School autonomy. Education between self-organisation and external control

By Heiner Barz, December 2021

School autonomy – this former motto of school reform seems to have turned into a simple concept of control and heteronomy. While the original idea was to give schools freedom of choice, e.g. in the use of financial resources as a basis for productive educational action, something quite different can be observed today: schools have been forced to submit “autonomously” to the paradigm of standardisation, evaluation and accountability. This development is increasingly spreading to independent schools.

Nothing has changed in 2021 either. State schools will still have barely a cent in staffing or material resources that they are allowed to spend on their own responsibility. And the lack of individual responsibility in budget matters is only the tip of the iceberg which consists of an ever tighter network of documentation and monitoring routines – determined, let’s be clear, by external criteria and standards. Accountability has taken the place of self-organisation, self-evaluation and self-governance. And yet educational research and schools policy once agreed on the importance for successful learning of elements of personal freedom in decision-making and the model of self-organisation at school level.

A milestone in the educational reform efforts towards more educational autonomy and decentralised resource management was the famous memorandum of the “Zukunft der Bildung – Schule der Zukunft” (Future of Education – School of the Future) commission, which was commissioned by the then minister-president of North Rhine Westphalia, Johannes Rau, in 1995. It proposed lump-sum budgets that were to be managed largely on the schools’ own responsibility. Financing and management of schools should be oriented towards new guiding principles: “A school in which autonomy and independent responsibility are paramount should also be able and obliged to act responsibly in the area of the use of resources”.

Autonomy turned into pressure of justification

In practice, shaping school life and teaching in a way that is adapted to the respective local conditions and to the concrete pupil populations are important determinants of school success. Resource-related local decision-making powers are considered by many educational researchers to be important conditions for successful educational processes. The discussion in this regard developed a wider scope especially in the 1990s (cf. Altrichter et al. 2016). The hope was to release dynamic of innovation, e.g. through a greater identification of the actors with their tasks and the utilisation of the practical expertise available locally.

Although the term and the subject of school autonomy were repeatedly also evaluated critically, they bundled in almost paradigmatic terms the views in the debate about schools. In addition to staff autonomy, educational autonomy and organisational autonomy, financial autonomy was also debated as an important sub-area. If we ask today what has happened to this former departure, then three observations seem relevant:

1. In educational research, voices were increasingly prominent which focused primarily on the risks and possibly problematic side effects of a deregulation policy, i.e. which positioned themselves in favour of centralisation and against increased delegation of competences to the local actors (Nicolai & Helbig 2013). Such criticism draws its persuasiveness not least from a pattern of argumentation in which every economic category is branded as “economisation” that is allegedly fundamentally harmful to education. Social inequality, educational segregation and the removal of social solidarity are the ciphers that are intended to discredit even the most timid attempts to liberalise control mechanisms and make resource allocation more effective.

2. The fact that a productive interest in the topic of “school autonomy” is on the whole in sharp decline becomes clear alone from the number of relevant publications: a search in the German Education Index yields the peak value of 185 hits for the search term “school autonomy” for the year 1997. Since then, the number of hits has decreased from year to year. In contrast, the analysis of changes in school law in the 16 German federal Länder with regard to the implementation of aspects of school autonomy for the years 1994 to 2004 shows that there has been a massive shift towards aspects of accountability (cf. fig.). This new emphasis, which could also be described as a reinterpretation of the original impulse, is flanked a wide range of measures of standardisation and external evaluation.

Translation rows and legend:

Learning organisation | Lesson organisation | Human resources management | Material resources management | Reflection outlay | Support | Accountability | Guidance

Proportion in aspects of school autonomy implemented in the school laws of the German nder (1994, 1999, 2004)

Source: Altrichter et al. 2016, p. 121 (author’s emphasis, HB)

3. It is dismaying to note, after thirty years of debate about school autonomy, that little seems to have changed for state schools in terms of self-determined use of financial resources. If we disregard the usually very limited funds that are raised and managed here and there through sponsor associations, state schools today still have little more than the budget for the renewal of textbooks which they issue free of charge. For example, with regard to the topic of parent collaboration, which has been increasingly addressed in recent years (cf. Barz 2019), there are often insurmountable barriers even for small amounts such as the financing of mini-jobs for “district mothers” or for a parents’ breakfast regularly enhanced with informational content and the like. School managements can use innovative project ideas to obtain third-party funding for schools for a limited period of time (e.g. 6 months) – but at the end of the project there is usually a lack of funds for their implementation in regular operations.

From “reimagining school” to “recontrolling school”

For the state schools in Germany it has to be said that although the programme of school autonomy has produced memoranda and model projects, hardly anything has happened in the actual practice of everyday school life. On the contrary, the reforms in education initiated in the 2000s often seem to go in the opposite direction: many school practitioners see themselves overburdened by the ever-increasing administrative, documentation and monitoring workload which deprives them of time and freedom for actual educational activity.

In their view, the reforms that have since been implemented at high speed are not answers to the real pressing problems but rather exacerbate the burdens. The fact that all these so-called educational reforms were implemented top-down, i.e. without even asking those working at the grassroots level in schools, is experienced as a further frustration factor (cf. Henry-Huthmacher et al. 2013): the practical consequences of the “measurement and comparison mania” (comparative tests, quality analyses) become visible above all in the teachers’ feeling of being ignored as “underlings”.

Those who have built their educational self-image on categories of individuality, professional curiosity and the situational can hardly see the ever tighter guidelines and the bureaucratic minutiae of systematic reporting and justification obligations as encouragement. Independent schools would be well advised to maintain their educational, organisational and financial leeway wherever possible. And not to submit to the certification and accreditation nonsense, the terror of quality management and accountability in anticipatory obedience.

Self-regulation and participation instead of hierarchy and external control were central keywords that were based on a shift of the primary presumption of responsibility to the very lowest level of local schools. When we look back today at such reform efforts of the pre-PISA era, for which there seemed to be a broad consensus in education policy and practice at the time, we rub our eyes in bewilderment. For “reimagining school” has become “recontrolling school”.

About the author: Prof Dr Heiner Barz is an education researcher at Düsseldorf University.

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