James Croft, director of the Centre for Market Reform of Education, writes:
Sponsored academisation, as a government intervention strategy for effecting turnaround of failing schools, has often been criticised for the way it cuts across, and in effect replaces, local administration of public services in education. Supporters of the policy have argued that tighter contractual responsibility to central government, tougher performance measures, and keener inspection is (or should be) far more effective for school improvement than local authority oversight ever was.
Despite successive national audits and select committee reports questioning the effectiveness of arrangements for oversight, and the value of the programme, governments have continued to invest heavily in developing apparatus and procedures to support the brokering of whole school improvement solutions on this model. In conjunction with moves to raise required attainment levels, and to encourage individual converter academies into chains, the present government has been no exception. Yet the verdict of today’s NAO report on school oversight and intervention is damning.
Central government has shown itself incapable of picking winners with any consistency, or of designing in punitive enough consequences for failure, or adequate fail-safes. Examining Ofsted outcomes for 129 underperforming maintained schools where formal interventions have taken place since 2010, the report finds only 48 per cent had improved by their next inspection, with the remainder staying the same or getting worse. And this despite heavy financial investment (£382m in 2013-14), and a lot of time and effort besides. Even worse, 59 per cent of schools that did not receive any formal intervention improved anyway – most often with help from a partner engaged independently of government.
Finding high quality sponsors has always been a challenge for this programme – in large degree because expertise and experience in taking over failing schools and building successful chains is lacking in the English context.
In the absence of any organisational track record, judgements as to the prospects of success have often been based almost entirely on assessment of the transferability/applicability of the expertise and experience of proposed sponsors’ personnel. Once admitted to the framework, the responsibility for informing decisions as to which sponsor is best suited to meeting an identified need in context lies heavily with individual brokers, who can only be fully appraised of the capability of a small sample of the available providers. Consequently it is unsurprising that we have seen so many of these efforts fail. As an alternative to ineffectual local authority oversight of schools, this seems a poor improvement.
Highlighting similar problems with decision-making around free schools, the Blunkett review has (rather weakly) advocated open competition procedures in respect of new school development, which might be extended to situations in which intervention by a sponsor may be necessary.
There are a number of advantages to this approach. This framework, pilot-led, might allow for experimentation with price competition and opportunity for innovation in performance measurement – along the lines of the social impact bonds which have met with success in delivering other public services.
Potential sponsors might be requested to stipulate the basic level of funding they would need to discharge their contractual obligations successfully in the particular context in question, together with an enhanced performance-related component and suggestions as to what would be appropriate performance metrics.
We really have very little idea about the actual relative costs of educating high and low attaining pupils, and the present formulas for determining regional variations are in dire need of attention. Likewise diversifying the means by which we evaluate schools’ contributions to educational outcomes would provide more nuanced information for greater market accountability.
Piloting in this area, I expect, would supply convincing evidence in favour of bypassing tendering in favour of a leaner framework for facilitating demand-led supply, including opening the market to investment from private and charitable sector organisations.
As we at CMRE have argued elsewhere, various features of the design of such a market would need attention, in addition to introducing differentiated funding based on attainment and independent information supply, to ensure that the introduction of greater school choice did not adversely impact equity of access. But investment based on market-disciplined risk appraisal is a much better selection mechanism for the kind of suppliers we want to entrust children’s education to, than central government brokering will ever be.