Does school autonomy improve educational outcomes? Judging the performance of foundation secondary schools in England
Government and researchers use school performance measures such as contextual value-added to claim that giving schools autonomy from local authority control produces superior pupil performance in GCSE examinations. This paper explores the extent to which inferring causality between autonomy and pupil achievement is reasonable given that pupils are not randomly assigned to schools and schools do not randomly acquire autonomous status. Rich administrative data and the Longitudinal Survey of Young People in England are used to evaluate whether CVA-style inferences are confounded by pupil characteristics that explain both the chances of attending an autonomous school and academic achievement. The assignment of grant-maintained (and thus now foundation) status through a vote of parents is used to compare school that just did, and just did not, gain autonomy over a decade ago. These alternative estimation strategies suggest there is little evidence that foundation status casually yields superior school performance.
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