The Education and Adoption Bill is a naive and simplistic measure. Morgan is the real ideologue not her opponents.

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:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/academies-enterprise-trust-aet-inspection-outcome-letter
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/kemnal-academies-trust-tkat-inspection-outcome-letter
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-partnership-trust-academies-spta-inspection-outcome-letter

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!

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4 Comments on “The Education and Adoption Bill is a naive and simplistic measure. Morgan is the real ideologue not her opponents.”

  1. bassey355 says:

    Well said, John. A brilliant exposure of the folly of the Department. I’m sending a copy to my MP (a Tory) suggesting he asks the Department to respond. It would be good if other readers do the same. Michael

  2. fsandall5 says:

    This is all about dismantling the state and all about the privatisation of education!

  3. Janet Downs says:

    I’ve compared Morgan’s ‘cure’ for ‘failing’, ‘underperforming’, ‘coasting’ maintained schools to brimstone and treacle. http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/06/nurse-morgan-has-the-cure-its-brimstone-and-treacle/

  4. terryloane says:

    I agree with ‘Bassey365’. You have provided a chillingly accurate analysis, John, of the Education and Adoption Bill. How dare the Tories require schools to “promote the fundamental British value of democracy” when they are steadily removing democratic accountability from the governance and management of schools!

    But what is going to happen in the world of education now? Here are four predictions:

    Prediction 1. No matter how many schools do or do not become academies, the perception by politicians that a significant number of schools are underperforming will not change. Ever since Jim Callaghan’s notorious Ruskin Hall speech in 1976, politicians have sought to portray schools as the reproductive organ of technocapitalism (to slightly misquote the great Ivan Illich). And technocapitalism needs something to blame for its failure to deliver what it promises, so schools are a very handy target – ‘if only you educated kids properly, everything in the economic garden would be fine’.

    Prediction 2. Because schools will still be seen to ‘underperform’, there will be pressure on and from politicians to ‘do something about it’. This will be the excuse to introduce the idea of schools being run by for-profit corporations. Initially this will be done as a small-scale trial in order to neutralise opposition. The trial will inevitably be seen as a success (partly because there is no limit to the money that corporations can put into small projects if they want them to be seen as successful). So the trial will be expanded – schooling will have been removed from the public sphere and handed over by politicians to their corporate friends.

    Prediction 3. The mental health of young people (not to mention teachers) will continue to deteriorate, in large part as a result of the pressure put on schools to be hyper-performative, and this pressure will only be intensified by the proposals in the Education and Adoption Bill (including the newly-defined sin of ‘coasting’). The Guardian recently reported a 200% increase in young people seeking counselling in relation to exam stress, and exam-related suicide seems to be an increasing global phenomenon.

    Prediction 4. It is inevitable that at some point in the future school students, their parents and even some teachers will realise how futile and damaging the whole education system has become, and how it sucks the humanity out of those involved in it. Perhaps the trigger will be one or two widely publicised personal tragedies brought about by the pressures of hyper-performativity. The horrific events surrounding the suicide of Frances Andrade a couple of years ago were a key factor in what has become a complete re-examination of the culture within specialist music education. I do hope that we will not need anything quite like this to trigger a similar re-examination of the culture within schooling, but it is only when there is a public will to challenge the current ‘exam-factory’ narrative that we can start to move forward towards education that enhances rather than damages our humanity.