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It's the teaching quality, stupid.

I've been following the debates on academies and free schools with interest. Labour's academy policy, hugely expanded with frenetic gusto by Michael Gove, and supplemented with free schools, is predicated on the huge assumption that school autonomy is a route to higher pupil achievement.

I have always been a bit suspicious about that claim, even though international evidence (OECD - PISA) has detected a correlation between achievement and educational systems which allow for autonomy..

What we know for certain is that it's teaching quality, above all else, which determines pupil's attainment.* The focus should be totally on that. If it could be demonstrated that school autonomy increases teaching quality, then a strong case could be made for it. There appears to be some evidence that chains of independent academies have had some success in raising standards, for example the Harris chain in London. The idea is this: if one school is doing well, get it to share its practice with others and they will all get better. Maybe there is something in this, but only if it is an improvement in teaching which is bringing about the improvement. Interestingly the key factor here is collaboration rather than autonomy. Would not well-run local authorities be able to foster collaboration?

As Dylan Wiliam and others have argued, you cannot change your teaching force or improve teaching overnight and changing a school's status does little to raise achievement in itself. So sharing best practice is the secret. This can be done across schools and within them by setting up, for example, teaching and learning communities. I have witnessed this first hand and seen how, even in a high-achieving school, marginal improvements can be made in teacher motivation and practice. Collaboration, staff development, motivation and good leadership to create a disciplined and positive environment must be key.

Most of the schools which have recently become academies have done so for perceived financial gain. It remains to be seen whether they will gain in the long term. Most have probably changed little and we won't know for some time whether academy or free school status has brought about raised standards.

I taught for many years in a school which chose to remain under local authority control. Through effective leadership and excellent teaching it has striven to improve year on year. I cannot see how academy status would have made any difference. School autonomy on its own does not raise standards.

The conspiracy theorist in me would say that for many years Conservative politicians have wanted to divorce schools from local authorities and finally they have, in part, achieved it, thanks to an over-enthusiastic education secretary and a silent opposition whose views are unformulated. I hope that the other half of secondary schools and the vast majority of primary schools which are still maintained, keep their current status.

* http://www.oecd.org/site/educeri21st/40756772.pdf

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