Government Unveils it National Strategy for Education in Education Excellence for All

9 Apr

I        Content

We would be daft to deny Nicky Morgan’s assertions that “education has the power to transform lives” and her desire to secure higher standards with a view to securing our children’s future.   In her Foreword to the White Paper, she is correct to write that one in three children leaving primary school in 2010 did not attain the norm in both, English and mathematics, albeit she alleges that they did not know how to “read, write and add up properly” – which is not true.   She also mentioned that we have been falling behind in the international league tables, which is all too true.

The vision of the Department of Education, which she leads, is commendatory.  It focuses on our young people and aims to

(i)         secure their safety and promote the country’s youth’s well-being;

(ii)        ensure that there is educational excellence everywhere;

(iii)       prepare young people for adult life.

It would be foolhardy to deny the principles underpinning the White Paper, which are that

(i)         children and young people come first;

(ii)        all those involved in education must have high expectations for all our children;

(iii)       the government must promote a central policy focusing on outcomes, not on methods;

(iv)       the government creates “supported autonomy”; and

(v)        ministers and civil servants are responsive to need and autonomy.

Autonomy is not licence; rather, it is the sibling of accountability.   For too long, schools have been subjected to and hamstrung by fetters and diktat of both, central and local government.   Schools must be given space to breathe.  Just as parents need to give their children wings to fly, government has to give schools the freedom to scale the heights.  The White Paper quotes Joel Klein, American lawyer and former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, which serves more than 1.1 million pupils in 1,600 schools:  “You can mandate adequacy but you cannot mandate greatness; it has to be unleashed.”

The White Paper exhorts us to have high expectations for our children and build capacity and capability to grow their young people and future generations.

It goes on to set out seven levers for achieving these goals.

(i)         A sufficient supply of great teachers everywhere.

(ii)        Great leaders in our schools.

(iii)       A school-led system where every school is an academy with local authorities having a different role to play from the one that they current do.   In particular, LAs will

  1. ensure every child has a school place;
  2. ensure the needs of vulnerable pupils are met; and
  3. act as champions for all parents and families.

(iv)       The prevention of underperformance and available help for schools to go from good to great; school-led improvement, with scaffolding and support where it’s needed.

(v)        High expectations of those working in and benefiting from our education system and a world-leading curriculum for all.

(vi)       An education system that is fair and ambitious for every child and is accountable to its users.

(vii)      The availability of the right resources in the right hands and the allocation of finance where it can do the most good.

II       Commentary

While the thrust of the White Paper is welcome and aims to give a fillip to the promotion of a first class educational service which results in “excellence for all”, some of the provisions just below the surface are of concern.

(1)        The Curriculum

The government has signalled a number of welcome initiatives in the curricular arrangements.

(i)         Schools will be given some respite on further alterations to the curriculum, assessments and qualifications and support to embed the recent changes.   (See page 88.)

(ii)        The government will be investing the National Citizen Services (NCS) over the next four years to enable all 16-year-olds to participate in education and training by 2021.

(iii)       There will be a national working group to improve personal, social, health and economic education (PSHEE).

(iv)       Mathematics education for the 16-to-18-year-olds will be reviewed to engage more students in the study of the subject to 18.

(2)     Great teachers and headteachers where needed

The government’s rhetoric on having great teachers is unmatchable.   The White Paper patters on about having high-quality teachers and the availability of schools to train, develop and pay them well.  But school budgets have been safeguarded in cash terms only with no account having been taken of the increase in on-costs and additional pension contributions for school staff.   With the government now determined to develop a national funding formula, schools in the inner-city areas will suffer year-on-year cuts which will make it even more difficult to run schools economically if governing bodies choose to pay their teachers well.

The White Paper states that the government intends to “strengthen university and school-led training”.   It cannot do so if schools are constantly being battered with new curricula, tests and examinations, subjected to league tables and have Ofsted inspectors breathing down their backs. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that many school-led Initial Teacher Training outfits are under severe strain because of these “other demands”.  Teacher training at school level is adding excessive pressures on headteachers and teachers and diverting them from their core function of educating the children in their care.  The (seemingly) good intentions of government to move IIT away from universities is misplaced. As a consequence, this year, many teacher trainers have fallen short of filling in the vacancies for their trainees.

What is encouraging is that the government is committed to place 1,500 high-performing teachers “to work where they are most needed through the National Teaching Service (NTS)”.  However, this plan will be stillborn if there are insufficient teachers in the first place.  Similarly, the government trots out that it will place excellent headteachers in schools where they are most needed.  However, we are suffering from a national shortage of good school leaders, which will make this objective equally if not more daunting than the one related to teachers.

(3)     Governing Bodies

The White Paper states the blindingly obvious about the governing body being the “key decision-making and accountable body for the school”, that it has a “strategic role” and must “deliver in a dynamic and professional manner”.   The Paper then slips into the delusional when it mentions that MAT (Multi-Academy Trust) boards will increasingly use professionals to hold individual school-level heads to account for educational standards and the management of the schools”.  There is an assumption that getting the right structure leads to raising standards. MATs may be made up of a group of skilled individuals; but will they have the time and energy to do what paid staff are meant to do?   (Remember, MATs will have to take on – increasingly – the functions of Local Authorities that are withering on the vine).

Because of this thrust on finding skilled people to serve on MATs and governing bodies, the intention is that there will no more be a requirement for elected parents to serve on boards, albeit skilled parents could be selected by MATs and governing bodies to serve on them.   The National Governors’ Association (NGA) has expressed disquiet and disappointment about this ill-conceived proposal.   The perspective of elected parents is crucial to good governance.   It may be true that the elected parent (i.e. the most popular) may not be the one with the greatest number of “governance” skills but there is nothing to stop such a parent from developing the knowledge and skills through reading, training and experience.

Sadly, no mention is made in the White Paper of the requirement for new governors to engage in compulsory induction and training.  Given the responsibilities being heaped on governing bodies (and MATs), we are in dire need of finding people not only willing to join the boards (and trusts) but also acknowledging that they are not omniscient, must engage in training and learn to learn – just like the students at the schools and academies they govern.

(4)     Every school an academy by 2020

The White Paper proposes that every school will become an academy by 2020. Those that fail to do so voluntarily by then will be forcibly converted by 2022.  The proposal has come under severe attack from local authorities run by the Prime Minister’s own party – the Tories.  Melinda Tilley, Councillor in Conservative-led Oxfordshire County Council – Cameron’s stamping ground – said that small village schools will be at risk where academy chains to which they would belong find them no longer financially viable.  When asked by a journalist whether she was “disappointed” by the government, she replied: “This is probably putting it very mildly.”

The government assumes that changing the structure of a school will automatically lead to school improvement when it is clear from the research that this is not the case.   Ofsted inspections have revealed that there are outstanding academies and schools; that there are failing academies and schools; that there are outstanding and failing Multi-Academy Trusts and Local Authorities.

Councillor Roy Perry, Chair of the Children and Young People Board of the Local Government Association (LGA) said: “Ofsted rated 82% of council-maintained schools as good or outstanding.”  It beggars belief that councils are being portrayed as barriers to improvement. Ofsted has not only identified that improvement in secondary schools – most of which are academies – has stalled, but it has praised strong improvement in primary schools, most of which are maintained and “council-run”.

Perry went on to add that only 15% of the largest academy chains perform above the national average in terms of pupil progress, compared with 44% of council-run schools.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI), described the inspection of seven MATs as “worrying”, adding that the high salaries of their chief executives did not match their academies’ performance.  He sent a memo to the education secretary Nicky Morgan, following Ofsted’s inspections of seven MATs stating: “Many of the trusts manifested the same weaknesses as the worst-performing local authorities and offered the same excuses.  Indeed, one chief executive blamed parents for pupils’ poor attendance affecting pupils’ performance.

“There has been much criticism in the past of local authorities failing to take swift action with struggling schools.  Given the impetus of the academies programme to bring about rapid improvement, it is of great concern that we are not seeing this in the seven MATs and that in some cases, we have seen a decline.”

The research has also shown that the key ingredients for building a good if not outstanding school are the quality of teaching and learning and the nurturing culture within which staff and pupils operate.   Changing a school into an academy simply creates what we commonly term as the Hawthorne effect.  Henry Landsberger carried out experiments between 1924 – 1932 at the Hawthorne Works – an electrical factory outside Chicago – to discover that workers’ productivity improved temporarily when the lighting was adjusted or the furniture rearranged. After a short time, productivity dipped to its previous level.    The novelty of a change had only a temporary impact. This is what we are discovering of the academy programme.

Let us take a look at the financial dimension.   When a school decides to convert to an academy, it is allocated (at least) £25,000 and up to £66,000 to help with the conversion process.  Of the 24,000 maintained schools in the country, about 5,000 of them are academies.  Altogether 19,000 have to “see the government light” and convert.   This means that the government will have to cough up at least £475 million to bring this scheme to fruition.  Is this a good use of taxpayers’ money at a time when the Chancellor is squeezing them dry with stealth taxes to balance the nation’s financial books?

There will be other calls on the government’s finance. We have a cadre of seven Regional School Commissioners (RSC). They have burgeoning responsibilities for an increasing number of academies – and minimal staffing levels in their secretariats.   Do they have the capacity to take on 24,000 academies by 2022 without more staff?  At national level, the RSCs will be supported by and answerable to Headteacher Boards (HTBs). The Commons Education Select Committee recommended that there should be governance expertise on the HTBs and better still – governors with governance expertise.  The White Paper ignores the proposal completely.

Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the NGA, remarked: “Sadly, this White Paper appears to be a dismissal of the effort many governors up and down England make to the education of pupils.  Many volunteers are being told today that the time and thought they have been putting into consideration of very difficult issues is not valued.   It is not wise simply to remove those who disagree with you. Governance is strongest when it takes account of all evidence and all views.”

Local authorities, no doubt, will have to continue, because they will have residual responsibilities for planning sufficient places for children to be educated, the admissions of pupils, caring for those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and acting as the champions of carers and parents.  Many LAs have already been denuded and have come to a point where they can’t shrink any further.   Funding LAs appropriately to discharge these functions has conveniently been ignored.

School Minister Nick Gibb was reported to have told the Yorkshire Evening Post that forcing schools to make the change was “not diktat”, but “about giving freedom and devolution to the school level”.   But what if the governing body of a school does not wish to convert it into an academy?  Will it have the freedom and be allowed not to do so?   And if not, is that not “diktat”?

This reminds me of the Second World War and conscription. The layman was invited to volunteer to join the forces.

He asked: “Do I have a choice?” and was told, “Frankly, no.”

“I will volunteer, then,” he replied.

(5)        A national funding formula for schools

The White Paper is committed to introduce a national funding formula, which is the subject of separate consultation. See here.

Comments to the White Paper are invited by 17 April 2016.  Meanwhile, those who are opposed to all schools becoming academies are invited to sign a petition created by Marcus Fillier which can be found here.

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