Having just gotten around to reading Matthew Evans’ blog, The Earned Autonomy Trap, I feel moved to break my blogging silence of the past few months.

In my book, Intelligent Accountability, I present earned autonomy as one of the principles required to balance trust and accountability and help create the conditions for teachers to thrive. In it, I argue the following:

What if, no matter how hard a teacher works, no matter how successful their efforts are, they are still expected to follow the same constraints designed to support the least effective teachers? These problems are avoided if teachers are allowed to earn autonomy. Teachers who, for one reason or another have not yet earned the autonomy to make their own decisions may not be happy, but they’ll understand, especially if it’s made clear how they can earn greater autonomy.

Earned autonomy is fair.

Of course, if we are working as part of collective within a school, with shared aims and values, complete autonomy is neither desirable or possible. The point is that while senior leaders often have a great deal of latitude about how they choose to spend their working day, classroom teachers have little or no choice. Some of this is an inevitable result of how schools are run: if the timetable says you are teaching in period 1, you can’t reasonably choose to do some curriculum planning instead. But just as senior leaders are trusted to make good choices about how they spend their time within the constraints they face, so too should teachers be able to earn the right to be trusted to make good choices about how best to teach their subjects to their classes.

This all seemed – and still seems – about right. teachers and school leaders who demonstrate mastery should receive less interference in their professional lives than those who don’t. However, Matthew’s blog raises an interpretation of earned autonomy that I confess I never considered. He says,

If we are not careful, autonomy can become isolation.

The second problem is in whether autonomy is in the interests of others.

The word autonomy is also used to mean ‘self government’. In this sense, the individual agent (person, group or nation) gains the right to act on their own self-interest and in accordance with their personal values. Self-interest clearly has no place in a public service profession, but it will inevitably creep in if the checks and balances of connectivism aren’t in place.

And where autonomy becomes isolation, the opportunity to continue to develop is removed, to the detriment of the children being educated.

This, of course, is also right. He goes on to argue that we are labouring under “the mistaken belief that greater expertise brings a reward of greater freedom. It doesn’t. Expertise brings with it greater responsibility. In particular, responsibility to contribute to the body of professional knowledge that makes the whole system wiser.”

In my naivety, what I failed to imagine was our collective capacity for conflating the concept of earning greater autonomy with earning complete autonomy. If autonomy – earned or otherwise – lies outside a system of intelligent accountability it will inevitably lead to the trap Matthew describes. But if everyone is held to account appropriately, if we are made to account for the trust afforded us and the autonomies we’ve been extended, then we might avoid some, if not all of the pitfalls. The bottom line is this: no one should have the autonomy to make bad decisions.

Autonomy can never be an absolute. As Donne preached, “No man is an island entire unto himself.” The word ‘autonomy,’ with its connotations of rugged individualism and lofty independence, is perhaps too inherently prone to misunderstanding and confusion. Matthew’s argument that the reward for mastery should instead be a greater responsibility to contribute to the development of others feels like a good way to square the circle. So what would a system geared around shared responsibility look like?

Intelligent Accountability was primarily focussed on teacher development, so let’s instead think about how earned autonomy and shared responsibility could play out in a small Academy Trust made up of four schools, each allocated  to one of four broad categories.*

  • The Red School is failing. Behaviour is chaotic, teachers are exhausted, outcomes are poor and leaders don’t have the expertise or capacity required to turn things around.
  • The Blue School is in better shape. Leaders have the capacity to solve the most egregious of problems although improvement is inconsistent and fragile.
  • The Yellow School is performing fairly well. Outcomes are OK, teachers are content, behaviour is mostly acceptable. There are a few areas of great practice but these are the exception. Although the school feels well run there is little capacity to further improve and staff are not supported to meaningfully develop.
  • The Green School is a beacon of hope and calm. The outcomes of disadvantaged students are broadly similar to their more advantaged peers, and teachers and leaders are systematically supported to develop their practice.

Obviously, these are very blunt, generalised descriptions but pretty much every school I’ve visited or worked in fits one of these broad categories. If each of these schools exist within a MAT, how should they be treated?

The principle of earned autonomy might suggest that we leave the Green School pretty much alone and give the Yellow School a light touch whilst keeping an eye out for signs of decline. The Blue School will reward inputs and we might assume that we can point in the right direction with relatively little effort. The Red School will easily soak up all available resources and may feel hard to shift.

But if we view these schools through the lens of shared responsibility things might look different. There could be a programme of development for staff across these schools where the opportunity and responsibility of contributing to the success of each of their neighbours becomes normal. The Red School is still in urgent need of capacity and expertise but that exists, to some extent, in each of the other schools. Central resources could be allocated to allow the Green School to share some of its capacity and expertise with the other schools and same will be true to a lesser extent in the Blue and Yellow Schools. But, equally, effort should be made to allow staff from the Red School to work in and learn from the other schools. If teachers and leaders in these more stable and successful schools are able to see that the performance of the Red School is as much their responsibility as it is the staff who work in that school, that in fact the staff of the four schools are a single, interdependent body, the process of school improvement might feel very different.

None of this is very original. Sir David Carter makes a very similar argument in Leading Academy Trusts which, when I read it, gave me my first real insight into the ethics of belonging to a MAT. After having now spent two years working across the schools which make up Ormiston Academy Trust, it’s much clearer to me that this vantage is a privilege. It’s a lot easier to see the need for shared responsibility than than it is for those either outside the system or embedded in a single school. Maybe trying to tease out the ideas of earned autonomy and shared responsibility might help contribute to achieving something better.

* Stuart Lock pointed out that we should be wary of comparing individuary with schools. I think this is right: individuals are much less likely to experience a slide from competence to incompetence whereas this is an ever present danger for schools.