Viewpoint: Our school system – the way ahead

Approaching the tenth anniversary of the start of the “self-improving school-led system” concept we are at a cross-road for our schools system. Do we continue to develop a genuinely school-led system, writes Nick MacKenzie, or do the current tensions in the system lead us in a different direction?

At a roundtable hosted by Browne Jacobson earlier this year and attended by key education sector stakeholders including John Fowler of the LGiU there was a debate about the way ahead for our school system. The discussion first considered the system – the current state of the self-improving school-led system and its future direction. It then turned in the second part of the discussion to consider the curriculum – what the system is delivering and the challenges the sector will face when looking ahead. In this viewpoint we will focus on the system elements of the discussion.

While opinion may be divided in the sector on the current health of the self-improving school-led system, it is clear that we are at an important crossroad. If we wish to continue down the path of a self-improving school-led system then it is critical that it engages with the opportunity created by the Secretary of State for Education’s announcement on 4 May 2018 outlining high-level principles for a clear accountability system. There was a commitment in that announcement to work with the sector and to then consult in the autumn on detailed proposals.

The sector needs to take the opportunity and make sure its ‘voice’ is clearly articulated and heard before the DfE implements any new accountability system. One of the key recommendations from the report produced following the roundtable hosted by Browne Jacobson was that school and system leaders need to be more vocal in challenging the barriers to the development of a truly self-improving school-led system so that the benefits of a highly autonomous system as envisaged by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) can be realised (see the OECD’s reports which followed the PISA tests in 2012 and 2015).

Perhaps the form of autonomy that was used as the basis for pursuing a school-led system has been diluted. We have written separately on this subject (TES June 2018) so will not expand on it in this viewpoint save to say there is strong case for the sector to redefine and create a consensus as to what is meant by autonomy and what it is for.

The effect of the current accountability framework on the goal of a self-improving school-led system is clearly significant. The case put forward by The Teaching Schools Council in partnership with FASNA (Freedom and Autonomy for Schools National Association) in their thinkpiece Where next for the self-improving school system? Getting System Governance Right in many ways is compelling because it seeks to offer clarity in the school system by setting out clearly defined but inter-locking roles for different parts of the school system. In summary, this document puts forward a description of three inter-locking but independent components or ‘spaces’ to system governance – the improvement space, the inspection space and the intervention space. The document also shows how complex the system currently is.

Whilst discussions will have been taking place behind the scenes there has been relatively little system wide discussion and debate on what the future should look like since May. So far it appears that the May announcement has drawn a lot of heat out of the growing discontent in the sector about the way the accountability system was functioning and the effect it was having. As school and system leaders return from the summer break it is critical that the sector hits the ground running articulating its view on what changes are needed so that, in the time left before the consultation is launched and during the consultation, the sector leaders’ voices are clearly heard and influence future policy.

On a related note, another fascinating aspect of the discussion was the impact of the focus of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) in the self-improving school-led system and how this may have overshadowed other vital components of a genuinely self-improving school-led system. For example, coming out of the discussion there was the feeling that the importance of local partnerships and placed-based education were being overlooked. The focus on hard structures and more recently the DfE’s “rebrokering” programme appears to have led to a large part of the system often not even recognised for its contribution to the self-improving school-led system.

Going further the discussion is often skewed to how the school system is tackling the very worst underperformance rather than reviewing how the system is working in order to drive performance right across the performance spectrum. How effective are the other forms of school collaboration working in the current educational landscape and what opportunities are there outside MATs looking ahead?

The research published in July 2018 by Toby Greany and Rob Higham ‘Analysing the ‘self-improving school-led system’ agenda in England and the implications for schools’ offers some interesting analysis on these (and many other) issues (the report can be accessed here).

One final aspect, at a system level, it is worth considering is the first key recommendation from the report produced following the roundtable. This was a recommendation to go back to first principles and establish a national consensus for the vision for our education system, perhaps through a national commission. Whatever the method, the vision needs to articulate the purpose of the education system, who it serves and what it will deliver. This is clearly ambitious and undoubtedly not without challenge because education is firmly placed in the political space; balancing a longer term vision based on consensus with ensuring education remains a priority for the government of the day is no easy task. It is nonetheless an objective worth pursuing with ambition and aspiration.

The roundtable report can be accessed here.

Nick MacKenzie is a partner in the education team at law firm Browne Jacobson

You may also be interested in two recent LGiU Policy Briefings (£) on developments in the our school system.

School system research: Evaluating the post-2010 DfE policy by Jonathan Crossley-Holland on the Greany and Higham research, mentioned in the blog. Findings include the undermining of school autonomy by tight curriculum and assessment requirements; a strengthened hierarchy of schools affecting the willingness of schools to cooperate; and chaotic oversight between central government agencies and between central and local government, weakening coordination.

Converting schools to academies: Public Accounts Committee by Warwick Mansell by the House of Commons Committee which monitors Government expenditure. The Committee found that “arrangements for oversight of schools are fragmented and incoherent”.

What do you think, and what should local government be seeking in the forthcoming accountability review? (Leave your comments below).

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