Neither the National Audit Office nor the DfE really understand School Improvement

The National Audit Office has once more concluded that the government’s approach to improving inadequate schools is a complete muddle. The DfE doesn’t know what is actually happening inside academy chains, local authorities and schools. Responsibilities are confused and there is no evidence that its interventions actually have any effect. It concludes:

“The Department for Education has not demonstrated the effectiveness of the different interventions it and others make in underperforming maintained schools and academies, despite investing at least £382 million annually, according to the National Audit Office.

The NAO finds that the DfE and others, such as the Education Funding Agency and local authorities, have not tackled underperformance consistently. The spending watchdog, therefore, cannot conclude that the oversight system for maintained schools and academies is achieving value for money.”

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone with real experience of school improvement work. Essentially it is the case that all the assumptions on which current practice is based are fundamentally broken. So:

• It is assumed that Ofsted judgements accurately identify inadequate schools. Whereas we know that inspections are hugely inconsistent and that schools working with less able or deprived children are much more likely to be graded inadequate or requiring improvement.

• Using floor standards as a measure is equally flawed. It too will mainly identify schools working with challenging cohorts or schools affected by selective systems.

• It is assumed that formal intervention is how you do school improvement – warning notices, changing governors and heads and conversion to academies. What NAO found is that 48% of inadequate schools receiving this kind of formal intervention improved while 59% of inadequate schools that did not have this kind of intervention had also improved by their next inspection.

As a model for change management, this approach would be laughed out of court in almost any other walk of life, with the possible exception of football management. Yet the reaction by government is just more of the same. 8 regional commissioners will be responsible for standards in 3000 odd schools each. From on high they will decree changes in governance, management, policies and pedagogy in schools about whose circumstances they will know nothing. Then they will wheel in a few super-teachers who will tell all the rest how it’s done. And of course they’ll be long gone before anyone knows whether there’s been any effect.

So what can make a difference? What good local authorities – and to be fair also good academy chains – know is that:

• You need to start with respect. No one is trying to do a bad job. Like pupils, teachers will improve if encouraged and supported. They won’t improve if constantly criticised and threatened.

• You need to know the school and its circumstances properly. That way you pick up the early signs of decline and you know when there is a fundamental problem and when there is just a short term blip that the school can sort out. And you know whether a school is struggling in hugely challenging circumstances or whether it really isn’t doing what it could and should.

For example, as a Head of School Improvement I was in a position to get continuous feedback from all the agencies dealing with a school – Education Welfare, Psychologists, Human Resources, Finance. We met governors regularly. Councillors would share issues from surgeries. We were in schools regularly looking to see whether things were working on the ground. Identifying problems was not just a matter of crude data or a snapshot inspection.

• Once you really understand the issues, it’s possible to develop an approach to improvement that the school itself shares, is committed to and believes in. This is a lot more complicated that just changing the head or the uniform but it’s much more likely to work.

• Improvement certainly often comes from schools supporting schools. But any system of networking and collaboration needs managing – it doesn’t just happen. Finding the right expertise that will address particular issues is complex and needs a lot of local intelligence.

The DfE’s and indeed the NAO’s focus on formal interventions is simply looking in the wrong place. The data shows that – though the NAO is unwilling to admit it – there is no evidence that formal intervention works. Ministers cling to it because it’s the only thing they can do in a centrally controlled system where so much local capacity has been stripped out. But there is still good practice out there. The NAO needs to ask a different question – what actually does make a difference and how can we replicate it across the country.

For Labour, there is a question to be asked about the proposed Directors of School Standards. Will they be just a local version of current DfE practice – relying on crude data and inspection outcomes and then operating the same simplistic intervention model? Or will they actually embed themselves in their communities, build real links with schools and other services and develop a collaborative approach to school improvement that has a chance of really working?

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5 Comments on “Neither the National Audit Office nor the DfE really understand School Improvement”

  1. […] Neither the National Audit Office nor the DfE really understand School Improvement. […]

  2. Gabriel Gidi says:

    The current practice in School Effectiveness and School Improvement (SESI) is flawed in that it uses a one size fits all. In order for effective interventions to be developed there is need to ensure that local factors are taken into account when applying school improvement policies. Schools are different; communities are different. Hence whatever solutions are brought in from outside must be suitable for the local factors. This is not to say that outside solutions shouldn’t be applied but that school improvement works well when schools are allowed to seek solutions through local and national networks.

    Great analysis of what is at the core of the failure in this government’s school improvement interventions, John.

  3. pauljmartin2014 says:

    It is profoundly to be hoped that, one day, a new government will pay attention to the good sense talked in this post and take the steps to create a system of improvement as recommended. Don’t hold your breath, though.

  4. Excellent points John. You’ve identified the ingredients for sustainable school improvement. We need to incentivise collaboration between schools and give neighbouring schools a stake in improvement across their local area rather than simply encouraging competition between them.