School admissions are one of the great “under the counter” scandals of our society. We’ve created massive incentives in the system for schools to get an intake that is likely to be high achieving and not likely to present extra challenges. Then we’ve allowed increasing numbers of schools to manage their own admissions. Not surprisingly the result is an increasingly segregated system by class, religion and ethnicity.
Yet this goes virtually unchallenged. Essentially this is the result of an unspoken deal between the socially and religiously selective schools and the people who benefit from the system. So Michael Gove was unlikely to take on Greycoat’s admissions practices which blatantly breached the admissions code because he (and David Cameron) benefited personally – getting brownie points for choosing a so-called comprehensive school while in practice getting into one of the most selective schools in the country.
The Fair Admissions campaign has done a fantastic job in identifying the level of segregation in our schools. At http://fairadmissions.org.uk/map/ you can see just how discriminatory our secondary schools are. Now the British Humanist Association has issued a major report unpicking just how religious schools manipulate their admissions. You can find the full report, appropriately entitled “An Unholy Mess” at http://fairadmissions.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/An-Unholy-Mess.pdf.
It explores in detail the admissions policies of a sample of religious (and not just Christian) schools. It found breaches of the code in almost every one. The campaign then went on to present objections to the Schools Adjudicator. It transpired that “the Adjudicator did not simply find breaches of the Code in every one of the schools we objected to; it invariably found further breaches beyond those that we had initially identified.”
The list of code breaches is very long but these are a few of the most significant:
• Widespread issues with clarity, fairness and objectivity
• Almost 90% of schools were found to be asking for information from parents that they did not need.
• A majority of schools were found not to be dealing properly with looked-after and previously looked-after children
• A quarter of schools were found not to make clear how children with statements of special educational needs were admitted
• Over a quarter of schools were found to be religiously selecting in ways not allowed in guidance from their religious authorities.
• Almost a fifth of schools were found to be requiring practical or financial support to associated organisations.
It would of course be only fair to point out that there are increasing numbers of highly segregated non- religious schools. The growth of academies and free schools is massively increasing the scale of the problem.
It is also worth saying that there are seriously questionable practices that are sadly permitted under the code – one of the most common is banding in relation to the applicants rather than against the profile of the local community.
But above all though, we need to be clear that this issue really matters. It matters to individuals – the report includes some personal testimonies and here is just one example: “I can’t understand how we can have three schools 0.4 miles away but due to religious discrimination we are unable to get in any. I now won’t be able to return to work as I can’t get my son to his school and me into work.” Mother, Surrey
But more than that it matters to our society as a whole. Professor Ted Cantle writes in the preface to the BHA report: “it seems to me that if we had to pick any one part of society that we wish to be a microcosm of our society as a whole, it is our schools – as it is through our schools that prejudices can be dispelled before they have a chance to develop and it is where tolerance and understanding should be inculcated. If our schools are not inclusive, our society cannot be.”
And Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA writes: “Not only does the system provide schools with ample scope to act on the perverse incentive to admit only the most ‘promising’ children, it encourages and often forces parents to lie about their religion in order get their children into the local school. But perhaps worst of all, it defines those children by beliefs they are too young to confidently hold for themselves and then seeks to divide them on that basis.”
The time for more tinkering with the Admissions Code is surely over. At the very least we have to say that admission procedures for every school should be set and administered independently. School self- interest cannot be allowed to be the main driver of the system.
And even more fundamentally, we have to challenge the privileged position of religious schools. A multi (and no-) faith society should not allow itself to be divided in this way. These are schools overwhelmingly paid for by us all – there should be no right to discriminate and indoctrinate in any public school system.
John Dixon writes
1. Rank and file party members, with recently recruited new supporters, voted by a substantial majority for the platform Jeremy Corbyn had spoken up for in some dozens of meetings in the major towns of England. This platform marked a decisive opposition to government policies in almost all sectors.
2. It also represented a rejection of the platform that had led to a severe defeat of Labour candidates in the May elections. Thus in Scotland, once a Labour stronghold, Labour lost overwhelmingly – well over forty seats – with Alexander, organizer of the Labour campaign, going down to a straight-speaking young undergraduate.
3. Unfortunately for the Westminster party, the majority of MPs had been elected on that losing platform, two of the candidates for the leadership had been part of the front bench that backed it, and the remaining one explicitly put forward a more right-wing alternative. Thus, all except those MPs who had supported Corbyn were faced with a dilemma: the rank and file of the party were now rejecting the platform they’d been elected on and supporting a different strategy.
4. Equally, the new leader faced a similar dilemma when he returned to Westminster. He’d been elected on a new platform; most of the others on the old one. His decision was to recruit a shadow front bench from across the full range of MPs, a few from his own campaign team, and the majority from the other candidates teams. Evidently this decision accepted an unresolved tension. But the key question remains: will those who have accepted positions on the front bench treat the decision of the rank and file of their party with respect?
5. There’s probably no clear answer: we shall see. But meanwhile, what are the rights and duties of those members who voted for the new leader and his campaign team’s platform? I’m hoping that some of the answers that follow will get support from a large group of fellow members, and sympathisers.
6. Given the dilemma facing many MPs, it seems sensible to call for the party as a whole to unite on an anti-austerity platform, that is, to campaign in parliament and beyond to protect our country from two things: the savage cuts to social welfare budgets in every form (including the wages and working conditions of workers in those sectors), and equally the insidious ideological effort to expose public services (from the NHS on) to a market driven by global finance corporations.
7. This would be treated as an interim position, to promote a hard-hitting campaign by the PLP in Westminster, and beyond that through joint branch, union, and supporters actions in as many regions as possible.
8. Meanwhile, it seems sensible to call for informed discussion, from the branches up, and including area conferences, to take stock of the arguments for policies that involve radical change – and which have already attracted support from some tens of thousands of new members.
9. ‘Informed discussion’: make no mistake, every effort will be made – is being made already, relentlessly, every day – to undercut any such a possibility, with all the forces of the media oligarchs and the government deployed. Only the most well-designed, well-judged and strenuous efforts will ensure that mind-forged manacles aren’t clamped on it. Fortunately there are models close at hand: where else in the UK has a campaign recently had to face every trick of the media to blacken and oppose it? – answer, in Scotland. And the Scots, fortunately for us, are still showing how campaigning groups of very many kinds, and by no means all simply SNP, have formed. Details of that later (**).
10. But first, back to the LP national exec. They can make a start. As a young member in the 1950s, I can still remember the monthly booklet of facts and hard-hitting statistics put out by the Labour Research Department, as background for us members. The new social media make this more than a possibility – it’s a must.
11. ‘Discussion’ not ‘debate’: that effete institution, the House of Commons shows why the days of ‘debate’ are finished. But the Select Committees, at their best, show how power can be challenged to answer penetrating questions. Then comes a new opportunity, given by the Web: the chance for the rank and file to answer back – to learn to take part in a two-way exchange. This is the major breakthrough that’s needed.
12. Informed discussion takes time and has its own ground rules. Maybe these should be obvious to a party that aims to be democratic, cooperative, egalitarian, non-sexist, internationalist…? It’s about turn-taking, listening, treating others with respect, seeking to develop and strengthen what others are suggesting… (In our U3A branches we sometimes collectively make such principles explicit from the start: it takes very little time.)
(**) For a start, try the independent think tanks, Common Weal or The Reid Foundation, and for articles, Better Caledonia, Wings over Scotland, or National Collective. [Thanks to A & S Slimon for help here].
So over to you, my readers.
When private interests into public education simply do not go: The Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture 2015Posted: September 23, 2015
This year’s lecture will have an international perspective. It will look at why it is that education is not making the contribution that we would hope for towards more equal and democratic societies worldwide.
It will consider “consider three ways in which this is occurring in education: the deepening involvement of profit-making firms in education provision; the promotion of private interests in national and global education policy-making spaces; and the enclosure of political space that limits public scrutiny and accountability”.
The lecture will be delivered by Professor Susan Robertson of Bristol University. Professor Robertson is founding Director of the Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies at the University of Bristol. Her work centres on the interface between education, politics and economic pressures. You can read more about her work at http://susanleerobertson.com/.
This is sure to be a stimulating and thought-provoking event, addressing as it will one of the fundamental challenges facing those who are committed to seeing education as a liberating and democratising force in society – something that was of course fundamental to Caroline’s work and beliefs.
The event will be held in the House of Commons on Tuesday 10th November at 6.00 pm. It is a free event but please book your place by e mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now that Michael Gove has moved on to sort out prisons and lawyers, it seems that Nick Gibb has decided to fill his place as the Education Department’s principal ideologue. His speech to the ResearchEd conference last weekend (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/nick-gibb-the-importance-of-the-teaching-profession) contained all the rhetorical tricks we remember from Gove. It also reminded us just how dangerous his narrow ideology is to any idea of free and open debate and the exploration of new ideas.
The speech claimed to be in praise of educational research. It claimed that the government is promoting evidence based policy and wants teachers to use evidence in developing their practice. There is a lengthy section about how school autonomy is transforming the landscape by giving teachers freedom to follow the evidence.
The reality of course is that teachers are free to do what Nick Gibb tells them to do. He is not content with telling schools what they should teach – he is determined to drive them to use only the teaching methods he approves of. No politician before has thought it their place to set themselves up as the sole arbiter of what constitutes effective teaching. A belief in research cannot logically sit alongside a belief in free debate and research. Researchers must always start from the premise that their current opinions might be undermined by further evidence. This is not Gibb’s world.
Nor sadly does he show much understanding of what actually constitutes evidence. Like most politicians, he prefers to base his argument on anecdote. So name checking a couple of academies and a couple of headteachers is apparently sufficient evidence that academies work and that they all do what Gibb wants them to do. But dig a little deeper and you will remember that:
– The London Academy of Excellence routinely kicks out after one year anyone who won’t make their results look good
– Kevin Satchwell at Thomas Telford runs a school that uses its CTC status to ignore the Admissions Code and was one of the pioneers of gaming league tables through its “4 GCSE equivalent” IT course
– There is of course no place for free schools that have gone off it a quite different direction like School 21.
– And it is of course now well established that academies have had no measurable effect on overall standards and many are failing – but Gibb will go on asserting that the opposite is the case.
Gibb’s ability to cherrypick data which seems to support his case is becoming legendary. So for example, he quotes figures for persistent absentees showing a decline since 2010 and, without any evidence, claims this as a success for government policies. He completely ignores the fact that absence from school has been on a steady declining trend since the 1990’s
Similarly, he picks out some second order data about how many new teachers have 2.1’s but ignores the core issue. That is that in 2009/10, teacher recruitment was 108% of target. In 2014/15 it was 93% of target. But of course, this constitutes a challenge not a crisis!
Gibb is expert too in setting up caricatures to attack and simplistically polarises differing points of view. So he says “a romantic aversion to formal teaching will forever trump the evidence which shows its effectiveness. For them, it will always be more important to have engaged pupils who are not learning, than seemingly ‘passive’ pupils who are”. No one sensible would defend either extreme. But to assert that trying to interest pupils is bad and believing that teaching from the front has never been boring and ineffective is nonsensical and simplistic.
At the end he comes up with five core aims for education – statements that are so broad that no one would reasonably object to them. But he then makes the leap to assert that government policies are the only way of achieving these aims. He says:
• we believe that children across the country are entitled to a basic academic education up to the age of 16
• we believe that all children should leave school with the skills that allow them to thrive in the workplace
• we believe the most effective teaching methods should be pursued to achieve this, irrespective of whether some find them ‘tedious’
• we believe that schools should be civilised and civilising institutions which foster good character, because children do not always know best, and sometimes require the benevolent authority of an adult
• lastly, we believe in a socially just Britain, where the benefits of such an education are available to all, irrespective of background or birth
It’s a big leap from this to claim that EBacc is the right programme for every single GCSE student – school autonomy seems to have gone missing here. It’s interesting too that skills to enable them to thrive in the workplace apparently don’t include all the skills and qualities that the CBI has identified as being missing in many young people.
There is the subtle assertion that people who disagree with him are in favour of ineffective teaching methods and fostering bad behaviour and allowing children to run riot. Whereas in reality what there is here is a difference of opinion about what is actually effective. Gibb is of course dedicated to enforcing the study of Shakespeare – he needs to remember with Hamlet that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
And of course, the government believes in a “socially just Britain” – one in which
• child poverty is growing;
• international surveys show English children are the most unhappy in the developed world;
• further education – the key route for technical and vocational education and for a second chance in education – is being bankrupted;
• more and more schools are manipulating admissions to become socially selective and new grammar schools are likely to be approved soon;
• many young people are being driven into a casualised, low pay, zero hours contract job market.
Trevor Fisher writes:
Extensive coverage of the critical issues in teacher supply in the Observer of 30th August raised the issues in a pointed form, but focussed on teacher training. Nick Gibb was quoted as saying that post graduate teacher training “is improving, wiith 3% more people due to start… than this time last year”. However the bigger issue may be retention. The issue of leavers seems to be growing worse.
The statistic that in England 40% of teachers leave in the first 5 years of teaching was widely quoted in 2014, even Tristram Hunt quoting it. Retention is the dark figure which dictates recruitment needed to replace the teachers who have left, and one of the Observer articles noted that
“DfE figures show that in the twelve months to November 2014 almost 50,000 Qualified Teachers in England left the state sector. – the highest rate for ten years* and an increase of more than 25% over five years”. (* ie when the last supply crisis occured)
If this is continued, then the proportion leaving must increase in consequence. How does this impact across the teaching force, which on this basis is half a million strong? Is it true that Head Teachers are increasingly hard to recruit? And what is causing this loss of Qualified Teachers? John Howson wrote that cuts in teacher pay, designed to make the private sector more attractive, failure to grasp increasing numbers of pupils, hostility to teachers notably the removal of the need for academies to employ Qualified teachers, removal of grants for training, introduction of Schools Direct and restrictions on tier 2 visa numbers reducing the supply of teachers from abroad, all play a malign role.
Chris Waterman, chair of the supply and teacher training advisory group, was quoted as saying that a ‘perfect storm’ of changes had led to growing problems, notably attacks on the profession by government and OFSTED, rising pupil numbers, failure to pay tuition fees, improvement in job opportunities elsewhere, notably abroad where lower income tax and better benefits were on offer. The cut in public sector pay was also identified by Waterman as important along with John Howson.
However neither expert mentioned work load or burn out, notably pressure on results, the exam factory syndrome. It remains unclear how far this is a ‘traditional’ teacher shortage crisis – there was a shortage a dozen years ago, and in previous eras notably as the post war baby boom reached schools in the 1950s and 1960s, and predicting numbers has been made more difficult by immigration, which Labour did not accurately predict in the period before 2010 and the Tories have not predicted in the current period. But since then there have been a number of new factors which have only come about due to Tory policy, ranging from training on the job to constant punitive observations through to payment by results and other arbitrary managerial devices. The current growing teacher shortages must distort Payment by Results in damaging ways. As noted in the last report, this is exemplified by the situation with maths.
Maths teachers, the Times reported, get better pay within schools, which is logical but unfair and must affect retention of 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. 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.
If the introduction of Ebacc in secondaries as a compulsory core curriculum is not stopped before September 2016, it is clear that good teachers in non Ebacc subjects will be forced out to employ perhaps less impressive performers in Ebacc subjects.
Pressures making teaching unattractive- is burn out occurring?
The myth of school autonomy is becoming harder to sustain as the pressures for control from Westminster become clearer, with heads more and more circumscribed. It is clear that OFSTED is increasingly problematic in assessing school performance, with random judgements alleged to have major consequences. It is certainly the case that Performance Tables are less and less factors for reporting performance than a method of controlling what schools do, and if OFSTED grade 1 cannot be granted if Ebacc is not taught – and supply of Ebacc teachers is becoming problematic – then OFSTED grade 1 will be subject to pressures outside the control of the school. There is no sign that OFSTED understands this.
Workload has been evaded by politicians, Nicky Morgan and Nick Clegg signing off a document in the spring which only avoided the big issues. It is clearly not possible to impose heavier and heavier work load on classroom teachers and there are clear indicators the tipping point has been reached. However there is no hard evidence on why teachers are leaving in such numbers.
Since the controversy is about retention as much as recruitment and there is a clear relationship between how many teachers leave and how many need to be recruited, it would be sensible to make a close study of why teachers are leaving the profession in numbers. Unless there is a clear understanding of what makes this crisis increasingly look like attempting to fill a bottomless pit, it is unlikely that teaching can be sustained and some schools – inevitably those in the most deprived areas – will face problems which they have not made and which they cannot solve from their own limited resources.
Tracking how many teachers are leaving before retirement, with a sustained attempt to ascertain what the reasons for leaving are, must be a priority for the new academic year.
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.