The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Reflections on autonomy

The term ‘autonomy’ is a highly contested and misunderstood concept. The whole question of the practice of autonomy needs more careful thought and analysis. What do we understand by autonomy? Where should autonomy sit? Whose interests does autonomy serve?

On the spectrum of standardisation to local autonomy, many leaders are considering the concept of aligned autonomy.

Leora Cruddas

A loss of freedom or interdependence?

Recently, there has been a move to argue that the academies programme has ‘turned the clock back 30 years’ in terms of school autonomy. The proponents of this position argue that despite the initial driver of the academies programme to give schools greater freedom and autonomy, schools in multi-academy trusts have no freedom.

This position fairly fundamentally misunderstands the legal basis of multi-academy trusts. Multi-academy trusts are not a separate ‘authority’ running schools. This is to bring the mind-set of the local authority system to bear on school trusts. The group of schools acting together constitute the trust – they are the trust.

Too often in my view, those who argue for autonomy are really arguing for adult or institutional interest, as expressed by the phrase, ‘I want to protect my autonomy or the autonomy of this school.’ Autonomy should never be exercised as an inalienable right of adults or institutions. It should only ever be practiced in the interests of children.

The best school trusts know and understand this and practise a form of subsidiarity – the principle of making the best decisions for children and young people at the most appropriate point closest to where decisions will have greatest impact for the common good. Typically then, we might say school trusts make decisions for children and young people through the exercise of adult and institutional interdependence, at the point closest to greatest impact.

A multi-academy trust is quite simply a group of schools working in collaboration as one entity to improve and maintain high educational standards across the trust.

Autonomy as the right to self-govern

One definition of autonomy is the right to self-govern – the right of self-determination and independence. Of course this right can be exercised at the level of an individual school. This is the case for the many stand-alone trusts in England.

The decision to join a group is often made on the grounds of educational and financial sustainability. I would suggest that the right to self-govern has not been given up – the school is simply joining a larger, self-governing group.

Autonomy as the principle of alignment

So when a school joins a self-governing group, they enter into a compact of interdependence – of collective efficacy. They are both the trust and an interdependent entity within it. If the principle of subsidiarity applies, how and what decisions do they make together and which decisions are made closer to the children and young people they are educating?

On the spectrum of standardisation to local autonomy, many leaders are considering the concept of alignment. One of the trusts that has done a significant amount of thinking about this is the Dixons Academy Trust. At the Inaugural Conference and Launch of CST, Luke Sparkes, Executive Principal at Dixons gave a compelling keynote on ‘Aligned Autonomy’ – the optimal balance between consistency and self-determination.

Autonomy as the capacity to act in accordance with objective morality

In Kantian philosophy, autonomy is the capacity of an agent to act in accordance with objective morality. Kant’s analysis is based on what he perceived to be the common moral concepts of “duty” and “goodwill.”

Importantly, every academy trust in England has a single moral and legal purpose at the heart of the Articles of Association – the advancement of education in the public interest.

Reclaiming a sense of autonomy alongside a sense of duty and goodwill seems particularly pertinent. Autonomy is not the right to act in the vested interest of the adult – autonomy is an expression of duty and, I would argue, the ethics of public service.

The Secretary of State in his opening keynote to the CST’s Inaugural Conference promoted freedom to make the best decisions on behalf of pupils and their communities.

It is fundamentally important that as the sector matures, we understand the concepts of freedom and autonomy not just as the right to self-govern, but the responsibility and duty to make collectively the best decisions that impact on the life chances of children and young people.

As Kofi Anan wrote in the preface to the State of the World’s Children: “There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children.”