THIS week, across much of England, summer holidays come to an end and schoolchildren return to class. Some 40% of them are heading back to desks in “academies”, state-funded schools that are mostly free to set their own curriculum, wages and timetables. Likewise, in American cities such as Detroit and New Orleans most children will return to "charter schools", which similarly receive public funds but have more freedom from local government control. Across America, at least 5% of children go to such schools. Both charters (which emerged 25 years ago) and academies (just over a decade ago) were seen as a way to lift standards in areas with underperforming schools. Yet new studies in both America and England suggest that while there are plenty of excellent examples of both charters and academies, on average they are little better than regular state schools. What can be done to improve them?
Three solutions stand out. The first is better accountability. In American states like Arizona, where charters were expanded with little oversight, there were many failures and results were worse than in ordinary schools. Increasingly, chains of schools play a role in ensuring that minimum standards are met. Many of the best groups have rigid processes for getting schools up to speed when they take them over. Clear expectations, transparent ways of measuring whether schools are meeting those expectations and the ability to reward those that succeed and sanction the ones that fail are crucial. The second is better leadership. One study found that the best schools mirror the best businesses in the sort of management practices they employ. English schools with good leaders (or with good leaders parachuted in) seem to improve most when they become academies. And the third is that it is better to replicate what goes on in the best chains, rather than to try to get them to rapidly increase the number of schools they take on, which they tend to be reluctant to do.
The international evidence in favour of school freedom is clear. Education systems that grant schools more autonomy get better results, at least in rich countries. Teachers are free to put in place reforms that may upset unions, funds can be directed to where they are most needed and, most important of all, innovative new methods of teaching can be developed. Partly as a result, there has been a move across the OECD club of mostly rich countries over the past 25 years to greater school autonomy.
Yet politicians seem unwilling to wait for charters and academies to improve, partly because of the disappointing results. In America, Hillary Clinton is less keen on charters than Barack Obama. In England, cross-party support for academies looks fragile. Both Labour leadership candidates have talked harshly about such schools. A move to make all schools academies, announced in March, was opposed by some prominent Conservative MPs. Reformers across the globe look to England and America as examples. It is important therefore that they get school freedom right.