Trevor Fisher writes:
A teacher supply crisis is predicted to develop over the next 18 months, becoming critical at the start of the 2016-17 academic year. Tracking developments is difficult because of the variables notably the leavers – England has 40% of teachers leaving in the first 5 years of teaching which affects recruitment needed to replace them. Demand in particular in subject areas is likely to be affected by Ebacc’s imposition in September 2016. It is already believed that Maths and Physics are seriously understaffed and the Conservatives promised up to 17,000 new teachers in these areas during the election. Teach First, which commented on overall shortages in the spring, argued these would have to come from overseas, there are not enough teachers in the country in these subject.
In the run up to the new Academic year, the picture is relatively clear on recruitment to teacher training courses. John Howson has estimated (July 30th) that the picture looks relatively good on the surface. The gap between total number of applicants and number recruited at this point last year “is still being closed” and was down to 3.400. There were however problems in specific secondary subjects, only PE and languages likely to meet the target of the DfE’s Teacher Supply Model (TSM).
Government changes to Initial Teacher Training, have reduced places on the popular and successful Higher Education route, in favour of Schools Direct but this training on the job scheme has been criticised as making an inadequate contribution to teacher supply. Howson noted on July 30th that “the fate of the salaried route in Schools Direct where conversion rates remain much lower than other routes into teaching… The secondary salaried route may yield fewer trainees than the former Graduate Teacher Training Programme… did in some of the years when it was in operation”.
Within this broad picture maths has become a high profile issue, with press reports on 20th July that maths shortages are so severe that – the Times Reported – there is a shortfall of 5,500 maths teachers. Some schools are using PE or geography teachers and some use teaching assistants or cover assistants who are not supposed to teach at all. Maths teachers, the Times reported, get better pay within schools, which is logical but unfair and must affect retention in other subject areas which resent patent unfairness. Overall, given there are major incentives to teach maths, including bursaries of £25k tax free, the shortages in maths need serious examination.
John Howson noted in his 20th August blog that maths vacancies seem currently to be concentrated in London and two adjacent areas, where despite higher pay rates and Teach First, maths graduates are in high demand. However he also notes ominously that “if there are issues in teacher supply in mathematics now then there are more severe problems in other subjects” and the UCAS figures for applications to train for 2016 must be scutinised. They are due to appear in the next month.
QTS and Teacher numbers
Problems of teacher supply appear to be concentrated in deprived areas – one suspects special measures deters recruitment – and coastal areas, notoriously low achieving. Without qualified teachers they will remain low achievers. Within these known problems there are new factors derived from government policy. The impact of the abolition of QTS is a new factor which appears to affect the free school sector disproportionately, and what counts as a teacher becomes a key issue.
While QTS remains a requirement in most schools, whether the pressures to get staff into classrooms will overcome the desire to have QTS in post will be an issue for the next twelve months and beyond. In shortage subjects like Maths and Physics, is degree level qualification now optional? Howson argued in viewing the maths situation on August 20th for a minimum capability, “a minimum level of maths in a degree, say two years of subject study post A Level, might help here”. This is reasonable, as merely having a QTS does not indicate subject expertise. What counts as subject expertise now QTS is not compulsory?
Pressures making teaching unattractive.
Increasing demands make teaching unattractive, and workload issues are becoming critical, taken up by the unions without significant response from government. Additionally there are clear pressures to force out expensive older staff, creating a younger but cheaper work force, and England is said to have one of the youngest staffs in the world (OECD indictors). A related problem is the reliance on supply teachers, which can mask many underlying problems. Tim Sherwood when temporary manager of Spurs said he was the ‘supply teacher’. Now he is manager of Aston Villa, he is ‘the head teacher’. Extensive reliance on supply teachers may mask immediate problems of staffing, but if extensive is deeply problematic.
The role of managers in schools, especially in academy chain schools is a factor: what is the effective teaching staff if there is a large and expensive management cohort? And what is the effect on retention of Payment by Results?
The Payment by Results scheme is controversial for many reasons, but even if fair in theory may be undermined by shortages whatever formula is used. The pressure to award pay rises to underperforming teachers in shortage subjects is rumoured to be considerable, and the Times (20th August) reported that maths teachers “wield the power and they know it”. Logically underperformance will be tolerated in shortage subjects. As shortages develop in major subjects, it is difficult to see PBR not being discredited as pay is not driven by performance.
EBacc is a cloud on the horizon. The imposition of Ebacc in September 2016 effectively means a core and periphery curriculum, with the periphery likely to wither away with payment for core subject teachers driving the pay and conditions system. In the short term non-core subjects will lose staff, and a major issue next year is likely to be the redundancy of many non-core subjects – and the teachers within them – however well they are taught. This will raise more issues than Payment by Results as a broad and balanced curriculum will be impossible to deliver – unless heads risk not being allowed a top grade in an OFSTED inspection. Which new edict also raises questions about the independence of OFSTED.
Wider implications for sustainable schools
The teacher shortage situation is a pointer to other problems in the school system. Is teaching now an unattractive and short term career, with over recruitment needed simply to keep pace with teachers leaving the system? Are key subject shortages only concentrated in the high wage area of London and the South East? They clearly affect deprived areas, where social mobility is low, and coastal areas where achievement is low. As it is long established, that schools can only be as good as the teachers within them, the implications of a serious shortage of teachers are fundamental, but not only for these known problem areas. Teacher shortages may be developing as a national problem. The supply of teachers will require close scrutiny over the next academic year.
Ever since 1988, successive governments have promoted the view that school autonomy is an unquestioned good thing. The 1988 Act established schools with their own budgets, management and governance. For many years local authorities were told to leave successful schools alone. The academies programme then formalised this by taking many schools out of the local authority framework.
The core rationalisation for all of this was that if schools were left to themselves, improvement would follow almost automatically. The “dead hand of bureaucracy” was all that was holding them back. This was accompanied by the cult of the super-head who would turn round a failing school virtually single-handed.
In most local authorities, that dead hand is certainly gone. A combination of academisation and savage budget cuts have stripped capacity out of many local authorities. Many maintained schools are effectively as much on their own as converter academies. In quite a few cases, schools are clustering together in new voluntary groupings as a way of replacing missing local support and services.
Occasionally, it has been pointed out that sponsored academies have the least autonomy of any kind of school. As long ago as 2012, NCSL described in some detail the management structures of chains. It was clear then that the level of central control was substantial. This picture was confirmed by the RSA Academies Commission. And just this month, Ian Comfort, head of the AET chain said that:
“headteachers of maintained schools have more freedom and autonomy than their peers at schools in multi-academy trusts. A headteacher that joins a multi academy trust really has given up a lot of direct control over their own school.”
For the most part, this is presented as a bad thing. The DfE clings to the mantra that “thanks to the freedoms provided by academy status, these schools are driving up standards across the country.”
Increasingly though there is evidence that less autonomy may be associated with better performance. We’re not talking here about more bean counting. Nor are we talking about the Kemnal approach where sacking the head seems to be the main school improvement strategy.
Rather we’re talking about chains that have developed a consistent educational approach with developmental programmes in place to make sure it is applied across all its schools. The best examples of this are the Ark and Harris chains. Recent Sutton Trust research (http://www.suttontrust.com/researcharchive/chain-effects-2015/ ) shows them as consistently amongst the most effective chains. The last issue of the SEA journal, Education Politics, included a detailed account of the work of Ark (https://socedassoc.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/ep-june15.pdf). There is clearly here a serious attempt to create a rich educational infrastructure focussing on developing pedagogy and leadership.
One suspects the culture of Harris is somewhat different and it certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But what is undeniable is that there is a clear brand with a determination to establish consistency across the whole chain.
This is not intended to be a defence of academy chains as such, nor indeed of the particular approaches followed. But it is a suggestion that school autonomy is not all it’s cracked up to be because these two chains are clearly amongst the most successful.
It’s entirely possible to find the same thing happening outside the academy sector. London Challenge was all about saying that there is something bigger than the individual school. It was designed to promote growth and improvement across the system. It was mostly done with consent, but there was some sacrifice of individual autonomy.
Something similar can be said of the National Strategies programmes run by the Labour government. These programmes brought schools together around a common approach to a wide range of issues. Many criticisms can be made of the actual contact of some programmes but the key point is that schools worked through the issues collectively, supported one another and could draw on expertise from beyond their own walls. And taking part was not optional.
Going back further, some will still remember that extraordinarily rich infrastructure created by the ILEA. It was based firmly on a shared culture through which English education first began to pay attention to issues of diversity and inequality.
And of course we can look abroad to the much admired systems of Asia. Does anyone doubt that these systems have a strong shared culture and a systematic approach to school and teacher development. Would any of them leave this to chance?
There are persistent rumours that the DfE has come to the conclusion that the day of the free standing academy is over and that multi-academy trusts are the future. We can perhaps agree with the first point – there is such a thing as too much autonomy. Schools do need to be part of a broader system or they won’t ever be able to access the expertise and structured programmes that they need. Refusing to be part of something like that should not be an option.
But if we expect this of schools, we need to provide the framework. Leaving it to individual initiatives is not enough. An example of this is the teaching schools programme – it’s been demonstrated that schools in disadvantaged areas have very little access to teaching schools.
There is hard thinking to be done on the left about how to make sure that there is a developmental infrastructure that every school is part of. There may well be lessons from chains about what does and doesn’t work but it is now clear that the successes amongst chains are the exception rather than the norm. It will need a much more comprehensive approach with proper accountability.
But we should now be clear. Letting every school do its own thing is no longer adequate – and indeed never has been. If we do, a few will go seriously off the rails but more will simply fail to develop as well as they could for want of proper outside stimulus. And too many will seek to manipulate procedures(such as admissions) in their own self-interest.
The Regional Schools Commissioner in the West Midlands recently justified ignoring the opposition of 92% of respondees to a decision about a school in Redditch by saying:
“It is government policy that we have a school led system where headteachers are trusted to make the appropriate decisions”. So in effect everyone else – other schools, governors, parents, teachers – doesn’t matter.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that this does not deliver the best results. Schools should not be atomised units pursuing their own narrow interests. They should be part of a collaborative system recognising some limits on their independence. Heads should not be (in Wilshaw’s words) “the lone warrior, fighting for righteousness”. Wilshaw’s hero, Clint Eastwood, is actually more likely to turn into Fred Goodwin. Not quite the role model we want for our school system.
It’s rapidly becoming the received wisdom that Labour is facing something called “an existential crisis”. According to wiki this is “a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether their life has any meaning, purpose, or value”.
To some degree, this has to be seen as the need journalists have to sell papers by exaggerating the significance of any given moment. The Observer would have us believe that a focus group now can usefully predict how they will feel in five years time. Before succumbing to this kind of panic, it’s worth putting things in a little perspective.
First of all, it’s not long since the commentariat would have had us believe that the Tory party had no future. No Tory victory since 1992. A party irreversibly tarnished as “the nasty party” with nothing to say to 21st century Britain. Throughout the short campaign, their focus was on why the Tories were doing so badly. Now of course, all that is forgotten and they all think they knew the result was inevitable.
Second, this was actually a very close election. Ten seats less and there was no Tory majority. Twenty seats less and there was no possible Tory led coalition.
And no one should be surprised that the few polls there are now show a bigger Tory lead. In 2005, Labour won by 3% but by July was 10% ahead. People – and journalists – jump on winning band wagons and forget that in a couple of years it may all seem very different.
But that is not a reason for complacency. Labour, on its own, was a very long way behind. And boundary and registration changes may well make things harder in 2020. But it does remind us that it is important to understand what actually happened rather than developing a narrative that fits in with some people’s desire to rubbish the past five years and to get back to the golden age of Blair.
Above all, Scotland happened. It cost Labour 40 seats directly and probably cost both Labour and Liberals a number of English seats because of the panic whipped up around the SNP surge. And this was something to which no answer was found. But it will have to be found because it seems unlikely the SNP is going away. And without Scotland, it is probably true to say a Labour led government is not going to happen.
It is going to be necessary to find ways of making multi-party government workable, and in the eyes of the electorate, safe. This will not be easy, given the separatist agenda. But it is absolutely necessary. Narrow tribalism will get us nowhere. We need to challenge the SNP to really be part of a progressive alliance – at the moment they can take the high ground secure in the knowledge that they won’t be asked to deliver. This is not a job for the next short campaign. It needs to start now. And it’s not obvious that a lurch to the right answers this bit of the problem
But it was not, of course, all about Scotland. Many individual manifesto commitments made excellent sense – as can be seen from how quickly Osbourne has about pinched some of them. What was missing was:
– A broad financial strategy. Basically the question of whether we support cuts or we don’t was never answered properly. Too often in mid term, Labour interviewees found themselves saying, “we don’t know yet” because there was no proper framework. Even at the end, the IFS was saying there was the biggest gap between spending plans of the two parties for many years, but we were still talking the language of austerity. But when asked what we would cut, the answers were usually trivial and unconvincing. Nor did we ever find an answer to the household metaphor – “families have to balance the books and so does the country”. How about this? – “if a family is hard up, the best way out is to get a better job and earn more. That’s what Britain needs”.
– A unifying narrative that could join up different policy ideas and was expressed in language that worked across the whole of the country. What we had was a lot of individual ideas targeted at particular groups but they never came together. As a result it is true that too many people felt we were not talking to them.
– Disciplined and consistent campaigning. The Tories had very heavy central control of the message and everyone stuck to it, working out how it applied in their area. Labour frankly didn’t seem like a coherent team and themes were launched but not picked up in a consistent way. Where was our Crosby? It may be heresy to say so, but this is a problem with bottom up policy making. Loads of working groups and individuals beavering away with no adequate central direction or theme, is no way to build a coherent message.
– Self confidence – we always seemed to be watering down potentially strong policies for fear of what right wing journalists might say. Education was a classic example of this. There was the opportunity to bring together a broad coalition of teachers, business, universities and parents around a radical challenge to Gove’s agenda. But we ended up too hamstrung by our own past and not confident enough about any alternative. The same was true of many policy areas – railways, private renting, student finance, care of the old, devolution …. and many others.
The argument that “the people have spoken so we have to do what they said” is in the end absurd. If you lose an election, then resolve to do better next time. It’s pretty obvious that Osbourne, and indeed Thatcher before him, shrugged and decided that because the Tories had lost an election, they needed to change their beliefs. They resolved to be more effective and more coherent. They determined they would get their world view across better – something which they’ve done so well that their narrative now seems irresistible.
That is now our challenge. We were not wrong in the last five years to turn the focus back onto inequality. We should actually never have lost sight of it. We don’t have to buy into the Tory world view but we do have to be a lot more self-confident, a lot more coherent and a lot more convincing. Then people will start listening again.
Over the last couple of days, the media have been concentrating on the government’s attempts – unsuccessful on the whole – to make some sense of their coasting schools policy. But as a result Nicky Morgan’s speech to the National Governors Association has rather passed under the radar.
It’s important though that it isn’t allowed to. It starts with the usual warm words about how wonderful volunteer governors are and goes on to say that:
“Because a school-led system doesn’t mean schools as islands, making their own way. It means schools fully integrated with the local community, responsive to local parents and, crucially, connected with, learning from and supporting other schools. And you as governors will play a crucial role in this; ensuring your school is fully linked with the world outside.”
Nothing you would think to get excited about there. But she went straight on to say:
“What that doesn’t necessarily mean is a stakeholder model of school governance, and I should be clear now that I intend to look further into how we can move away from that model over this Parliament – because what makes your contribution so important isn’t the particular group you represent, it’s the skills, expertise and wisdom you bring to the running of a school.”
It soon became clear that this is likely to mean the end of elected parent and staff governors and to local authority appointed governors. There is much soft soap about consultation and listening, but we know how this government really operates. The behind the scenes whispers are already emerging. The shift will be towards a business model of non- executives appointed because they have particular skills. The message is clearly that there should be more business governors and they should be focussed on things like financial management.
Put this alongside the Education and Adoption Bill with its insistence on academy status as the only way forward, then we begin to get a clear picture of how this government sees the place of schools in our society.
To them schools are clearly not meant, in any real sense, to be part of their local community. They’re put there and run by people appointed by the government. They don’t represent the community coming together to improve itself. Rather missionaries from on high will descend and give people what they think is good for them.
Locally elected councillors are on their way out of the picture. Now parents and teachers are on the way out too. The message is “take what you’re given and be grateful”. The unelected cosy club of Tory politicians and their friends and relatives, party donors and “experts” from business will run schools. New governors will be co-opted by the existing governors so the cosy club will continue to renew itself without reference to the outside world. For parents, the choice will be between Sainsburys and Tesco. It’s not their place to try and have any say in how schools work and what they should be doing.
This is not to say that the stakeholder model is perfect. Sometimes it’s very far from it. In recent years we have loaded far too much responsibility onto governors and given them far too little support. Too often all they have to go on is Ofsted which is a very flawed and limited source of evidence against which to judge a school’s performance.
But a stakeholder governing body working alongside and with support from a local authority which itself has strong roots in the community – that can work well.
If you insist that schools are an island disconnected from any local structures and with no meaningful professional scrutiny and support – then yes, you probably do need more professional governors able to provide (for free) that scrutiny and support.
But you’ve lost something very fundamental – the links that really do make a school part of its community and keep the focus on what that community wants for its children.
In 2012, Michael Gove spoke to the Schools Network. He told them that:
“the highest-performing education systems are those where government knows when to take a step back. Rigorous research from the OECD and others has shown that more autonomy for individual schools helps raise standards. In its most recent international survey of education, the OECD found that ‘in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better.’”
There was always a considerable gap between Gove’s rhetoric and the reality of his policies and actions. His successor though is taking government control to a whole new level. The decision to require all 15 and 16 year olds to follow GCSE courses in the full EBacc drives a coach and horses through any notion of giving schools autonomy over “what is taught and how students are assessed.”
So much then for the curriculum freedom promised to academies. It’s interesting though that Morgan is not taking the power to directly require schools to do what she wants. It will be enforced through Ofsted. So we should perhaps ask, what is left of the independence of HMI. They have become simply an enforcement arm for government policy. Many Chief Inspectors in the past would have made it clear that one of their jobs is to tell government what the effect of their policies is rather than acting simply as an echo. Sadly that no longer seems to be in the job description.
This decision is justified as promoting social justice and social mobility. They are, according to Morgan, “the subjects that keep your options open, and allow you to enter the widest ranges of careers and university courses.” The EBacc subjects are supposed to be the hardest and they tend to figure in the entry requirements of the Russell Group. And of course they’re the subjects that ministers themselves took – never under-estimate their determination to recreate the education system of their childhood.
What Morgan and others mean of course is this kind of GCSE programme is needed for some very particular institutions and careers. And this then drives the curriculum for everyone else no matter what their ambitions and their abilities. So if you want to be an app writer, a mechanic, a farmer or a policeman, you still have to do the curriculum laid down by the Russell Group.
We get warm words from ministers telling us that you can still do some other subjects. But the bottom line is clear – they’re not valued. Selecting some subjects and not others is sending that very clear message.
What is totally missing from this debate is any attempt to consider what young people need to know and be able to do by 16. It would be wrong to claim that they don’t need academic knowledge. But all kinds of knowledge, not just some. Everyone needs a grounding in science and scientific method, an understanding of how human society is organised, has evolved and interacts with the physical environment and the creative and artistic achievements of people now and in the past. And they obviously need the key tools of language and maths.
But that’s far from all. Young people need to develop practical and technical capability. They need to do things and make things as well as reading about them. They need to know about the society they’re growing in to and the values that should be fundamental to it. And they need a wide range of skills and personal qualities – something employers are constantly telling us.
The problem has been how do you fit it all in? We’ve swung backwards and forwards between trying to deliver a truly broad and balanced curriculum up to 16 and allowing substantial specialisation at 14. The 1988 Act saw an attempt to establish a broad and balanced curriculum to 16 – including the arts and design technology – but this soon collapsed with more and more subjects made optional. The growth of supposed vocational pathways led to even more fragmentation.
The basic problem is the single subject GCSE. It’s hugely encouraging to begin to hear voices demanding the end of this millstone round the necks of all our 16 year olds. We need to start again from the beginning – from a proper analysis of what young people need and what different interest groups in society are seeking from post 14 education.
If we planned a four year curriculum from 14 to 18, it would be possible to combine real breadth with appropriate – and increasing – specialisation. Qualifications should follow from curriculum decisions rather than the other way round. Not all programmes need to be stuck in the straightjacket of two and a half hours a week for two years – some may be smaller and shorter, others may take 3 years not two – all kinds of flexibilities open up, including a genuinely challenging curriculum for apprentices.
In his recent speech (http://news.cbi.org.uk/news/john-cridland-festival-of-education-speech/) John Cridland of the CBI demanded that a process for getting rid of GCSE should be in place by 2020. His language reminds us just how detached the political debate is from the real issues we should be addressing:
“On high-stakes exams at 16, we have to face the uncomfortable truth that – internationally – we’re the oddballs.”
“in the UK we have no debate at all about the 14-18 curriculum – only a debate about exams.”
“GCSE exams only serve to deliver school accountability measurement – which can be achieved in other ways.”
It’s encouraging that Tristram Hunt has made some of the same points. Cridland set the government a challenge: “it must make a start on a full review of 14 to 18 education by the end of the summer”.
We know full well that it won’t. But why should we wait? What is to stop Labour from encouraging the CBI, the unions and the rest of civil society from doing for themselves what the government won’t do.
To get a hearing at the next election, Labour needs to be seen to be in tune with thinking in society as a whole. And the government needs to be seen as it is – out of date and increasingly irrelevant. Opposition isn’t just about parliamentary criticism and speech making. It needs to be about building alliances and changing the terms of the national debate. There’s an opportunity here in 14 to 18 education to start that process.
The SEA Annual Conference will be held at the University of London Union, Malet Street London, WC1E 7HY on Saturday 27th June 2015. The Conference will run from 11.00 am to 5 pm.
After the disappointment of May 7th, this will be an important opportunity to renew our commitment to a socialist education programme and to take stock of the issues that are likely to face us over the coming years.
We will have a range of speakers specifically addressing the current political scene and its implications for education. They will include:
• Professor Richard Pring (President of SEA)
• Kevin Courtney (Deputy General Secretary of the NUT)
• Catherine West MP (Hornsey and Wood Green)
• Melissa Benn (author, campaigner and Vice President of SEA).
• Eddie Playfair (Principal of NewVic Sixth Form College and Vice Chair of SEA)
The main focus though will be to promote as wide a debate as possible. We want to identify the policy and campaigning agenda that will be needed over the next few years. One aim will undoubtedly be to try and raise the profile of education after its almost complete absence from the election campaign. We need to ensure that the damage being done by the current government is better understood and that Labour develops a more comprehensive alternative offer.
There will also be the opportunity for SEA to make a supporting nomination in the contest for Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. There will be time in the conference for what I’m sure will be a lively debate about the merits of the different candidates
The cost to attend the conference is £25 waged and £15 unwaged. This includes lunch.
You can book a place by e mail to email@example.com . Payment can be made on the day.
We will be very pleased to see supporters who are not SEA members at this very important conference.
The Education and Adoption Bill is a naive and simplistic measure. Morgan is the real ideologue not her opponents.Posted: June 3, 2015
The DfE has this morning announced details of the Education and Adoption Bill. Its purpose, according to the DfE press release is ‘ to sweep away bureaucratic and legal loopholes’ that prevent schools from being improved. The plan is that all schools found inadequate by Ofsted will become sponsored academies. There will be a duty on governors and local authorities to co-operate with the process and sponsors will no longer be required to consult parents and local communities.
There is also to be provision for “coasting schools” to be given a notice to improve and a rather vague promise of support from “expert headteachers” and if necessary “new leadership”. It stops short of promising academy status for them though.
The rhetoric surrounding this initiative is extra-ordinary. The equating of sponsored academy status with improvement is absolute. You would think that no sponsored academy had ever gone wrong and no local authority school had ever improved.This of course should mean that Morgan has incontrovertible evidence that her approach works just about every time. In fact this is an extraordinarily flawed bill on just about every level.
First should come some matters of principle. The Secretary of State is setting herself up as the only decision maker who matters. No one else’s view is to count for anything. Not for Nicky Morgan the Cromwellian warning “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken”. Good governance is about listening to a range of views and considering evidence from all directions. But not in Nicky Morgan’s world. Anyone who disagrees “puts ideological objections above the best interests of children.” It’s a fundamental rule of organisations that this kind of arrogance leads to trouble sooner or later. Every management textbook will tell you this is a bad way to run anything. But it’s what we’re going to get.
Second, it is absolutely clear that the evidence does not back up the assertions. The Select Committee said so. The RSA Academies Commission said so. The record of failing academies and failing multi-academy trusts says so. Morgan is setting a high standard – academy status is the only path to success, so we are entitled to assume that their record should be pretty spotless – otherwise we might have expected a little more caution.
So to set the balance straight, here are 3 letters written by Ofsted to three significant academy chains:
Then you could add the 99 warning letters sent to poorly performing academies (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/list-of-letters-to-academy-trusts-about-poor-performance). Or the 14 academy chains prevented in 2014 from taking on new schools because of concerns about their performance. Or the 21 financial warnings issued to academies in the last year (https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/academies-financial-notices-to-improve)
Then, if you look at the overall statistics, 2.7% of all schools are inadequate according to Ofsted. But 13% of sponsored academies are in that category. No less than 35% of sponsored academies require improvement. Now it’s reasonable to say that many sponsored academies are in challenging circumstances. We know too that there is a huge bias in Ofsted against schools in such areas. And we know that some sponsored academies have done well and some chains are effective. But so are many maintained schools and – despite all the obstacles put in their way – many local authorities.
So does this amount to evidence of a magic bullet? Does it justify riding roughshod over local and professional opinion all over the country? Is it evidence that people who disagree are putting ideology above children’s futures. The DfE prefers to argue by producing the odd anecdote and some quotes from academy leaders who’ve done well out of the system. But they consistently steer clear of trying to present any argument based on hard evidence. When you look at the evidence, it’s the DfE that would seem to be the ideologues, promoting one particular way forward in defiance of evidence that suggests that the world is a little more complicated than that.
We should also think about what is not in this bill. There is nothing that will actually make sure there are enough good teachers in classrooms – especially in areas where recruitment is difficult – at a time when new teacher numbers are in free fall. Nothing to show how we will find more good headteachers at a time when the job is so insecure that fewer and fewer people want to take it on. Nothing to create the structures of support and challenge that over time we know is how you bring about long term change. Nothing to make sure that there are enough school places in the right areas to meet escalating pupil numbers. Nothing to put right the deeply damaging changes to the curriculum and assessment regimes that may well turn out to be Gove’s most toxic legacy.
And at the end of the day there is nothing to tell us how the DfE is going to successfully manage more and more schools. The Public Accounts Committee has consistently savaged the accountability systems run by the DfE and the EFA (http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/public-accounts-committee/news/report-sshool-oversight-and-intervention/). There are no proper systems for identifying problems at an early stage. Anyone who has dealt with the EFA knows that it is a deeply dysfunctional organisation that often can’t even get the basics of funding and administration right.
The system will remain shrouded in secrecy. Issues like the choice of sponsor will be even less transparent than they have been so far. 1000 more sponsored academies over five years will demand either even bigger chains or many new sponsors. But we know big chains expanding rapidly are the most likely to fail. And there is no evidence that there is a massive queue of new sponsors queuing up. Like much of this government’s programme, this is a leap in the dark based on a touching faith that it’ll be all right on the night.
But on the evidence of the last five years, it will make very little difference to pupils’ education. Some schools will improve. Some will get worse. Just as they would if none of this happened. The top down structural model of school improvement is irrelevant to the real needs of children. But ministers do it because it creates the illusion of action and gets them headlines. The daily grind of incremental improvement doesn’t interest them but it is what will really make a difference for children.
This is a bad bill not just because it seeks to centralise decision making to an unacceptable degree. It’s also bad because it puts public assets into private hands with no proper accountability. But above all it’s bad because it’s based on an approach to managing complex systems that is naïve and simplistic in the extreme. What a massive waste of everyone’s time!