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Rebels against the system: leadership agency and curriculum innovation in the context of school autonomy and accountability in England

Greany, Toby; Waterhouse, Joanne


Joanne Waterhouse


Purpose – This paper describes and analyses the development of school autonomy, school leadership and curriculum innovation in England over the past forty years. It provides a baseline picture for the wider international study on school autonomy and curriculum innovation. Approach – An initial literature review was undertaken, including policy document analysis. Interviews and observations were undertaken with participants on a pilot professional programme for school leaders seeking to develop their school curriculum. Findings – While all schools in England have needed to adapt their curricula to reflect the new National Curriculum introduced from 2014, relatively few schools appear to have used this opportunity to design genuinely innovative curricula that respond to the changing needs of learners in the 21st Century. This includes the academies and free schools – currently around 1 in 4 schools - which are not legally required to follow the National Curriculum. We posit that leadership agency by principals and their professional teams is more important than policy/legal freedoms for securing curriculum innovation. Such agency appears to depend on the capacity and confidence of leaders to shape an alternative and innovative curriculum in the face of structural constraints, in particular England’s sharp accountability system, effectively making these leaders ‘rebels against the system’. Limitations – The empirical findings are preliminary and based on a small convenience sample. Originality – Given England’s position as a relatively extreme example of high-autonomy-high-accountability quasi-market school reforms this article provides valuable insights on school autonomy and curriculum innovation that can inform policy and practice more widely.


Greany, T., & Waterhouse, J. (2016). Rebels against the system: leadership agency and curriculum innovation in the context of school autonomy and accountability in England. International Journal of Educational Management, 30(7), 1188-1206. doi:10.1108/ijem-11-2015-0148

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Feb 2, 2016
Online Publication Date Sep 12, 2016
Publication Date Sep 12, 2016
Deposit Date Dec 6, 2018
Journal International Journal of Educational Management
Print ISSN 0951-354X
Publisher Emerald
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 30
Issue 7
Pages 1188-1206
Keywords School leadership, Curriculum innovation, School accountability, School autonomy
Public URL