The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

The balance between autonomy and coherence

One of the most important challenges facing any school leader is deciding how best to create working conditions that maximise staff motivation to perform well in their role. Central to this is the complex challenge of ensuring that decisions are made at the appropriate level, and are informed by the right conversations, to get the right balance between coherence and autonomy throughout the organisation.

This challenge is all the more pertinent for trust leaders, for whom the trust represents an overarching layer of decision-making along with the school, the phase or department and the individual teacher. Achieving the right balance can combine the benefits of achieving coherence at scale for pupils with delivery by a network of highly motivated and well supported professionals who make classroom-level decisions that maximise learning.

One of the key insights from new research on teacher autonomy by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), published in January, is that teachers particularly value being involved in their professional development goal-setting. Using the key findings from the study, which we developed in partnership with Teacher Development Trust (TDT), we explore what school and trust leaders can do next to harness the benefits of teacher autonomy.

The right level of autonomy?
Particularly at a time when the school system is facing a teacher supply challenge, trusts will clearly be keen to ensure they have an attractive employment offer that motivates teachers and encourages them to stay. NFER’s new research report, Teacher autonomy: how does it relate to job satisfaction and retention?, shows that teacher autonomy is important for schools and trusts to consider as part of their employment offer.

The study finds that higher teacher autonomy is strongly associated with improved job satisfaction, perceptions of workload manageability and intention to stay in teaching.

However, the study also suggests that we may not have found the best autonomy balance across the school system, particularly in school trusts. Teachers report having a lower level of autonomy over their work compared to similar individuals in other professions. Classroom teachers in school trusts report having lower autonomy compared to teachers in maintained schools and single-academy trusts, with the lowest autonomy among teachers in trusts with more than ten schools.

A lower level of autonomy among teachers in trusts isn’t necessarily problematic. Trust leaders are responsible for ensuring schools across the trust operate with the necessary coherence to deliver good pupil outcomes, which can involve balancing autonomy and alignment. However, it suggests that some trusts may be missing the opportunity to harness the benefits of teachers having autonomy over their work.

But saying there is a trade-off between alignment and autonomy risks framing the dilemma as a straight choice between the two, or somewhere in the middle. This need not always be the case and effective leadership can combine high alignment with high autonomy.

The Dixons Academies Trust ‘aligned autonomy’ approach, which Executive Principal Luke Sparkes describes as ‘the optimal balance between consistency and self-determination’, was discussed on these pages last year. While it focusses on school autonomy, the same principles of balancing autonomy and alignment can be applied to teachers within a school or trust.

Autonomy over what?
Our new study also reveals nuanced insights on how teacher autonomy varies between different areas of work and identifies the areas where more autonomy could most help to motivate teachers.

As we might expect, teachers report higher levels of influence over classroom activities such as the teaching methods they use and how they plan lessons, and lower levels of autonomy over curriculum, assessment and their professional development goals. Interestingly, we find that increasing the amount of influence teachers have over their professional development goals is associated with the largest gains in job satisfaction.

This presents a significant opportunity for school and trust leaders to consider how they design and deliver professional development in their schools, harnessing the benefits of increased motivation from teachers having greater involvement in their professional development goal-setting.

The benefits of involving teachers in setting professional development goals
Autonomy over professional development goals does not necessarily mean teachers having total freedom to choose their goals and activities. Indeed, there is mixed evidence about whether complete choice is effective.

These findings suggest that school leaders need to think in particular about helping teachers see the relevance of professional development to their individual needs, their pupils’ needs and the wider organisational goals. It suggests a benefit in involving teachers in choosing goals, albeit not necessarily giving them total control, and ensuring that teachers can have some autonomy in how they choose to meet these goals.

Particularly at a time when the school system is facing a teacher supply challenge, trusts will clearly be keen to ensure they have an attractive employment offer that motivates teachers and encourages them to stay.

Jack Worth

More generally, it could be beneficial to encourage a culture where open conversations about the optimal balance between alignment and autonomy are welcomed. School and trust leaders should consider incorporating a teacher autonomy lens to regular reviews of teaching and learning policies. These reviews should cover both the written policies and, importantly, the culture around how they are enacted in practice.

When reviewing a school trust’s approach to the design and delivery of professional development, exploring the extent to which teachers feel that professional development is relevant and that they have input into the design and content is key.

Worth, J. and Van den Brande, J. (2020) Teacher autonomy: how does it relate to job satisfaction and retention? Slough: NFER, is available to download on www.nfer.ac.uk/teacher-autonomy