Unwittingly, argues Sarah Phillips, we are drifting away from an effective national education system to fragmented centralism. 2016 could be the year when we take a good hard look at all the pieces and seize the opportunity to shape a better system.
“I want every school to aim to become an academy” was one of David Cameron’s promises 100 days after the 2015 election. George Osborne then announced real budget cuts for all schools, (including academies) and promised consultation in 2016 on legislation to “make local authorities running schools a thing of the past.”
Actually it is years since local authorities ‘ran’ schools except rarely, when delegation to governors is temporarily withdrawn. Any new legislation must be more ambitious than merely promote academies as the sole answer, given the evidence that like other types of school, some succeed and others do not; including the largest academy chain criticised In February 2016 by Ofsted and DfE for “letting down too many of its pupils.” Few doubt the need for a ‘middle tier’ at local and regional level to plan, pre-empt such meltdowns and deal directly with parents. In 2016 it is time to review, celebrate and support England’s diverse 22,000 self-governing schools and academies, not further disrupt their eight million pupils. A third of pupils are now in academies, too many to unwind; yet successful full ‘academisation’ or a sustainable mixed system – the more likely outcome – will require careful planning and co-ordinated delivery.
Past academisation will not scale up. It was not strategic but opportunistic with a funding boost now ended and dependent on strong independently minded leaders of already successful, larger schools with strengths built up over years. Many remaining schools lack these features, would be unviable alone and pose unacceptable legal and financial risks to academy chains, so cannot be sponsored under existing models. Most are primary; many are isolated, coastal, very small, and rural and/or lack leadership and stability. Even the successful risk decline when faced with uncertainty and no capacity or appropriate legal structures to support them or manage their transition into academies. Many are legally designated church schools and would become church academies. But there is no campaign to return to 1943 before the 1944 act set a balance of church and local authority governance. Despite their successful academies, it is neither feasible nor desirable for the church bodies to run thousands of academies; yet church school site trusts and governance articles impede others from doing so. Unwittingly we are drifting away from an effective national education system to fragmented centralism. Most schools, academies, Trusts and areas will continue to improve whilst others will decline in a spiral driven by local context, bad luck and individual choices. Excellent people will be frustrated and leave. Pupils will be affected. And government ministers, not local authorities, will be blamed by millions of anxious, angry parents.
Academisation is not the attractive offer it was initially. Change has slowed even where local authorities have promoted full academisation, partly as increased delegation has brought many of the benefits to all schools. Clearly some academies and chains have failed. More could follow, due to tensions inherent in academies as “publicly funded and independent schools”. Public funding cuts cause real pain to academies, legally unable to run a deficit. Their independence is now constrained by the role of the DfE, Ofsted, and annual changes to the mandatory Academies Financial Handbook. The policy shift to encourage academies and free schools to form or join Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) means independence is for the MAT not individual schools. This feels a retrograde move for Voluntary Aided schools, as they already are admissions authorities and employers; and a disruption without benefits to other good and outstanding schools, many in teaching school alliances and other effective school partnerships. Pressure to take on too many difficult new schools too fast has damaged some Trusts, a few have closed, and academies have been switched between Trusts, adding to uncertainty and mistrust about the deal on offer.
2016 brings greater budget cuts than most leaders have ever managed and serious recruitment crises of heads, teachers and governors. National and local politicians need to talk to each other and listen to parents anxious about rising school and class sizes, horrific admissions experiences and bizarre assessment changes. Ofsted reports school accountability is “confused and inconsistent”. The Education Select Committee skewered the oversight of academies by the DfE’s eight Regional School Commissioners as confused and lacking the necessary range of accountability, capacity and relationships. (See recent LGiU Policy Briefing) Their 27 recommendations include “Once the mix of school structures becomes more stable a fundamental reassessment of accountability and oversight for all schools will be required.” As stability will not happen, this review should start now to tackle all the real challenges and rising geographical inequality: for children born in 2000, where they live is a more powerful predictor of academic success than it was for those born in 1970.
All of us working in schools, academy trusts, local authorities, central government and regulators are committed to making progress together beyond outdated polarised views. Ministers could lead a proper debate with a Green Paper that includes:
- A vision for a mixed system of sustainable autonomous schools and academies linked by national leadership and a middle tier.
- Respect for all types of school and their leaders, governors, staff, pupils and parents.
- Options for a coherent new middle tier with new powers and duties, albeit some transitional, bringing together local authorities, reformed RSCs, new regional bodies – not to ‘run schools’ but to lead planning, admissions, accountability to parents.
- Building improvement capacity and enabling all schools to share, a strong National College and Teaching School Alliances.
- Support from the system, including Ofsted, for schools to find bold ‘best-possible’ options to meet their challenges for leadership, staffing and partnership, not solely academisation.
- Options for revised academy company and trust models better fit for purpose for scaling up academisation, such as adapting Umbrella Trust models already used by some chains and dioceses.
2016 may be the year we can articulate our school education system as a public good, a national asset not a debt, the key to wealth creation as well as individual and community happiness.
Sarah Phillips is a consultant and interim manager with wide experience leading education and public services in local and central government, inspection, academy trusts and charities.