Twigg at the RSAPosted: June 21, 2013
A few days on from Stephen Twigg’s RSA speech[i], it is perhaps possible to see past the spin to identify the real nature and extent of the challenge to Gove that has now been set out. Commentators have tended to pick on particular points in order to make the speech fit their particular point of view – an example would be the muddled comments over what Stephen called Parent led Academies. Out of context this could look like free schools but in context the reality is very different.
Importantly, there was a strong and positive focus on the teaching profession and the need for high quality, motivated teachers. There was an overt contrast with the constant criticism that comes from the current regime.
The speech had three broad themes -:
“First, where a school freedom promotes higher standards, we will extend those freedoms to all schools.
Second, no one cares more about a school than the community it serves. Therefore, we will deliver a radical devolution of power from Whitehall.
Third, we will ensure that every school plays its part to raise standards across their area and meet the needs of their community.”
Within that framework some critical dividing lines were laid down. They included a clear recognition that “free schools and academies are not a panacea for school improvement” and that they can under-achieve as much as maintained schools can. A timely thought in the week that the first free school goes into special measures but, unless I’m mistaken, a first for a Labour spokesman.
There was a clear commitment to a stronger local role both in planning provision and in monitoring and intervening when things go wrong: “We need stronger local oversight for all schools so that struggling schools are spotted much sooner, local support is on hand to drive up standards, and schools have a clear relationship with their community” and “there will be no bias for or against a school type- so new academies, new maintained schools, new trust schools- all options.”
It was in this context that the Parent led Academy came up. The key differences from free schools are that they would only be considered where there is a need for new places and that there would be a local decision making process to decide whether such a school would be appropriate.
Great stress was placed on collaboration and the experience of London Challenge was again highlighted. A quote from Andreas Schleicher of the OECD is very relevant here. He argues that “while more autonomous school systems are generally more successful than highly directed ones, there is a much stronger correlation between collaborative culture and system success. The lowest performing schools in the OECD have autonomy but no collaborative culture. “
The issue of admissions was raised, recognising that every school must play its part in ensuring fair admissions. The aim is “The comprehensive ideal, within a mixed economy of schools.” – nice certainly to see the c word being used! There was recognition too that “we are seeing social selection playing out in the (admissions) system”.
Overall, I think this speech represents significant progress. There is however a great deal still to play for with a number of key areas as yet not fully fleshed out. Here are just a few examples:
– School freedoms – the aim is clearly to put all schools on a level playing field. So, on the one hand, no unqualified teachers and the maintenance of national pay and conditions. On the other, a substantial commitment to curriculum freedom for all schools. This last is puzzling because at the same time Labour is continuing the process of developing a national curriculum policy. It is to be hoped that this doesn’t really mean the abandonment of a curriculum entitlement for all children. And an issue not addressed at all was how to equalise the funding regime for all types of school.
– The legal framework which is now such an area of confusion has yet to be addressed. There was a presumption that different kinds of schools would continue to exist but that the differences between them would be, at the least, greatly diminished. But the issues David Wolfe has raised about the implications of a diverse range of legal structures have not yet been grappled with. [ii]
– Local accountability – exercised by whom? – current local authorities or something new? What exactly will be the relationship between LAs and schools on the one hand and LAs and central government on the other? And how can we make sure that there is real community engagement not just a rather distant political process in town halls? The Blunkett review will be critical here.
– Admissions – the view from the floor was that there needs to be a much more robust approach. For example, Gary Philips of Lilian Baylis talked about problems caused by schools with curricula designed to appeal only to particular kinds of families. Tidying up the code and the appeals process is unlikely to make a real dent in the pattern of socio-economic segregation although this has at least been recognised as an issue. And nothing on the areas where the 11+ continues.
[i] The full text of the speech is at http://www.thersa.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/1525046/No_School_Left_Behind_transcript-of-Stephen-Twigg-at-RSA-17-06-2013.pdf
[ii] His analysis of these issues is at http://davidwolfe.org.uk/ELJ_2013_02_Articles_Wolfe.pdf