It is well documented that the success of Finland’s education system has been in part due to the autonomy granted to schools. The decision to trust teachers and the communities to make their own policy decisions has lead to increases in student achievement not to mention a rewarding working life for teachers.
Autonomy needs to be understood as a dynamic interplay between internal and external accountability. Schools set the expectations, measure the impact and make the necessary changes while systems support/resource school communities as part of collective improvement cycle.
‘Autonomy’ in terms of a policy directive at least in Australia stirs up debate at either end of the spectrum. Can and should governments let go of education all together? The Reform of the Federation discussion paper on school education is an opportunity for some intelligent debate over where the responsibility for improving student learning must lie.
In the paper by Fullan et al on Professional Capital as Accountability, the authors state that the main feature of successful schools was their ability to develop internal accountability by building capacity within the school through collaboration and critical reflection. This was more important than ‘beefing up external accountability’.
The shift towards greater autonomy at school level is built on a ‘new accountability framework’ (Fullan et al) which relies on five elements: vision and focus, collective capacity and responsibility, leadership development, growth-oriented assessment and system coherence.
Systems improve when schools improve so the focus of systems is to cultivate improvement across all schools. Autonomy isn’t a free for all when it comes to learning. Autonomy is linked to accountability and achievement. The more accountability teachers accept for student learning and achievement, the greater the commitment to building collaborative cultures of continuous improvement.
As Fullan et al suggest external accountability works in tandem with internal accountability therefore ‘policy makers will need to make a major shift from superficial structural solutions to investing in and leveraging internal accountability.’
John Hattie in a recent publication “What works best in Education: the politics of collaborative expertise,” is even more precise when he says that we need to focus on the variability of teachers within schools not only between schools. This fine grained approach speaks powerfully for the need of each teacher to be responsible for their professional capability not the school, system or government.
The day to day work of improving learning is the accountability of schools. The day to day work of ensuring all schools are improving is the accountability of systems. The work of governments is to trust the profession by investing in building ‘the professional capital of all teachers and leaders’.