School Autonomy Summarised

We got sent a really good summary of the Department of Education’s paper on School Autonomy. Also with many teachers, the author of the summary is very worried about many of the proposals. The Department is asking for submissions as part of a consultation (where have we heard that before?)

Personally, I see this as merely another way for the Department of Education to step away from its responsibilities, especially legal cases (they’re really smarting after the Louise O’Keeffe case) and, in my biased opinion, school patronage. My own summary of the document is that it seems to be proposing to copy the UK Tory party’s model. Most decent educators would agree that this policy has effectively destroyed the education system in the UK.

In any case, here is the summary from the teacher who asked to remain unidentified.

What is school autonomy?

  • The concept of school autonomy is related to schools’ ability to self-determine relevant matters, such as objectives and activities to be conducted. It refers to domains such as governance, personnel, curriculum, instructional methods, disciplinary policies, budgeting, facilities and student admission .
  • School autonomy is a form of school management in which schools are given decision- making authority over their operations, including the hiring and firing of personnel, and the assessment of teachers and pedagogical practices.

The Programme for Government 2011-2016 envisages the following changes in respect of the work and management of schools:

  • Schools will have greater autonomy ‘to set their own staffing needs’
  • Principals and boards will have increased freedom to allocate and manage staff and to delegate management responsibilities to teachers
  • Parents and local communities will have more say in the patronage of schools
  • The devolution of an annual capital budget to schools will be piloted
  • Local communities will have more control over educational infrastructure
  • Curricula will be reformed to improve attainment in literacy, mathematics and science and to encourage greater innovation and independent learning


Alongside its proposals for changing certain decision-making responsibilities regarding education delivery, the Programme for Government sets out a number of related proposals for developing accountability:

  • The proposed increased autonomy of schools over staffing will be ‘within strict budgets and new accountability systems’
  • Schools will be required to draw up five-year development plans
  • Parents will have access to more information when choosing a school for their children
  • A ‘new system of self-evaluation’ requiring schools to evaluate their performance year on year will be introduced
  • Schools will publish annual reports.

Evaluation and assessment are key to both improvement and accountability in school systems.                          This can take a variety of forms:

  • Public reporting, which includes, for example, the publication of information such as that from school inspection reports, school annual reports, and system-level reports providing an assessment of the state of education
  • Evaluation and assessment results are increasingly used to reward or sanction the performance of individual school agents. This goes alongside the expansion of school external evaluation and the development of systems to review the work and development needs of principals and teachers. A number of countries have systems whereby either schools, school leaders or teachers receive rewards for good performance or are the subject of sanctions for underperformance.
  • Any progress on extending the autonomy of schools over the deployment of additional teaching resources (such as SEN resources as proposed by the NCSE) should be linked to specific accountability requirements, including greater inspection measures. These could require the school to demonstrate to the Inspectorate that it is successfully fulfilling the requirement to provide high quality SEN support, and the resulting published reports could describe specific levels of performance.
  • A move towards greater accountability poses challenges at both school and system levels. There are limitations to the engagement which schools and their principals and staffs can be expected to bring to accountability processes in a time when there has been an ever-increasing pace of change.
  • At the governance level, boards of management are composed of volunteers for the most part, and there is no assurance that the board will have the requisite skill-set to adopt and implement successfully accountability mechanisms, particularly in areas such as finance and budgeting.

Arguments advanced for and against greater autonomy for school communities in relation to governance include the following:

  • It can be argued that, in addition to making governance structures more democratic, decentralisation of control may result in better monitoring of teachers and schools by parents and local communities where there is real engagement with parents at the governance level. The assumption is that such oversight focusses attention on teaching behaviours and learning outcomes.
  • Gunnarsson and Orazem (2009) found that schools that are better equipped and with more involved parents have better outcomes.
  • Giving schools more autonomy over staffing allows schools to select teachers best suited to their needs and the needs of students.
  • Arguments are made by some researchers that schools are best placed to identify the staffing patterns and job descriptions which will result in the best outcomes for students.
  • It is also suggested that the flexibility to incentivise better student outcomes will generate greater teacher effort.


  • Gunnarsson and Orazem(2009) highlight that autonomy can give rise to undue pressure being brought to bear on local managers by those parents who have influence. This means that the role of principal can become more politicised and, as a result, more stressful by virtue of having to satisfy multiple stakeholders, each exerting influence.
  • Autonomy can result in schools providing an education which is shaped by the wishes of those who are most vocal, and who may not actually be representative of the entirety of the school population.
  • Devolving management responsibility to schools means schools need more supports and resources.
  • With the removal of higher-level agencies, which act as a type of bulwark in relation to a range of management and administrative issues, there is a significantly greater weight of work and of expectation falling on schools, and this requires significant additional resourcing to ensure that schools can cope capably.


Autonomy in the UK & other countries

  • Teachers’ and other school employees have their rates of pay and their terms and conditions of employment determined by each academy on an individual basis. Concerns have been raised in the UK about the effect of this on employee morale.
  • By way of balance, there is some merit to enabling individual pay rates as it means that individuals who make an outstanding contribution may be rewarded.
  • There is also a concern that academies seek to employ younger or unqualified teachers, where they would be able to offer lower rates of pay, and thus retain more of the funding allocation for the school by lowering costs. (It is noted that a similar concern has arisen in the context of autonomous schools in some Australian states).
  • In 2012, the Secretary of State for Education allowed academies to employ unqualified individuals as teachers if the academy believed that the person could perform in the role of teacher. The move was intended to foster innovation and flexibility but it has met with stern opposition from political parties, as well as parent and teacher groups.


  • It is worth noting that in Sweden, PISA ,(programme for international student assessment) identifies school choice as a contributing factor to falling achievement levels. Parents’ right to choose between municipal schools and independent schools was intended to increase quality by competition, but it has also led to the best students flocking to the same schools.
  • Sweden’s education minister, was quoted as saying that results were “the final nail in the coffin for the old school reform [i.e. free schools].
  • Swedish free-schools tend to enrol pupils not coming from the bottom tail of the ability distribution – less able children are suffering because of this system.
  • Spurred by concerns about decreasing levels of achievement and by inspection reports which indicate that goal-based curricula had become difficult for teachers to interpret and led to major inequalities in school academic requirements, autonomy over curriculum choice and student assessment has been lessened.
  • The PISA 2012 results published on 03 December 2013 revealed that, over the past decade, average performance in Sweden declined in all three core subjects, reading, mathematics and science, from a level around or above the OECD average to a level below the average. Dr Susanne Wiborg of London’s Institute of Education argues that, “the Swedish free schools have played an indirect role in the decline of the PISA scores over the last decade.”

Finland – Teachers play a key role in assessing students. Teacher-based assessments are used by schools to monitor progress and these are descriptive and used in a formative manner to inform feedback and assessment for learning. Finnish schools do not use standardised testing to determine student success.                                     ______________________________________________________________________________

  • In Ireland, Movement towards the Programme for Government’s objective of increasing the autonomy of schools to ‘set their own staffing needs’ is evident in proposals that have been put forward by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) and which is currently being piloted in 47 schools. This policy advice proposes that language support, learning support and resource teaching hours should be brought into a single pot of special educational needs (SEN) posts for schools, thereby giving schools greater discretion in how best to meet the needs of their students.

Advantages and disadvantages of increased autonomy over curriculum, pedagogy and assessment


  • Individual schools know best about the needs of their students and can make better decisions regarding the curriculum they offer to students.
  • Failing schools can be improved more easily if schools have greater curricular flexibility – schools in difficulty will improve if they have the flexibility to make necessary changes to their staffing and curriculum.
  • Giving schools autonomy over curriculum and pedagogy fosters innovation – raising student attainment.


  • OECD research has shown, for example, that linking test outcomes with teacher performance and development review creates incentives for teachers to distort testing and test results and is regarded as unfair by many teachers and others as it ignores the impact of students’ socio-economic background on student learning.
  • There is evidence that more autonomous schools are more selective regarding their student intake yet show no evidence of better student outcomes – although more autonomous schools tend to admit pupils with educationally advantageous backgrounds, there are no clear performance benefits from autonomous structures, irrespective of pupils’ background.
  • The evidence about the beneficial effects of school autonomy over matters such as curriculum, pedagogy or assessment is limited.
  • New Zealand Council for Educational Research has shown that they cannot point to any great system-wide gains in student performance or learning, new approaches to learning, or greater equality of educational opportunity that have clearly arisen from school autonomy in that country. ________________________________________________________________________

Other points:

  • Qualifications and skills of teachers – Further work needs to be undertaken to strengthen the continuing professional development of teachers. The Teaching Council could consider making mandatory a minimum level of ongoing professional development as a condition of teachers’ registration (Cosán). This would help to embed a rigorous and in-depth pedagogical development of teachers in the school system and would also equip teachers to utilise more fully the autonomy that schools and teachers already enjoy over curriculum and assessment.
  • As the new reporting systems to parents are embedded, the possibility of introducing more formal guidelines regarding the frequency, duration and expectations around parent-teacher meetings could be explored
  • Schools could be required to report publicly on a number of issues annually. These could include public confirmation that the school is compliant with a number of key regulations (number of days opening for instruction, length of the school day, class size and deployment of teaching resources, admission policy, child protection policy and procedures, etc). The resources available to the school including, for example, total staffing resources available to the school, how these are deployed and the school’s effective pupil/teacher ratios, targeted resources available to the school and how these are used (for special education needs, etc.) and financial income from the state.
  • Consideration could also be given to making available certain information on the learning achievements of students. The mechanism by which this could be achieved and the resource implications involved would require further study.

Advantages and disadvantages of budgetary autonomy

Schools with autonomy over budgets and salary levels of teachers can provide incentives to attract higher performing teachers and to maintain high standards

  • Giving schools, especially schools in disadvantaged areas, autonomy to offer an allowance for teaching in struggling schools is one way of encouraging experienced and high-quality teachers to work with these settings.
  • Highly performing teachers and principals may be rewarded with a pay bonus or salary “top-ups”
  • Autonomy over staffing also means that schools have the freedom to fire inefficient or under-performing teachers.
  • School autonomy over budgets improves efficiency.
  • School managers find themselves addressing financial decisions rather than educational decisions; teachers and parents express concern that the funding allocation shrinks relative to the cost of service provision over time; and central governments are perceived to have side-stepped difficult decision-making.
  • Research suggests that there is no clear relationship between budgetary autonomy and school performance.

Autonomy over salaries

One option in relation to salaries is that schools could be given autonomy over all funding for pay expenditure and devolved responsibility to set pay rates for teachers.

  • Schools could determine the pay and conditions of teachers, so that management could use financial incentives such as recruitment bonuses and performance bonuses to recruit quality professionals. This would allow schools to compete to attract the highest quality teachers and would allow for the creation of differentiated career and compensation systems.
  • It would also facilitate the removal of teachers whose work is deemed by school management to be ineffective or unsatisfactory. This would provide additional incentives for excellent teaching and would bolster the performance management strategies available to principals and school boards.
  • Given the weight of evidence that the quality of teaching is the single- most influential factor in student outcomes, attracting effective teachers to low- performing and disadvantaged schools will make a difference in student achievement. Giving these schools autonomy to offer a pay bonus or “top-up” for teaching in these struggling schools is one way of encouraging experienced and high-quality teachers to work with these schools.


  • Implementing these options could lead to a constant upward trend in pay costs and would be likely to undermine public pay policy.
  • These options represent a significant departure from established industrial relations practices and could have a detrimental impact on the terms and conditions of teachers.
  • Another option with regard to salaries is that schools could be given autonomy over all pay- related expenditure but within the constraints of Government negotiated national pay scales.
  • As teachers grow older and progress up the incremental salary scale, these experienced teachers would become relatively more expensive when compared with younger and less experienced teachers. This could create an inequity between schools: those with younger staff would be able to afford to employ greater numbers of teachers, and it would create an incentive for schools to encourage the early exit of teachers who prove to be too expensive.

What do you think??

It is extremely important that we all share our views on this!!!

The consultation period will run from 04 December 2015 to 29 January 2016, a period of eight weeks. Submissions should be received before close of business on 29 January 2016 at the latest.

Please fill out the submission form and return it to room 13 and I will post them altogether or if you would prefer to post or email it yourself it can be sent to:

[email protected]


Autonomy Consultation
Central Policy Unit
Department of Education and Skills Marlborough Street,

Dublin 1

D01 RC 96


Subscribe to my Newsletter

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful. Newsletter #4

The Newsletter features my thoughts on the Irish Primary Education System. Read the full newsletter here Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been

Read More »

SET Allocations – Shownotes

Most people agree that despite the Department of Education claiming more SET hours (formerly Learning Support) are being given to children, it feels like we’re

Read More »

Ask Us A Question

You will get a notification email when Knowledgebase answerd/updated!

+ = Verify Human or Spambot ?