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School autonomy in England - the impact on democracy

Male, T; (2021) School autonomy in England - the impact on democracy. In: Proceedings of the Educational Leadership for Public Accountability. The Institute for Educational Administration & Leadership- Jamaica (IEAL-J) Green open access

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There has been a fundamental shift in the management and administration of state-funded schools in England since 1976, furthered by the rapid expansion of academies since 2010, which means many students no longer have a governing body as the legal decision-making forum for their school which is representative of their locality. The period following the 1944 Education Act was characterised by control of the curriculum being exercised by teachers and the management of state-funded schools by democratically elected local authorities. The role of central government was mainly one of funding, with limited control or influence on what was delivered in schools, but one that changed over the succeeding period to move state-funded schools in England from minimal to maximal control that was external to the local community. This paper reports on two issues: the transference of power over state-funded schooling towards central government since the mid-1970s and the growth of multi-academy trusts (MATs) during the second decade of the current century which has hastened the reduction of democracy in state-funded compulsory schooling. The move toward central government taking control effectively began in 1976 when an incumbent Labour government questioned the contribution state-funded schools were making to the national economy (which, at the time, was in serious trouble). The incoming Conservative government of 1979, led by Margaret Thatcher, seized on this debate and soon exhibited a desire to implement policies based on neoliberalism which were intended to shift decision-making in public bodies towards the influence of the market. In turn, amongst other things, the 1986 Education (No. 2) Act saw each state-funded school being required to have a governing body which provided a voice for all involved – a mixture of local authority, parents and teachers who had both a professional and personal investment in the running of the school. The influence of local democracy soon began to be constrained, however, and was seriously damaged by the 1988 Education Reform Act, one aspect of which was devolution of funding to individual schools which began the inexorable process of reducing local authority control and, subsequently, expose schools directly to greater central government influence. By the early part of the 21st Century central government dominated local decision-making for schools whilst ostensibly granting them greater freedom. A major policy decision in this era was to offer almost total liberty to schools through a policy of academisation, the transference of school governance to charitable trust which were answerable only directly to the Secretary of State for Education. Following the Academies Act of 2010 there was a rapid acceleration of the academisation process with many schools being formed into academies as charitable companies, limited by guarantee, working in a direct relationship with central government. At the time of writing over half the school population is in academies with most now in MATs which are multi-school organisations with one board of trustees. School governors typically now only have delegated tasks and responsibilities, with accountability having now been transferred to the trust which runs the MAT. The analysis of the influence of MATs is based on data from 41 interviews conducted with senior members of staff in MATs during 2017 & 2018, (previously partially reported in Male, 2019), supported by analysis of a 10 per cent sample of MAT annual reports in 2018 and 2019, a total of over 200, which show the changing membership of the trust boards. One key finding is that, on average, over 75 per cent of trusts showed members (i.e. ‘shareholders’) also acting as trustees, even though legal guidance suggests this is not good practice for organisations with charitable status as it blurs the lines of accountability. Furthermore, some 80 per cent of CEOs are also trustees, a finding which contrasts with individual school governing bodies where the majority of headteachers were acting in a non-executive capacity. The findings from this second wave of research confirm the shift away from democratic decision making which involves the local community.

Type: Proceedings paper
Title: School autonomy in England - the impact on democracy
Event: Educational Leadership for Public Accountability
Location: Jamaica (Virtual)
Dates: 18th March 2021
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Publisher version: https://www.iealj.org/
Language: English
Additional information: This version is the version of record. For information on re-use, please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.
Keywords: Accountability, Schools, Governance
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education > UCL Institute of Education
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education > UCL Institute of Education > IOE - Learning and Leadership
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10125259
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