School autonomy and pupil achievement

One of the stated policy motivations behind the move towards greater autonomy for schools from local authority control has been the claim that this is a route to improving academic standards. This might be through more efficient decision-making and resource usage or because autonomy is a necessary precursor to market-like reforms whereby schools are somehow incentivised to compete for pupils.

Schools with voluntary-aided and foundation status appear to do well in schools league tables including contextual value added calculations, but is it possible to causally attribute this to autonomous status? This causal relationship is difficult to establish because household factors such as parenting styles and household educational backgrounds affect both the likelihood of attending an autonomous school and the chances of achieving good GCSE exam results.

There are two research papers that are suggestive that the advantages of attending faith school are overstated. Gibbons and Silva (2006) argue that children who spend their entire schooling career at voluntary-aided schools are likely to be incomparable to the average child at a secular school. However, we can learn about the effectiveness of voluntary-aided schools by comparing children who transition from faith primary to secular secondary schools with pupils who transition from secular primary to faith secondary schools. Using this approach they show that these children in faith primary schools make no more progress between Key Stages one and two than children in secular primary schools.

Allen and Vignoles look at the impact of the presence of faith secondary schools on area-wide achievement, recognising the difficulties of identifying the impact of actually attending a faith school (Allen and Vignoles, 2009). They show that areas with many faith schools are no more successful than those without faith schools. This finding implies one of two conclusions. It may be that faith secondary schools are no more effective than secular secondary schools and that the greater progress of children in these schools is attributable to unobservable pupil background characteristics. Alternatively, faith schools may be more effective, but their presence causes neighbourhood secular schools to struggle, perhaps due to pupil sorting.

It is more straightforward to make causal claims about the effectiveness of foundation schools because they mostly arose through the grant-maintained policy legislation that created a policy experiment where schools who just won their vote of parents to become grant-maintained can be compared to those schools who just lost their vote and so remain as community schools today. Damon Clark showed that the vote winning schools achieved greater improvements in the proportion of pupils gaining 5+A-C at GCSE in the 1990s (Clark, 2009). This is suggestive that autonomy could be a route to school improvement. However, these short-run impacts may not be informative of the long-run impacts of the policy, especially given the possible negative effects of losing a parental vote, euphoria effects of winning a vote, greater funding associated with the early years of the policy and pupil sorting effects.

I have replicated the approach of Clark in comparing grant-maintained vote winners and losers to look at the long-run impact of foundation status (Allen, 2010). This analysis shows that in 2007 the former grant-maintained vote winners do no better in GCSE attainment to those schools who just lost their grant-maintained vote and so are community schools today. This analysis cannot tell us why this is so, but may help us predict the likely short and long-run impacts of the Academies programme.


Allen, R. (2010) Does school autonomy improve educational outcomes? Judging the performance of foundation secondary schools in England, DoQSS Working Paper No. 10/02.

Allen, R. and Vignoles, A. (2009) Can school competition improve standards? The case of faith schools in England, DoQSS Working Paper No. 09/04.

Clark, D. (2009) The performance and competitive effects of school autonomy, Journal of Political Economy, 117(4)745-783.

Gibbons, S. and Silva, O. (2006) Faith schools: better schools or better pupils? CEE discussion paper, CEEDP0072.

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