No hiding place for ministers in a 100% academy system

There are widespread rumours about what the government intends to do to push forward its academy agenda later this year. Since the election they’ve nailed their colours firmly to the mast. David Cameron has said he wants all schools to be academies by 2020 and George Osbourne has talked openly about the end of local authority involvement in running schools.

No one yet knows what this will look like in practice. But it raises two sets of issues – one is around planning and accountability. The other is whether a system based on individual school funding agreements can work for so many schools. This post will look at the first set of issues and a follow up will focus on the second.

There can be little doubt that the whole area of planning and accountability is a hopeless muddle. Who actually decides what schools there should be in an area? Who makes sure everyone has a fair choice of school? Whose job is it to monitor performance and deal with problem schools?

The answer at the moment is an unholy muddle of Ministers and civil servants, Regional Schools Commissioners, academy chains and local authorities. Some things are directed in great detail from the centre and others are left to the random workings of a pseudo-market. So for example:

• local authorities still have the duty to ensure there are sufficient school places
• but they can’t require academies and free schools to co-operate with their plans
• and ministers or RSC’s can and do open, close or change free schools any time they like.

The Chief Inspector apparently still thinks that local politicians are responsible. He told CentreForum

“We need powerful political figures who feel responsible to local people for the performance of local schools. Obviously, it is a matter for government whether the recent drive to devolve powers locally should include education. But, even without more formal powers, shouldn’t local politicians take more responsibility for education and expect more of their schools?”

Ministerial views seem to have passed him by – though a cynic would perhaps say that a favourite Wilshaw pastime is blaming local politicians at every opportunity and he’s not isn’t going to give up his pleasures that easily.

But then the government’s preferred solution, Regional Schools Commissioners, have just had a good kicking from the Select Committee. The committee found that their role was unclear, their ways of working inconsistent and lacking in transparency and their objectives often inappropriate. As the Tory chair put it “the oversight system is now confused, fragmented, and lacking in transparency. RSCs are a product of the Department’s ‘acting first, thinking later’ approach when it comes to big changes in the schools landscape.”

But from another point of view, Jonathan Simons in a recent blog ( tried to argue that accountability of schools through local councils doesn’t work. The evidence he based this on was that there is no relationship between local election results and school performance. Specifically, councils with low performing schools mostly don’t get punished at the ballot box.

This is of course a very narrow definition of democratic accountability. To begin with, people vote for lots of reasons – and always have to consider whether they think any other party would do better. But more importantly, accountability isn’t just about elections. It’s about people being able to bend the ear of councillors at surgeries and about local intelligence being used in a continuing dialogue with schools. And recognising that opinion polling just today found people trust local councillors twice as much as they do government ministers.

When results aren’t good, it’s an easy temptation to just find someone to blame. Wilshaw is a past master at this – it’s politician’s fault, not enough good heads, too much poor teaching and so on. Not often do we ask ourselves, is there something about the lives of people in places where exam results are less good, that might explain it. Perhaps because that would raise some rather harder questions about inequality, the north-south divide and the collapse of decent, skilled employment opportunities in so many places.

No one would say that we’ve ever had a perfect system. But if ministers go down the road of universal academisation, writing local authorities out of the picture entirely, they’ve taken on a big job. Do they propose to shift all 198 statutory duties away from local authorities? Are they ready to trust all to the Education Funding Agency described by Newsnight’s Chris Cook as possibly “the most incompetent organisation in government”.

And most of all are ministers ready to take personal responsibility for every failing school. Do they really understand that sponsored academies perform less well than similar maintained schools both in exams and in inspections? In a famous quote, Nye Bevan said that “if a bedpan is dropped in a hospital corridor in Tredegar, the reverberations should echo around Whitehall”. That is the world education ministers seem to be happy to get themselves into. A decision they may live to regret!

The Truth about our Schools

The Truth about our Schools is a new book co-authored by our Vice President, Melissa Benn in collaboration with Janet Downs. It will be launched at Goldsmiths College, London on Tuesday 19th January from 5 to 7 pm.

The Truth About Our Schools is a blistering attack on the myths perpetuated about our schools by successive governments and the establishment.

Fiona Millar, the Guardian columnist and educational journalist, will introduce the night’s speakers. The Truth About Our Schools – which will be available to buy on the night – was written as part of a campaign mounted by the website (founded by Melissa, Fiona, Janet and Goldsmiths’ Francis Gilbert) to promote inclusive schools.

Columnist, author and activist Owen Jones described The Truth About Our Schools as “a superb, crucial, blistering expose of all the myths about our education system that are all too often used to attack it … Melissa Benn again proves why she is one of the country’s most formidable education campaigners – and why the powerful should fear her.”

The book calls for us to urgently and articulately challenge unquestioned myths about state education, as Benn and Downs meticulously build an argument for its still enormously vital role.

Full details are at

Will Contradictions in Tory Policy finally bite in 2016?

Trevor Fisher writes

For education, the political story in 2015 was simple. Education vanished off the agenda, Labour lost its traditional lead in the opinion polls on schools and no impact was made by the front bench once Morgan replaced Gove. However the School Revolution continues and accelerates and while the media are convinced miracles are happening, in 2016 the serious mismanagement of schools and colleges may finally hit problems that no amount of spin can conceal.

As noted in the SOSS briefing THE SCHOOL REVOLUTION (available from,uk) the academies and free schools policy is hitting major problems, and it was a turning point when Nick Gibb admitted (September 5th) Academies are not necessarily better than maintained schools – and there is much evidence that they are actually worse. Media and the Westminster bubble remain wearing rose tinted glasses.

Shortages however may break the consensus, in particular if they are linked to the impact of Ebacc and the role of OFSTED. Not one of our allies, but for all its flaws OFSTED is reporting on problems that are now developing. The major ones are Teacher supply and the Ebacc prescription, where OFSTED is now piggy in the middle. OFSTED is not commenting on the workload issue which is where unions have achieved a precarious unity over the problems – with no effect on this dogmatic government or its media. Workload has to be linked to staff shortages.


The Guardian on 2nd January reported OFSTED saying teacher shortages were a ‘serious problem’ with ‘isolated, coastal and disadvantaged areas’ at risk. The rose tinted glasses were applied and the government argued all was hunky dory. Gibb had argued in the Sep 5th speech that teacher supply was wonderful and all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Labour’s response was to talk about statistics, which the media do not understand. Nevertheless, with the Select Committee reporting and Teach Vac having sounded warnings, it is more difficult as spring comes on for government to conceal what OFSTED think is a “two tier system” developing “with one group of schools more able to recruit and another less able to do so… with fewer trainees coming through”. Wilshaw’s comment underlines the danger of government giving up on planning for the training of teachers.

However the problem is not just statistically driven and the data quoted in the Guardian by Lucy Powell and TEACHVAC – Social Sciences, business studies, design technology were cited by TeachVac – are not going to worry the Tory media and do not figure in Westminster Bubble thinking. Their children do not do them. What might make the difference is Ebacc, where their children’s options are being limited.

Ebacc (English Baccalaureate – a performance measure…. there is no baccalaureate) has till now been advisory, but a Tory manifesto commitment aims to force at least 90% of secondary children to do it before the next election. So much for school autonomy, but the contradictions are growing at pace. The Bacc is five traditional subject groups – English, Maths, Sciences, Humanities and Languages. With performance 8 it is possible to do three other subjects, but pressure is to provide only the five. Humanities are only History and Geography. The death of the broad and balanced curriculum is now at hand.

Suprisingly little has been said over the last five and half years by the subject associations though RE, Sport, Drama, Dance, the Arts, Design Technology, and the vocational lobby if it still exists have to be worried over the cutting away of their position in schools and colleges. This may be about to change as rather than a voluntary system, compulsion is at hand from September 2016, though the myth of autonomy will continue to be maintained. As the timetable alters to the Favoured Five, there will now be a real threat of redundancies in secondary for purely curriculum reasons. This is likely to start with planning for Year 7 next September.

Currently there is a cod DfE consultation taking place, not on the programme but broadly on implementation, though implementation is vague and the rationale can still be contested in submissions, which I would urge colleagues to do. Reports indicate pressure on schools will be the threat of denying them OFSTED grade 1 in inspection, and that Wilshaw is not happy with this. Rightly so. The inspectorate should not be an agent of government. There may then be a need to defend the independence of OFSTED if this proves to be the case, and the cod consultation, which ends February 29th, needs close attention, along with the Select committee report on teacher supply.


There are other contradictions in Tory Policy, notably the Grammar issue – they are open to the charge of a different kind of two tier system if the opposition can get its act together – and what will worry parents, shortage of school places, developing in at least 17 Local Authorities. And then there is mounting evidence of pupils being expelled to massage performance table exam results…. and the massaging of performance table figures themselves, the figures being due out the end of the month. Media are blind to all this, and treat performance tables as gospel as last year’s failure to spot that Gibb had moved the goalposts proved beyond doubt.

But first things first. Teacher shortages, made worse by the nonsense of a limited and dogmatic old style academic curriculum (which even grammar schools do not follow today) backed up by threats to and tension with OFSTED have dramatised the folly of the School Revolution.

It is time to pull the threads together and start to network to exploit the contradictions before the situation spirals out of control.

How Cameron’s bluster tries to cover up his retreat on academies

If there’s one thing David Cameron is good at, it’s covering up policy failures and U turns with a lot of hot air and bluster. And make no mistake, the U turn he’s just made on the Education and Adoption Bill is one of the most significant retreats yet made on education policy since 2010.

The Labour opposition team has argued all through that if you’re going to have a programme to address so-called coasting schools, it needs to apply to academies as much as to maintained school. This was consistently resisted by ministers – until yesterday when it was suddenly announced that after all the bill will provide for intervention in coasting academies. The announcement reads:

“I am responding with an amendment to the Bill designed to ensure that RSCs always have the power to act whenever or wherever they encounter underperformance in our schools. I propose to amend the Bill so that when an academy or free school’s performance meets one of two triggers in legislation – an inadequate Ofsted judgement or performance that falls within the coasting definition – then their funding agreement will be read as having the latest provisions around failing and coasting schools.”

This is significant for two reasons. One is simply that ministers are admitting that academies and free schools can under-achieve – they’re not always the magic bullet that automatically brings about improvement. Indeed there has been a huge flurry of activity in the form of warning notices to academies by some Regional Commissioners. And the department press release makes much of the fact that 118 sponsored academies have had their sponsor changed. This represents about 10% of the academies that have been open long enough to reach this stage. Some might say this is quite a high failure rate for a policy whose success the Prime Minister describes as having been “extraordinary”.

Equally significant though is the way this bill is now undermining the whole principle of academies being independent schools governed by their funding agreement – which is legally a private contract. This bill is saying that at any time Parliament can override these contracts and can impose a quite different set of arrangements. This is not the first time this has happened but it’s the most high profile because it can lead directly to the termination of an agreement.

What it also means of course is that there is ample precedent for a future government imposing on academies any regulations it thinks are necessary. And it is indeed rumoured strongly that the DfE now understands what some of us have been saying for years, that the 100% academy system Cameron wants is not compatible with 20,000 individual and different funding agreements. Stand by for a lot more standardising regulation of academies.

As well as this though, it’s worth looking at the claims Cameron is making to cover up this U turn.

“Some brand new free schools are sending as many children to Oxbridge as private schools.”  Actually no 11-18 free schools have been open long enough to send anyone to university. This can only apply to the handful of highly selective 16 to 19 free schools who only accept students likely to get to at least the Russell Group.

“You control your budget, you decide on discipline policies, you set the ethos and direction of your school, and you manage it as you see fit.” It will come as a great surprise to maintained school heads to learn that they don’t control their budget, decide on discipline policies or set the ethos of their school. But it might well come as a surprise to a head in many academy chains (Harris? Kemnal?) to imagine that they are free to set the ethos and direction of their school.

“Academies in our most deprived boroughs are getting some of the best results in the country. Schools where previously only a fifth of pupils got five good A to Cs at GCSE are now seeing two thirds reach that benchmark.” Argument by anecdote is a favourite trick of education ministers. No doubt there are some such schools and some such boroughs. But it is quite apparent that just as much improvement happens in maintained schools and, in Henry Stewart’s words “sponsored academy secondaries improve their performance, on average, at a slower rate than similar maintained schools.”

“A million more children are learning in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools compared with when I became Prime Minister.” Maybe so. But as Henry Stewart has again explained most of these are in primary schools and most of them are in maintained schools. It’s got nothing to do with academies, sponsored or otherwise. is an absolute must read for anyone who wants to see the facts behind Cameron’s hot air.

The Tory future for our schools – an unhealthy mix of ineffective regulation and quality assurance and more privatisation

Amidst all the froth and spin surrounding the Autumn Statement, one apparently small change in the arrangements for schools carries with it very great significance in terms of how government policy is evolving. The announcement is that:

“Savings of around £600 million will be made on the Education Services Grant, including phasing out the additional funding schools receive through the ESG. The government will reduce the local authority role in running schools and remove a number of statutory duties. The government will consult on policy and funding proposals in 2016.”

This represents a 75% cut in this budget.

The Education Services grant pays for a number of local authority functions in relation to maintained schools. Most of it is paid directly to academies who are then responsible for these functions.

So the first thing to notice is that this is an unacknowledged cut in academies budgets. The current ESG rate is £87 per pupil so a 1000 pupil school can expect to lose around £65,000 per year. Not something you might guess from the DfE spin.

But we do need to pay attention to what the DfE is saying. Currently these are the areas that local authorities can spend ESG on with DfE recommended levels of spend:

Education welfare services £8.65
School improvement £27.01
Asset management £7.41
Statutory and regulatory duties £28.14
Premature retirement costs/ redundancy costs £5.82
Monitoring national curriculum Assessment £0.54
Therapies and other health related services £1.67
Central support services £7.76
Total spend on ESG services for maintained school pupils only £87.00

Looking at this list, it’s pretty obvious where you have to go to make big cuts – school improvement and regulatory duties have to be in the frame if the total spend is going to come down only about £20 per pupil.

This might seem very dry and technical stuff. But it’s of a piece with the Education and Adoption Bill and suggests that there is more of the same to come.

What it will mean essentially is that there will be much less capacity for local authorities to monitor what schools are doing. And in a number of areas it is likely that schools will have to buy in advice and support from other sources – so another hit on their budgets.

The process of unpicking and reducing local authority duties will be a complex and challenging task. For those who enjoy the detail it can be found at

What is important to recognise is that these duties are not anything to do with local authorities running schools. They are about making sure schools manage themselves well, do their best for their pupils and don’t fall foul of a massive amount of legislation and regulation. Here’s just a random sample drawn from the guidance document.

– Section 542(2) Education Act 1996;
– School Premises Regulations 2012
– Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974
– Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
– Education (National Curriculum) (Key Stage 1 Assessment Arrangements) Order 2004,
– School Staffing (England) Regulations 2009);
– Teachers’ Disciplinary (England) Regulations 2012
– Section 12, Education Act 2002; regs 26 and 27, School Companies Regulations 2002.

There are plenty more! Good luck to headteachers in becoming expert in all this stuff. They won’t be in classrooms much!

The real world we are moving into will look something like this:

– School improvement will consist of the RSC looking at data and firing off letters telling schools to do better.
– Then handing over schools needing help to a sponsor (and then sometimes changing the sponsor when the first one fails).
– The only realistic way of spotting fraud or mismanagement will be through whistleblowers because there will not be the capacity to properly monitor them.
– Schools will have to spend out of their reducing budgets to replace local authority support and become expert in all manner of stuff that is not their core business
– Schools will find they can’t cope on their own and will be forced into multi-academy chains.

The weasel words in the current DfE announcements need to be deconstructed. The direction of travel is clearly towards an unhealthy combination of ineffective regulation and quality assurance and more privatisation as more and more schools are forced into chains. Despite the fact – and we have to keep saying this loud and clear – that chains are much less effective than local authorities in improving and monitoring schools. If anyone doesn’t believe that, read the evidence deployed by Henry Stewart at

The current bill is clearly not the end of the line – these funding changes are clearly preparing the ground for a further assault on what is left of democracy in our school system.

18,000 secondary pupils go missing – in one year!

Martin Johnson writes:

The Education Datalab study of mobile secondary pupils, featured in the TES on 13/11/15, contains a particularly startling statistic. Of the 74,000 pupils in England who left a secondary school before school leaving age, ‘around 18,000’ did not turn up at another school or other provision. Yes, that’s right, 18,000 pupils from a single year group disappeared during their secondary years. The researcher Becky Allen writes ‘We do not know about pupils who emigrate or, sadly, die.’ She does not estimate the likelihood that most or all of the 18,000 are in those two categories, but in the whole UK in 2012 just 340 children aged 10-14 (ie 5 year groups) died.

Many people, including Dr Allen, have heard anecdotes of schools ‘losing’ pupils who would damage their GCSE scores. She writes, ‘Apocryphal tales of parents being ‘encouraged’ to take their children off-roll and educate them at home are widespread.’ This phenomenon is of course almost impossible to research; instead Dr Allen proposes a disincentive for such behaviour in the form of a new method for scoring GCSE outcomes, by weighting the results for time-served in the school. The GCSE points for a pupil who was at school A for 9 terms before moving to school B for 6 terms would be ascribed 9/15 to A and 6/15 to B. There may be many pros and cons to that idea, but using that method would result in six schools, all academies and five of them in London, scoring at least 10% lower on GCSE than the current method.

The key point to take away from this study is not how to tweak the accountability measures to reduce the attractiveness of ‘encourage to leave’ (a term used, by the way, in a school where I taught in the early seventies when the leaving age was 15). No, the real message is that the drop-out rate from our secondary schools is 18,000 pupils a year, undoubtedly incentivised by the accountability system. These are 18,000 highly vulnerable youngsters. Do we care? More, does the government care?

How strong is the support for grammar schools?

I recently attended a discussion on grammar schools at which a speaker quite rightly said that the issue of selective education is one that “has to be won in the court of public opinion”. He added in the same spirit that “It is not enough to bully a couple of Shadow Ministers into saying something on the matter”.

Later the same speaker said “all the polling, even when when you ask the question ‘would you support 25% of people going to grammar schools and 75% going to secondary modern schools? all the polling says ‘absolutely, we support it’ by about two to one”.

Well, I have seen the polling too and I am unconvinced. Seasoned poll-watchers may well feel that there is not much about most polls, especially educational ones, that can be regarded as “incontrovertible”.

I guess that the reference was to the YouGov poll on grammar schools carried out for The Times by YouGov in November 2014. The Times headline to an article reporting the poll results was “Parents say yes to more grammar schools”.

But is this interpretation really “incontrovertible”? Certainly Janet Downes did not think so in her comment on the Local Schools Network where her piece on the subject carried the heading “Only 38% would support building new grammars, says latest YouGov poll”. The basis for such diverse interpretations merits examination.

The polling questions, put to 1890 people, were framed with the statement “Thinking about grammar schools and schools that select pupils by ability, which of the following best reflects your views?”

The options which followed, along with the percentage in favour of each, were

The government should encourage more schools to select by academic ability and build more grammar schools


The government should retain the existing grammar schools, but should not allow more selective schools or new grammar schools to be built


The government should stop schools selecting by academic ability and the existing grammar schools should be opened to children of all abilities


Not sure


The Times presented this a parents supporting grammar schools but Janet Downes was also justified in presenting it as 46% against grammar school extensions compared to 36% in favour. While I do not question the idea that the arguments over grammar schools have to be won in the court of public opinion I take some comfort from this result which was obtained in the absence of any Labour Party leadership on the issue.

Also a more thorough poll might have investigated the illogicality of being against grammar school expansion but not in favour of ending existing selection.

The break-down of the results by age is interesting. In the age groups 18-24, 25-59, 40-59, 60+ there was increasing support for grammars by age reaching the highest value in the 60+ age group i.e. the group most likely to have been to grammar school. Thus in answer to the first question support fell to 29% in the 18-24 age group and rose to 51% in the 60+ group. It is also interesting that support for new grammar schools among UKIP (the only Party without outright support for the policy) voters was only 46%.

We also need to study how views change in time. This is, of course, difficult in the absence of systematic polling on a common basis. However, it is interesting that the poll carried out for National Grammar School Association in July 2007 seems to show stronger support for grammar schools than the Times poll of 2014. The question on support for grammar schools was framed with “Most State secondary schools in Britain today are comprehensive but a few counties in Britain still have grammar schools where entrance is through the eleven plus exam. Please click on the option below which most closely describes your views about grammar schools and the eleven plus” the following results were obtained

I think that all secondary schools should be comprehensive with no grammar schools


I think that all secondary school aged children who wish to should be able to go to grammar school if they pass an exam


Don’t know


When asked “And would you support or oppose the creation of new Grammar Schools in areas that do not currently have any?” 60% said “yes”, 18% said “no” and 22% were don’t knows.

Both polls were conducted (1) against a background of a long-term continuous barrage of anti-comprehensive, pro-grammar propaganda in the media and (2) in the absence of any serious effort by the Labour Party to explain the success of comprehensive schools and the harmful effect of grammar schools on the education system as a whole.

It is also worth noting that a YouGov poll reported in Prospect Magazine in February 2013 recorded 83% of primary schools parent and 77% of secondary school parents agreeing with the proposition “Our local state schools generally provide a good quality education”.

The battle for public opinion has indeed to be fought and won but the results of the above polls and others show, I believe, that there is every reason to believe that a clear majority of the electorate is ready to listen to the case the case for good quality comprehensive schooling. The arguments are there in plenty. The research has been done. The key to success is now that the Labour Party decides on whole hearted support for a fully comprehensive education system. This argument for this needs to be raised at every opportunity and level in the Party so that the Shadow Education Secretary is clear as to what Party member members want and so that corresponding policies are adopted through the Parties decision making procedures.


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