Drive to alter school structure seen as key to raising standards

5 Jan

I           Plans to convert every state school into an academy

Prime Minister David Cameron said that by the end of this parliament – i.e. 2020 – he intended to convert all secondary schools into academies.  The Times Educational Supplement (TES), in its first issue of 2016, wrote that ministers were considering publishing a White Paper to formalise plans to convert every state school into an academy.   Of the 23,500 (circa) institutions in the country, there are now over over 4,500 academies – 2,075 secondary (comprising 61.4% of all secondary schools) and 2,440 primary 14.6% of all primary schools).

Also, in a speech he made in March 2015, the Prime Minister pledged that he would open 500 new free schools in the following five years.   He averred that state-funded, start-up schools were “raising standards and restoring discipline”. Free schools can be established by academy sponsors, teachers and groups of parents. They operate outside local authority control.

The present ruling party is now going through a touch of nostalgia. A number of its prominent members have called for the reinstatement of grammar schools.   Last year, Secretary of State Nicky Morgan, approved an “annexe” to Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge to increase the number of grammar school places by 450.   In fact, the number of grammar school places has risen gradually under successive governments since the ban on grammar schools came into effect in 1965 – under the then Secretary of State at the Department of Education and Science, Margaret Thatcher.   In 1997, there were 128,710 grammar school pupils in England.  There are now 163,000 pupils in the 163 grammar schools. The proportion has risen from 4% to 5%.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has called for a return of grammar schools on the grounds of helping the underprivileged.  However, research carried out by the Sutton Trust has revealed that fewer than 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals – an important indicator of social deprivation, and 13% of entrants are from independent (fee-paying) preparatory schools.

In fact, in local authorities that operate the grammar school system, children not eligible for free school meals have a greater chance of attending grammar schools than similarly high-achieving children eligible for free school meals.   For instance, 66% of children attaining level 5 in both, English and Mathematics at Key Stage 2 and not eligible for free school meals went to grammar school compared to a mere 40% of similarly high-achieving children who were eligible for free school meals.

Also, grammar schools have a much lower proportion of black pupils than other schools, albeit the proportion of pupils from non-white backgrounds – i.e. Asian and Chinese – going to grammar schools was higher than that of others.

II          Academisation has developed critical mass

Academisation, meanwhile, the movement away from the control of local authorities to a semi-independent status, i.e. under the control now of Regional School Commissioners (RSCs) who report directly to the Secretary of State Nicky Morgan, has developed critical mass.  Whatever the complexion of a future government, it is unlikely that academies will revert back to operating under the direction of local authorities.

The Education and Adoption Bill – currently going through parliament – will empower the Nicky Morgan – to compel failing and coasting schools to convert to academies and join multi-academy trusts.  The plan is to remove “bureaucratic and legal loopholes” that slow the process of converting failing schools into academies.

The $64 million question is: “Does changing the education structure of schools raise standards?”  Where and what is the evidence?

When the Labour Party came into power in May 1997, it strongly criticised the structural changes in education that the previous Conservative government wrought by creating grant maintained schools.   It stressed the pre-eminence of standards over structure.   However, shortly after he took charge, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, created academies as a way of pushing the specialist school initiative on a firmer path.   Sponsored academies were the tools used to give failing schools an injection of additional attention and resources – with pump priming come from both, industry and the government.

III        The structure-standard debate

At the North of England Conference in January 2014, David Laws, the former Liberal Democrat minister of education in the then coalition government, ended his speech with: “The subject of teaching and leadership is hugely important, but is too often neglected in favour of more ideological debates about reform.”  This was a bit rich given that his coalition senior partner, Michael Gove, had caused the Queen to promulgate the Academies Act 2010, which opened the floodgates for schools to convert to academies with a view to seeking greater freedoms, mainly from local authorities (LAs) and grabbing their share of the finances held for central services.

Earlier in the conference, Tristam Hunt, the shadow education secretary, rued “the relentless focus on structural change in our schooling system” (with the creation of free schools and the expansion the pool of academies) to the detriment of teaching and learning”.   He went on to warn that Labour would take a different approach – focusing on teacher quality.  He announced that teachers would be regularly re-licensed similar to the criminal checks made by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) on adults working with young people.

Both Laws and Hunt stressed the superiority of the quality of teaching and learning over school structure, albeit both are important.  For almost three decades, the focus has been on structure.  Our school system, bewildering to parents, has now become atomised.  Understanding it – particularly the lines of accountability – will mystify the best foreign brains.   We have community, foundation, faith, free, special and independent schools, sixth form colleges and academies among others.

The evidence suggests that the work that takes place in classes matters much more than the structure of an institution, albeit organisation is important.   A structure is more likely to succeed where it is simple and lines of accountability are clear and transparent.   The complexities of the Private-Partner Initiative in the early part of this century were disastrous for the upgrading of the local underground system – especially the Central Line and the Jubilee Line extension. Readers will remember the collapse of Metronet.

I suggest that the same will pertain to school structure.  With the passage of time, we have discovered that there are just as many successful (percentage-wise) state schools operating under the aegis of local authorities as academies and free schools.

Educational history abounds with examples of many outstanding state schools operating under the aegis of local authorities. Equally, we hear of stunning successes in the academy sector.   The Ark and Harris chains are but two brilliant examples of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs).

Steven Lancashire, a local lad from Sheffield, spearheaded the creation of REAch2 (another MAT) the largest chain of successful primary academies in the country.  Headteacher of Hillyfield Primary Academy in a deprived segment of north-east London, he has built REAch2 from nothing to 50 academies in three and a half years.  With his boundless energy and ambition, he has now established REAch4, a second chain of all-through schools. Not having a good education at primary level, himself, he is determined to ensure that no other child with whom he is associated suffers his early-years fate.

However, on the debit side, England’s biggest chain of academies – the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) – is under the Ofsted microscope.  The AET, which comprises 68 schools across the country, is in a sorry state.

Starting with three academies in 2008, it more than doubled in expansion from 30 to 76 from 2011 to 2012, but then was forced by the government to scale back to 68 because Ofsted judged that five of its academies required improvement and one was inadequate.    It continues to remain the largest academy chain in the country.

The situation has now become so serious that representatives of the DfE sit on the trust board’s meetings.  In late November 2015, Ofsted conducted its own two-week focused investigation.  The GCSE results of 2015 of 17 of its 30 secondary academies reveal that standards have plummeted.   Half of its secondary academies now have fallen below the government floor level.   At Sir Herbert Leon Academy in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, the proportion of pupils securing at least five good GCSEs, including English and Mathematics, dropped from 49% in 2013 to 25% in 2014 to 18% in 2015.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, who himself was the very successful principal of the Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, said that academies could “only do so much” to improve the education system, and were not the panacea to the educational malaise that often afflicts schools.   He said: “Academies, like all schools, work if they have good leaders and good teaching.”

IV        Looking to the future

So where does this leave us?

First, it would be fatuous for us to cry for a return to the good old days.   The reality is that nostalgia will not cure our educational problems.  We have to work with what we have.  There will be no return to local authority control in the long-run.

Academy chains are here to stay.  The planned White Paper – when translated to legislation – will emasculate local authorities.  Right now, even schools that have preferred to stay under their aegis, are linking more closely together mainly through federations to collaborate and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Isolation creates problems of its own.

Meanwhile, in her research of academy chains, Professor Becky Francis, professor of education and social justice at King’s College, London, discovered that there is an increasing polarisation between the most and least effective ones, with the results for the lowest attaining chains having gone down rather than up compared with similar schools.

Her recommendations are as follows.

(i)         Academy chains should learn from effective practice.

(ii)        The DfE should not treat academy sponsorship as a panacea for school improvement, but should be more open-minded about alternatives such as federation.

(iii)       The DfE and Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) should operate clear, rigorous criteria when commissioning new sponsors.

(iv)       New chains should not be allowed to expand until they have a track record of success.

(v)        Ofsted should be required to undertake formal inspections of academy chains.

In the meantime, the Conservative leader of Hampshire County Council, Roy Perry, who is also chair of the Local Government Association (LGA’s) children and young people board, told the TES that if and when schools disconnect with their democratically elected councils would be “sad”.  “When local people have concerns about their school, they turn to the local councillor for help, and they would be surprised if they were told to talk to a provider based elsewhere,” he added.

But is anyone (including the Prime Minister) listening?

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