. 2014. “RAISEonline Is Contemptible Rubbish.” Icing on the Cake, March 17.

Morgan, N. 2015. Secretary of State for Education, speech to the National Governors Association, Manchester, June 27.

New Schools Network. 2015. “Comparison of Different Types of School: A Guide to Schools in England.”

Ofsted. n.d. “Ofsted Data Dashboard”

Ozga, J. 2009. “Governing Education through Data in England: From Regulation to Self-Evaluation.” Journal of Education Policy 24 (2): 149–162.

RaiseOnline. n.d.

Rosen, M. 2013. “Lies about Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar Test.” Michael Rosen, April 6.

Rosen, M. 2014. “Who Owns Academies? Have We Been Robbed?” Michael Rosen, March 4.

Teacher Development Trust. n.d. “Our Mission.”



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