Why Australia should not follow (English politician) Nick Gibb’s advice on how to run our schools

As an Australian educator and researcher, I am regularly taken aback by what seems to be a residual cultural cringe when we turn to other countries for insight and inspiration about education. I believe all the insight and inspiration Australian politicians and policy makers need is right here!

Australia has a long history of rich and insightful educational research that is highly instructive and highly regarded within the Australian education community and indeed the global education community. But it is often dismissed or drowned out in the current social climate where the lust for solutions, for ‘hard evidence’ of what works, has us running to experts in other countries to borrow their policies and ideas.

Australia has been particularly enamored over the years with English education policy and practice and this is currently being played out with our hosting of the English Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb.

One of the purposes of Gibb’s visit is to outline England’s recent education reforms with the view to informing education policy here in Australia.

This blog post is my reaction to the ideas outlined in Gibb’s recent speech in Sydney especially those relating to school ‘autonomy’ reform in England.

I believe the rosy picture Gibb presents about this reform glosses over ideologies that promote a particular narrow vision of education. I take serious issue with these ideologies.

But first, let me explain my interest in English education.

My interest in English education

My interest in school reform in England and, in particular, the ‘academies’ reform movement, came about several years ago during some cross-cultural research I was conducting that examined matters of social justice, cultural diversity and schooling in Australia and the UK. One of the English secondary schools in this study had recently converted to academy (school ‘autonomy’) status. The deputy head teacher described the process of conversion as ‘liberating’ for ‘schools like us’. For this large, well-resourced and ‘outstanding’ school, the freedoms of becoming an academy in terms of staffing and curricular flexibility were welcomed and seen as leading to school improvement.

One of the other schools in the project was a traditional ‘local authority’ primary school of around 300 students. At this school, the leadership team expressed highly negative views of this reform. The head teacher described the process of opening up the education system to a ‘disparate group’ of stakeholders as ‘undemocratic’, ‘a nonsense’ and ‘a mess’. In several other schools in this project, the head teachers expressed indifference to academies reform – seeing it as largely a change to their management structure. While in others, the change of management incurred under the process of academisation was so profound that it led to a complete renewal of staff to align with the new academy ethos (i.e. the old staff walked out!).

The need for caution in following the UK

School ‘autonomy’ (i.e. generating conditions for schools to self-manage) has been ‘adopted around the world with remarkable speed and consistency’. Indeed, it is presented by proponents as not only positive but inevitable – a necessary condition to enable education systems to compete on the world stage.

Of course, Australian education has already experienced a long history of school ‘autonomy’ reform. It was promoted over forty years ago in the Karmel Report (Australian Schools Commission, 1973) and has had many and various iterations. In the 1990s, for example, driven by a conservative government in Victoria, the public education system experienced radical reform with the introduction of self-managing-schools. Creating a more autonomous system under the Schools for the Future policy as it was driven by a combination of economic rationalism and external accountability, resulted in the closure of over 350 ‘under-performing’ schools. The most recent iteration of school autonomy reform in Australia is the Independent Public Schools (IPS) initiative introduced in the states of Western Australia (in 2010) and Queensland (in 2013). Early accounts of the impacts of these initiatives, unlike the situation 20 years ago in Victoria, seem to be positive.

The point to be made here is that there is great variance across and within nations in terms of how this reform is being approached and enacted because, as Professor Bob Lingard from the University of Queensland points out, school autonomy as with all education reform is ‘grounded in a particular politics at a particular time’. Thus, we need to tread with caution when thinking about how the current reform agenda within English education might inform our education system.

Many would agree with the idea that responsibility for schools should be devolved as much as possible to the people involved in the task of schooling – as argued in the Karmel Report – that greater independence, flexibility and freedom for schools to manage their affairs will lead to school improvement.

This idea was certainly evident in much of Gibb’s account of school autonomy in England in his recent speech and reflects how this reform tends to be promoted by politicians. Here ‘autonomy’ is aligned with ‘freedom’ and ‘innovation’ and with placing education decisions with, as Gibb stated, ‘those best placed to implement improvements to education’. On the surface, this idea is difficult to argue with. However, when coupled with words like ‘common-sense’ and ‘evidence-based’ improvement, a different picture of ‘autonomy’ and ‘innovation’ comes to light – one that is really not about providing head teachers or teachers with more autonomy but rather more about driving them towards a particular vision of schooling.

External accountability, competition and their ‘perverse’ effects

‘Autonomy’ for schools under the policy of academisation is strictly regulated within highly prescriptive assessment frameworks. In England, as in Australia, student performance on standardised tests is audited and converted to a public ranking of schools with school ‘effectiveness’ additionally policed and regulated through various departmental audits and inspections. These external forms of accountability have become increasingly ‘high stakes’ given that a school’s reputation and effectiveness are based on its performance on these measures. The increasing emphasis on global measures of school effectiveness such as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) has worked to validate these forms of accountability in England as they have in Australia.

A key problem here is that these measures have escalated a climate of competition where schools must compete with each other for their student share. This climate has produced many perverse effects. It has narrowed curriculum and degraded pedagogy to a teach-to-the-test mentality, it has intensified ‘gaming’ practices (for example, engaging in selective and exclusionary enrolment practices) and it has reinforced the hierarchical tiering of schools already pronounced within education systems in places such as England and Australia (Glatter 2012; Smyth, 2011). In this climate, those schools that do well on these external performance measures (generally those in privileged areas, serving privileged students) tend to thrive, while those that don’t do well (generally those in under-privileged areas, serving disadvantaged students) struggle.

Prescriptive curriculum, the English Baccalaureate and phonics testing in the UK

In England, autonomy is also highly regulated through prescriptive curricular frameworks. While the Education Reform Act of 1988 heralded in a national curriculum, and there have been various iterations since, the recent conservative shifts within this curriculum are a concern to many. Gibb applauds in his speech these shifts – stating that they are a move towards more ‘rigorous’ standards. He notes here the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBAC) and the phonics test.

Of course, rigorous academic standards and high expectations are key to an excellent education. However, many have argued against the narrowness, conservatism and elitism of the EBAC (e.g. this curriculum does not include social and creative subjects like The Arts or Citizenship Education) and the problematics of the phonics program.

I do not want to delve into the contentious debates between phonics and whole language that have been raging for decades. Suffice to say, it is clear that it is insufficient, if not damaging, to take a singular approach to the teaching of reading and that phonics instruction may be one of many approaches in a robust and productive reading program.

Certainly, the English phonics test might be leading to improving pupil standards in relation to reciting phonics. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that these pupils are necessarily on ‘track to be fluent readers’ as Gibb claims. I have met many teachers in English primary schools who are devotees of the phonics system but who also recognise its limitations and the imperative of augmenting this approach with many others.

A narrow vision of schooling

For many, the vision of schooling along the lines currently being promoted in England (as, of course, it is elsewhere) is excessively and increasingly narrow. It privileges the private goals of schooling which are about social efficiency and social mobility (i.e. preparing a credentialed and productive work force) and pays little heed to the public goals of schooling which are about democratic quality and active citizenship (i.e. towards the betterment of the social world).

For Gibb, such a narrow view of schooling around private goals is clear in his equation of social justice with social mobility. Yes, social mobility is, as Gibb states, a ‘defining challenge’ for education systems’ that will be focused on ‘levelling up opportunity and making sure all pupils get every chance to go as far as their talents will take them’. However, if education systems are only focusing on social mobility through credentialing, we may be producing learned people but they may be learned monsters. Given the heightened social polarisation and hostilities of the present era and the racism and xenophobia driving new forms of inequity, violence and suffering across the world, the urgency of education systems to think beyond these narrow purposes has been no more pronounced.

Does school autonomy lead to school improvement?

It is concerning that Gibb indicates that there is a definitive link between school autonomy (under academies reform) and school improvement. The research literature tells us that this reform has, in general, had highly varied but minimal impacts on raising educational standards in England. From studies into the efficacy of ‘self-managed’ schools within Australia to research into the impact of charter schools in the US, there is little evidence to conclusively indicate a relationship between school autonomy and school improvement.

Indeed, comparative research between schooling in NSW (a very centralised system) and Victoria (a highly autonomised or devolved system) finds no significant difference in student performance on standardised international and national measures such as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and NAPLAN (National Assessment Plan Literacy and Numeracy).

What this tells us is that school autonomy is not a magic bullet for school improvement, as it is often presented in political and public discourse. Simply instating the structural changes to bring about greater autonomy for schools within public education systems will not necessarily lead to an improvement in academic outcomes.

Academy reform in the UK: some worrying trends

Indeed, there is much to worry about in relation to how school autonomy reform has changed the landscape of English education as it has to a lesser extent in states such as Victoria. This reform, since the Academies Act of 2010 (which set out the national government’s aspiration for all schools to convert to academy status), has shifted responsibility for school governance from a state to a non-state matter. This has decimated the system of local authority governance traditionally responsible for schools and generated a new style of governance that involves a proliferation of new players or stakeholders who are now funded by the state to take responsibility for schools and schooling from government agencies and businesses to charities and faith groups.

The increased role of private bodies in the delivery of school-based education is normalising the private provision of education in England.

The new administrative structure of English education is described as a disarticulated system that reflects a ‘heterarchical’ structure of relations that is increasingly complex in its overlap, multiplicity and asymmetric power dynamics. There are concerns that transparent and democratic governance is impossible given this disarticulation. There are also concerns that the dismantling of the local authority (a democratically elected public body) through the academies movement is profoundly undemocratic and inequitable in drawing public money away from the public sector. Such shifts are seen as antithetical to ideologies of schooling as a public good – especially given that the new education providers in this space do not necessarily hold public sector values and sensibilities but, rather, the ideologies of business and enterprise. In relation to this latter point, the infiltration of the philanthropic sector in the governance of education has attracted particular criticism. At issue here are the ways in which philanthropic (i.e. social enterprise and business) rather than educative (i.e. learning and teaching) principles are now driving the management of many academies in England.

Look to exemplary Australian research for education reform ideas

We must tread with caution when thinking about how the current reform agenda within English education might inform our education system. Indeed, rather than looking abroad, we can look to, and learn from, the long history of exemplary and insightful research, policy and practice in the area of autonomy, accountability and school improvement in Australia. Our most recent version of school autonomy in the states of WA and Qld seems to be working pretty well.

Unlike in England, the Australian state education system is less devolved and less subject to the unfettered enterprise and market logic of the non-state sector. This is a good thing. The more centralised and regulated system in Australia would seem far more amenable than the English system to pursuing a common social justice vision that reflects both the private and public goals of schooling.


Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. She leads the program: Children, Young People and their Communities within the REDI (Research for Educational Impact) Centre. Her research interests and publications are in the broad field of social justice and schooling. She began her career as a primary school teacher in 1998 while studying for her PhD in Education at Deakin University. After being awarded her doctorate in 2002, she worked in various lecturing roles in the Faculty of Education at the University of Southern Queensland before taking up a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the University of Queensland in 2005. Since 2005, she has pursued a research-intensive trajectory with Research Fellowships at Roehampton University (London), Griffith University (Brisbane) and The University of Queensland (Brisbane). She has recently completed an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, which involved a cross-cultural analysis of socially just schooling in Australia and the UK.