In an article in TES, “Schools’ best hope lies in real freedom”, Dale Bassett, research director at the Reform think-tank, argues that “The end of state control would give rise to a self-improving system”.
“As the evidence shows, giving schools greater autonomy can boost pupils’ results.”
The key word here is “can“. In his recent evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee, Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, a former academy head, indicated that academies are not the be-all and end-all some perform well, others less so. He also raised the interesting question of who should be responsible for failing academies.
Ofsted has also concluded that teaching in many small independent schools is rarely better than “competent”. In its annual report published in November, it said that lessons were not good enough in a third of fee-paying schools it inspected and only seven per cent of teaching was regularly outstanding.
“Successive governments have responded to this by introducing policies that promote independence, from grant-maintained schools to academies. Under the coalition, more schools have been given more freedoms than ever before.
“Yet despite acknowledging the benefits of autonomy, governments have insisted on tempering schools’ freedoms with national prescription, making it hard for academies to use their flexibilities.”
This is an interesting point. In “Are schools being forced to be free?“, we point out that:
The whole concept of “freedom” has entangled government thinking, causing it to tie itself in knots with various doublethink policies. It seems that some ‘free schools’ will be more ‘free’ than others. As Steve Richards pointed out in The Independent:
“The schools are not ‘free’ because they cannot be if a government has a sense of society, as this one claims to do. The activities of one school are bound to impact on another and to some extent on the wider community too. Not surprisingly therefore, free schools are accountable to the centre. Here are some of the constraints outlined on the Department of Education website. Groups running free schools cannot make a profit. They will be subject to the same Ofsted inspections as all state schools and will be expected to maintain the same rigorous standards. The admissions arrangements must be fair and transparent. Free schools are expected to be open to pupils of all abilities from the area and cannot be academically selective.”
Voice has said many times that changing the way schools are organised and governed is not a guarantee of success or better education, and the mixed results from the academies established so far supports this.
Voice has also challenged to notion that school improvement should depend on competition.
“The continued existence of national pay and conditions creates difficulties for schools who wish to vary their staff’s salaries.”
Voice has always supported the concept of national pay and conditions for teachers in maintained schools. We believe that local, regional or school-based pay and conditions for teachers in state schools would be harmful and divisive for the profession and undermine equal pay. Large variations between areas or schools would cause an imbalance in employment.
There is also the risk of creating a stagnant pool of teachers who stay within the same school or chain because of a localised/parochialised pay/pensions system and are unable to refresh and renew as is the case in Scotland.
National pay and conditions are a benchmark for both employers and employees. In the current economic climate, it is unlikely that many state-funded schools will be able to pay considerably more than they do now. Schools that offer less than current national pay and conditions are unlikely to attract many recruits. Individual schools cannot realistically offer their own pension schemes, as pension schemes need large numbers of people to contribute over time to create the funds necessary to pay their pensioners. Schools offering to contribute to individuals’ own pension plans are, again, not likely to attract many high quality job applicants.
As The Economist points out:
“Dale Bassett of Reform, a think-tank that generally supports the government’s education reforms, points out that many schools may have quit local-authority control not because they seek the freedom to innovate in the classroom but to get more money. Schools that control their own budgets receive extra cash to commission services that the local authority used to provide. Few have departed much from the national curriculum or changed the length of the school day.”
This analysis of schools’ motivation and behaviour seems to be correct. There is evidence that the academy programme is draining resources from other schools.
In previous posts on academies, Voice has expressed its concern about the long-term provision of support that was previously provided by local authorities to pupils with special needs and emotional and behavioural problems and those excluded from school, and about how school transport and psychology, cultural and sports services will be affected.
Early attempts to accelerate the academies programme smacked of desperation as a response to lack of interest. At first it was “outstanding schools” that could apply for academy status, then “struggling schools” could become “sponsored academies”, then “good schools with outstanding features” were eligible to apply, followed by primaries and secondaries able to team up with a school classed as outstanding by Ofsted. Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools Lord Hill even wrote to governors of outstanding schools in attempt to cajole them to take up academy status, followed by pleas to Church of England schools.
If academy status is so wonderful, why does the Government have to work so hard to sell the idea to schools?
Rates of conversion were also accompanied by much use of the spin doctors’ art.
“Ofsted’s framework discourages academies from deviating from the national curriculum for fear of falling foul of inspectors.”
Voice has long maintained that the whole inspection process should be far more supportive and advice-driven and far less judgemental.
How do we allow teachers to be creative and inspirational in a politically-enforced regime that encourages teaching to the test and ticking targets?
As Graham Stuart MP, at a House of Commons Education Committee session with the Education Secretary, pointed out, it is “naÃ¯ve” to believe that schools are not incentivised to follow the “framework” forced on them by the Government, as a “driver of behaviour”, citing an example of a school that had abandoned a popular and successful history & geography course in order to meet the constraints of the narrow and pointless EBacc.
Ofsted has been heavily criticised over the years for its methods and practice by everyone from educationalists to MPs and Plymouth’s Local Safeguarding Children Board. It has even been described as ‘not fit for purpose’.
It does suffer from a tediously repetitive habit of pandering to the Government and the media by being negative, instead of accentuating the many positives in education. This approach creates the impression of a culture of failure and gives a negative impression to parents. Voice General Secretary Philip Parkin has commented before that “Ofsted has become too broad and unwieldy and has lost its focus.”
Stephen Twigg’s idea of an Office for Educational Improvement is certainly worthy of very serious consideration if it could help to re-establish the trust and confidence between teachers and politicians that has been lost because of the confrontational and morale-sapping style adopted by Ofsted and the current Secretary of State for Education.
“This is a problem because central prescription doesn’t work. The mere existence of centrally set rules, regulations and guidance takes responsibility for the quality of what schools do away from the schools themselves and gives it to the state. If pupils leave ill-equipped for work or university, it’s the fault of the exam system or the national curriculum. If teachers underperform, blame the Department for Education’s training plan and teacher standards. If a school is failing, it’s Ofsted’s job to step in and sort it out.
“Is there an alternative to a nationally guided system? How about a state school system without the state? School autonomy implies and requires school responsibility. In the current system, responsibility and accountability lie with the state. How about giving responsibility for the quality of education to schools and teachers and the real lever of accountability choice to parents?”
Voice favours taking politics out of education as much as possible.
In the post “Time to take party politics out of education”, we floated the idea (for discussion and not current Voice policy) of:
“politicians (DfE and BIS) handing over to an independent Board of Education, a bit like the Bank of England an independent public organisation with independence in setting policy? Responsible for policy and curriculum, the Board’s (elected) members could include the Secretary of State, but also teachers, academics, parents, business leaders, and further & higher education students to give a real insight into what education should be for, what the curriculum should be, and the range and type of qualifications studied not just for the next four or five years but the next decade and beyond ”
Party politics costs education a great deal. What schools need is stability and long-term planning. What they get is chop and change, with politicians desperately falling over themselves, and frequently making mistakes in the process, to make tomorrow’s headlines and their mark before the next general election.
On the one hand, the Government wants schools’ ’success’ to be measured through a test-based accountability regime, conforming to a vision based on a national curriculum and exam results and a ‘Baccalaureate’ of certain subjects, while on the other hand it desires a diverse system of academies and ‘free’ schools that, in theory, have more freedom and do not have to conform to a national curriculum. Although how free free schools actually are is another matter.
As we’ve said before, what’s the point of a national curriculum if academies don’t have to follow it? Or is the fact that schools have been reluctant to depart from it an indication that it is necessary, after all? The Government wants schools to have “greater freedom over the curriculum” but do they want it?
Voice has long maintained that school league tables have always been a crude indicator of a school’s performance. Statistics don’t tell us about the circumstances affecting individual schools, such as pupil intake, social and community issues, the age of the buildings and their impact on running costs, staff recruitment issues and so forth. Pete Henshaw, Editor of SecEd, is right to describe the publication of school league tables in England as “the annual circus”.
The Welsh have tried an alternative model banding but this attempt at a system that was intentionally “not about labelling, naming or shaming schools, or creating a league table”, according to Minister Leighton Andrews, has been seriously undermined by the league-table obsessed BBC Wales and its ‘revelation’ of schools’ actual “scores” and which had the “best” and “worst”. In other words, where the prescriptive state model of accountability is removed or modified, it is re-imposed by the media.
“The coalition is moving in this direction. More schools are getting academy freedoms. Chains and federations, as well as new initiatives like Teaching Schools, are putting more responsibility and accountability in the hands of schools. The publication of more data is improving accountability. Yet the national framework governing the operation of the school system persists.
“What would real freedom look like? It would involve a radical change to where responsibilities lie in the education system, with government no longer determining what schools do and how they do it. This would mean the end of government dictating the size, shape and pay of the teaching workforce. The end of government setting the curriculum and the number, frequency, content and structure of exams. The end of inspections, targets and floor standards. An end to allocating places and decreeing which schools should be built where and who can go to them. No more “strategic” commissioning by local authorities, which has succeeded only in ensuring a shortage of good schools “
“The challenge is to spread this activity from the few pioneers throughout the whole system. Ultimately, the school system responds to incentives, so the incentives must exist in the system to make schools seek support, engage in networks and collaborate to improve the quality of what they do. The driver of genuine school choice is needed to make it in every school’s interest to work in this way. Whether it happens depends on whether government is willing to give parents the power to demand it.”
It is true that the assessment system does need to be reformed, with fewer exams and tests and greater use of ongoing teacher assessment, a greater range and type of subjects on offer to inspire pupils, parity between vocational and academic and an end to the constraints of the narrow and pointless EBacc.
The current system of exam-based ‘accountability’ encourages teaching to the test rather than the teaching of a broad and balanced education. It is for the benefit of the government, rather than for providing information for parents and taxpayers, and teachers’ professional judgment would provide a better and more cost-effective measure of pupils’ progress.
However, where is the evidence that “’strategic’ commissioning by local authorities”, has “succeeded only in ensuring a shortage of good schools”?
As Voice’s John Till pointed out in his “History for heads” article for SecEd:
“Greater freedom is said to be what is on offer, but freedom from what and freedom to do what? Freedom, it seems, from local authority ‘guidance and interference’ . Really? What is there left for local authorities to control, even if they were so minded? Delegated budgets are protected, so the only money retained is for support services for special needs, transport and such corporate provision as school music and library services and outdoor education centres. Are these what determine the character of a school? Or is it local authority responsibility for providing school places, and removing them, and for admissions which is really resented?
“And what do these headteachers wish to do with the greater freedom they advocate? Introduce their own, more flexible curriculum, it seems, and have a greater choice of examinations. How ironic that escape from the rigidities of a National Curriculum imposed by central government should have to be by abandoning the partnership with local government.
“And, of course, there is the attraction of more money that bit of the schools’ budget retained by local authorities. But what happens then to the support services and those whose need for them is greatest?
“Or is it, despite assurances to the contrary, admissions that are the prize control over who can enter and remain in a school? Is it this that brings some heads and politicians together the right to decide who can be admitted and, by doing so, appease those who wish to keep out the ‘wrong’ kind of children?
“To whom will heads be accountable for these new freedoms? Governors? They are likely to be at one with the headteacher. Parents? Which parents? And to whom are governors and parents accountable? What if there are concerns in the communities these schools are meant to serve?
“Whatever the reasoning, the proposals do nothing to promote a fairer and more equal society. What they will lead to is an enhanced pecking order locally which will exacerbate social divisions and tensions. They are an encouragement to self-interest, status seeking and indifference to those less well-placed.
“But, as so often, there is a warning in history. In the days when schools were ‘controlled’ by LEAs, heads had, what seems in retrospect, a remarkable amount of freedom. They could determine what was taught, how it was taught and by whom it was taught. They could ‘expel’ pupils without facing elaborate appeals procedures and decide which examinations should be taken. In short, before 1988, they controlled the essential character of a school.
“And what happened? By the mid 1970s concerns about schools were such that they prompted the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, to question what was going on and whether this ’secret garden’ should remain beyond public scrutiny and accountability. So, in time, we had the Education Reform Act and with it, not a clarification of LEA responsibilities, but all the apparatus and impositions of central government about which heads now complain.
“But, of course, headteachers and most politicians are too young to remember this a case, perhaps, for including a course on contemporary history for those aspiring to ‘headship’.”
The rush to create academies, and the unplanned, haphazard free schools, risks creating a fragmented education system. Such a two-tier education system risks plunging our education system into chaos, as does the scrapping of planning permission for free schools.
Some advocates of free schools see them as an escape route for parents to “deliver the outcomes they want”, away from the damaging presence of those who do not share the same aspirations, but that does not address the issues of those Joe Nutt in describes in The TES.
Yes, schools and individual teachers can and do ‘make a difference’ but the attitude of certain pupils and their parents can have a destructive effect on those pupils’ welfare and learning and have a negative impact on those of other pupils and their school. How we provide for these young people is arguably the most serious challenge facing our education system.
“The inevitable objection is: ‘If government doesn’t do these things, who will?” In fact, some trailblazing schools and headteachers are already showing what is possible. These schools are networking and collaborating on an unprecedented scale sharing best practice, working together on teacher development and assessing one another’s performance. This points the way to the real prize: a genuinely self-led, self-improving school system in which schools replace government activity in these areas themselves. This kind of inter-school support will become increasingly important in breaching the limits of what can be achieved through government prescription.
“These ideas would take teaching as a profession to a new level. Rather than Ofsted determining that a school is under-performing, its peers will identify areas for improvement. Rather than Whitehall laying out minimum standards for teachers, clusters of schools will decide for themselves what is important and work to ensure that their teachers meet those goals. Rather than the local authority imposing support for struggling headteachers, the best heads in their network will help them to address their weaknesses.”
What is the difference between a “local authority imposing support for struggling headteachers” and “the best heads in their network will help them to address their weaknesses”? Why is the LA’s support the pejorative “imposing” while the “best heads’” support is “helping them to address their weaknesses”?
“…many schools may have quit local-authority control not because they seek the freedom to innovate in the classroom but to get more money”.
Sir Michael Wilshaw has floated the idea of local “commissioners” to decide whether to close or merge academies, or replace head teachers or governing bodies where standards were unacceptably low. Although based on American commissioners, they would be accountable to central government rather than to city mayors and local councils as they are in the US.
It seems that local authorities’ roles and responsibilities are being dismantled by central government policy to be replaced because, it is then discovered that they are necessary after all and someone has to undertake them by either the Secretary of State and is agents directly (the Gove model), or by alternative individuals accountable either to central government (the Wilshaw model) or to small local communes (the Bassett model).
Why not allow local authorities to continue “strategic commissioning” and to have a role in refreshing and renewing the supply of staff as they do in Scotland?
Who would regulate the profession in the Bassett model? The GTCE was far from popular but it did have an important function and its demise raises concerns north of the border, too.
In the end, state-funded schools must have some form of democratic accountability to those who pay for and use it taxpayers and parents. Without it, and with the demise of democratically elected and accountable local authorities, it seems there will either be central control, vested in the person of the Secretary of State, overseeing a supposedly ‘free’ system that is often anything but, or the anarchy of the Bassett model the theoretically attractive anarchy of stability and improvement resulting from freedom from government control that would end in chaos and the imposition of outside control the fate of the Þjóðveldið, the medieval Icelandic Commonwealth.
Perhaps the answer lies in another Scandinavian country, Finland, where:
“National testing, school ranking lists and inspection systems do not exist education is appreciated and there is a broad political consensus on education policy”. Where “the education system is flexible and the administration based on the principal of ‘Centralised steering local implementation’. Steering is conducted through legislation and norms, core curricula, government planning and information steering. Municipalities are responsible for the provision of education and the implementation. Schools and teachers enjoy large autonomy.”
Your comments would be welcome .