It has been nine years since David Hargreaves published his think pieces on the self-improving school system. The first paper starts with a quote from William Gibson writing in the Economist in 2004: “The future is already here: it is just not distributed very well.”
One could argue that this perfectly describes England's education system. England is in the middle of a half-reformed system. More than 50 per cent of children and young people are now educated in the academy sector. The future is here – it is groups of schools working together as single legal entity to improve the life chances of children. But this future is not well distributed – yet.
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The 2016 White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere failed because it was wrong to propose "compulsory academisation" as the solution. The structure of the academy itself is not a panacea. It is the group of schools that has the capacity to enable a step change in education. Groups of schools working together in a legal entity whose sole purpose is education are able to embrace cutting-edge quality informed by the best research, almost unheard of 20 years ago.
And let me be clear that the multi-academy trust is simply a legal vehicle to enable groups of schools to work together. We can fill it with our own vision and values – with our philosophy of education, with a compelling curriculum ambition, with a commitment to professional learning that enables life-transforming educational opportunities.
Now is the time for the sector to step forward to lead the final stage of reform.
Hargreaves also cites Peter Drucker: “The crisis of the world is, above all, an institutional crisis demanding institutional innovation.” I would suggest the opportunity we have is to secure sector-led innovation driven by school trusts – institutions whose only purpose is the advancement of education for the public benefit.
The Confederation of School Trusts (CST) is the national organisation and sector body – the voice of school trusts. We plan to develop a sector White Paper setting out the future shape of the education system and the next steps in the reform process.
So where is the evidence one might legitimately ask? Successive studies have not been able to demonstrate conclusively that standards in school trusts are rising faster than the maintained sector.
However, a recent statistical analysis done in 2018 by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NfER), suggests that pupils in "convertor" multi-academy trusts tend to do better than pupils in comparable standalone maintained schools. Although the difference is not very big, it is statistically significant for all outcome variables that were considered across both primary and secondary phases.
This is not the same for sponsor-led trusts. But of course, as the Sutton Trust report clearly acknowledges, most trusts face a greater level of challenge in terms of their intake than the maintained state school average, and some (the sponsor-led trusts) a very much greater level of challenge.
School trusts also tend to have higher-than-average numbers of disadvantaged pupils – especially low-prior-attaining pupils. The authors of the Sutton Trust report conclude that this suggests trusts have largely retained their original focus on pupils who need additional help and resources. This reflects the mission of school trusts to give children a better future.
And it is worth noting that, at the end of 2017, only one in 10 sponsored predecessor schools were judged "good" or "outstanding" before they converted, compared with almost seven in 10 after they joined a trust, of those that had been inspected.
But perhaps the more important consideration is the evidence from a series of studies on the power and potential of a group of schools working together on:
Research-informed professional development that transforms the effectiveness and quality of education children and young people receive.
Sharing practice and innovation.
A relentless focus on the substance of education, with teachers reporting an increased motivation to engage in professional dialogue with their colleagues.
Reductions and realignments in workload.
The proposal that all schools are part of a strong and sustainable group is particularly important as local authority education services retract and potentially leave smaller and isolated schools vulnerable. No school should be left behind.
Pride in, and accountability to, the communities we serve
There are those who argue for a return to local authorities maintaining all schools. But this is not straightforward. Local government is both a political and administrative bureaucracy. Local government has traditionally been the employer, improver and regulator of local school systems. These roles are in conflict.
Local government does not need to be a provider of schools among other providers. I would suggest we look at the way in which local government exercises democratic oversight of local health systems as a potential model for education. Local government does not "maintain" GP surgeries.
It should be the champion of all children, particularly the most vulnerable. It should ensure that there is a good place for every child, that all civic actors in the local system work together to ensure the value of the child, and that our collective actions protect high-quality education.
A White Paper
We will shortly be announcing a process so that a wide range of sector organisations and professional associations are able to contribute to policies that will recalibrate the system and make it whole again. It is important that build a professional consensus.
CST’s White Paper will provide detailed policy proposals on all parts of the system so that we move towards one system with fair funding, better accountability and the same status for all schools.
Leora Cruddas is chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST). She tweets @LeoraCruddas