Since the early 1950s, the axis ‘centralisation–decentralisation’, especially as thematised in the work of Isaac Kandel, has represented a major focus of comparative studies in education. Kandel argued that issues relating to the internal conduct of the classroom (interna) should, so far as possible, be decentralised, while issues relating to administration, school structure and organisation of the educational system (externa) might safely be centralised. After 1988, successive governments in the United Kingdom have undertaken reforms which have placed more central control on the curriculum and even methods of teaching (interna), while school finance and administration (externa) have been devolved to the school level. The present essay argues that a simplistic approach to centralisation and decentralisation is not likely to be fruitful. Instead, we should acknowledge the role of the State in creating a ‘permissive framework’ for educational systems. Local action can then be seen as part of a policy accommodating or resisting the implications of that framework.