How to make school autonomy work

By Marie-Helene Doumet
Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

School autonomy can mean different things to different people. Policy makers see it as a way to make schools more responsive to local needs and specific contexts. For school heads and teachers, it can mean gaining greater control over the management of the school and its pedagogical direction. Parents, meanwhile, may interpret it as a way to engage more directly in a school’s  decision-making processes.

The truth is that school autonomy is all of these things, which makes it difficult to define. And although greater autonomy would seem like a benefit to parents, teachers and school leaders, it also raises important questions. What role should central authorities play in a newly decentralised system? To whom should schools be held accountable? And how can we ensure that the decisions made by school management align with national strategies? Because while greater autonomy can bring extra freedom for teachers and school leaders, it also involves new responsibilities that may seem overwhelming to those who are unprepared.

In this month’s Education Indicators in Focus, we take a closer look at the key ingredients to making school autonomy a success:  strategic direction, well-adapted training, a collaborative environment and solid feedback mechanisms.

Across all education systems, there is a general need for strategic oversight to set the objectives, direction, and benchmarks against which schools are assessed. In much the same way that a company CEO establishes a corporate vision and performance indicators, national education systems must provide the objectives and framework within which schools execute their strategies. Without this bird’s-eye view, greater autonomy could result in random learning outcomes that are not coherent with national policy, and deeper inequities among schools. Sweden experienced this first-hand, after it transferred decision-making power to schools. Its initial failure to maintain a strong national framework following the transfer led to a dispersed, inequitable education system  declining student performance.

Autonomy is a powerful management practice… but it can also be a double-edged sword.

School autonomy also requires teachers and school heads to make the right decisions on the ground.  To do this, they must be familiar with students’ backgrounds, their strengths and weaknesses, and the pedagogical practices, tools, or resources necessary for an optimal learning environment. This can prove challenging if teachers and school heads do not have the skills needed to carry out these tasks; but training programmes, together with a strong collaborative culture in schools and communities, can help build a stronger understanding of best practices. In the Flemish community of Belgium, for example,  autonomous communities of schools have created a platform to exchange best practices and efficiently share resources.

The last, crucial ingredient involves providing feedback to central education authorities. Such feedback would go beyond accountability and reporting results; it would also ensure that national policy makers are aware of challenges in schools and the resources required to overcome them.  This kind of dialogue between policy makers and schools is essential to building a shared vision for learning.

Autonomy is a powerful management practice that has seen positive results in various sectors and industries. But it can also be a double-edged sword. Without strategic guidance, accountability frameworks or collaborative mechanisms, school heads and teachers can feel lost in the face of growing responsibilities. When implemented effectively, however, school autonomy shares the responsibility for education across all actors, recognising and leveraging their distinct roles to ensure the best outcomes for students.

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