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England’s punitive assessment and accountability regimes stifle any benefits of academy freedom  

Academies' autonomy means very little if the EBac forces you to drop the subjects that will suit your pupils best, or national tests leave you chronically uncertain about your future, writes a director of the Royal Society of Arts

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England’s academisation train is rolling on, refusing to be stopped by the signals of political opposition, school reluctance, or contested evidence. Building on last year’s manifesto pledge, the government has already introduced legislation that could force many so-called "coasting schools" to become academies. Rumours are growing that a Department for Education White Paper this month will propose that all schools in England become academies – including all primary schools, which have always been more resistant to the temptations, bribes, and strong-arm tactics of academies’ advocates. The need for legislation on this is telling. After the initial post-2010 rush, especially from successful secondary schools in more affluent areas, to convert to academy status, the rate of conversion has slowed down considerably. And with the number of schools in special measures declining, the government’s scope for direct intervention to force schools to become academies has become much more constrained.

This sort of wholesale structural reform is a conundrum. We all know that standards matter more than structures – the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) backs this up repeatedly – and that the revolution in governance structures that academisation requires can be a distraction from the core issues of improving teaching and learning. The evidence on whether academisation in England has made any difference to standards is increasingly mixed. Building on the RSA’s own Academies Commission, the Commons Education Select Committee’s recent report found no compelling evidence of the impact of academy status on schools. Ofsted has also waded in, with Her Majesty's Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw saying this week that some academy trusts were performing more poorly than the local authorities they were designed to replace.

Missed opportunities

However, we also know that devolving control and freedoms to schools leaders, and diversifying the group of people involved in education, can be critical ingredients in any serious attempt at changing schools (rather than just incrementally improving them). The academies model still has potential to improve outcomes for learners, and most importantly, close achievement gaps. More important than this supposed "liberation" from local authority "control" is the way that academies can build deep, permanent relationships with other external partners who can contribute to their mission. This is why the RSA is the partner in a family of academies in the West Midlands. As Sir Michael Barber, former No 10 education adviser, once said, academisation creates a structure where "partners can’t walk away when things get tough".

But the reality is that much of this potential has not been realised. Despite the grand claims from ministers and prime ministers that academies would be "true pioneers", engines of new educational ideas that can have a systematic impact on learning, this vision is yet to flourish. Surveys have shown that schools’ motivations to become academies are largely financial rather than pedagogical, and that use of the "freedoms" they have, especially over curriculum and staffing, has been limited. Very few are doing anything that a good local authority maintained school couldn’t do. The basic parameters of schooling, established two centuries ago, remain unchanged. Although academies and groups make grand claims about focusing on additional outcomes, from character to enterprise, prioritisation of these outcomes is almost impossible to achieve. Importantly, in a growing teacher retention crisis, academies are in the same boat as all other schools, in struggling to address the challenge of making teaching a less exhausting and more empowering profession.

Constrained by the system

The problem here is not academies themselves, or the creativity of the people who lead or govern them, but the system to which they are tethered. England’s punitive and overbearing regimes of assessment and accountability may have produced some short-term learning gains in the past two decades, but are now stifling all schools’ potential to determine their own mission, and design the means to achieve this mission. Academy status means next to nothing when a semi-compulsory English Baccalaureate forces you to drop the subjects you know will suit your pupils best, or when an excessive volume and pace of changes to national tests leaves you feeling hugely uncertain about this year’s results, and vulnerable to unexpected decline. Even if you are in an academy chain, you are still part of a system that feels like it is fragmenting, with little capacity to learn from other schools. As an academy leader, the oppressed becomes the oppressor; what choice do you have but to subject your teachers to the same stifling micromanagement that you suffer from on high?

Despite the on-paper freedoms that schools in this country now enjoy, all the messages from the system tell them that there is only one right answer to the question of what a good education looks like. Innovation in this context is relegated to what tinkering can be done to optimise standard performance indicators. England is not alone in this "new public management" approach to school reform, and is not alone in finding that the approach is having diminishing returns. As Barber and Hill wrote last year: "Even the top-performing systems in the world have hit a performance ceiling." McKinsey’s review of 30 years of education reform efforts around the world concluded that there had been "lots of energy, little light". A trebling of spending in most OECD countries between 1970 and 2000 actually led to at best a stagnation in outcomes. A recent study from the Brookings Institution shows that without a fundamental rethinking of current approaches, it will take another 100 years for children in developing countries to reach the levels achieved in developed countries. As the Open Society Foundations argues, "overall progress has actually resulted in a measure of greater inequity".

Innovation at all levels

The RSA’s latest report, written with the Innovation Unit for the World Summit for Innovation in Education (WISE), explores the question of school innovation in this global context. It concludes that if we are to improve global education performance overall and reduce inequities, let alone develop a wider set of outcomes, then serious, disciplined and radical innovation is required at all levels. Innovation not aimed at making minor changes to the current model, but at the kind of change we have seen in technology, manufacturing and healthcare where step changes to human progress are achieved when radical new ideas become the "new normal". School systems should create intentional platforms for innovation that are future-focused, equity-centred, and teacher-powered. In doing this, leaders should reinforce the fact that the process of learning should be a humanising experience, and that profound learning and great teaching is ultimately predicated on the power of human relationships. Our vision for a new kind of creative public leadership, which can improve learning far more rapidly, is encapsulated in our suggested nine steps for schools systems around the world to consider in their particular context.

England is still known globally for its creativity, and the reputation of our school system is similar. Teachers across the world still come and marvel at our dialogic approach to pedagogy, the way we train and develop our teachers, our strategies for particular subjects, in particular in the arts and design, and our use of other people and organisations to support learning. However, in relation to our nine next steps, England may be falling behind, as other systems innovate and improve far more rapidly. Although we would be crazy to expect any deviation from this government’s chosen path for school improvement, perhaps we could at very least expect them to hold true to their word on reduced central management and interference. As the first DfE schools’ White Paper stated in 2010, "the attempt to secure automatic compliance with central government initiatives reduces the capacity of the school system to improve itself". As Gandhi said about Western civilisation: "I think that would be a good idea."

Joe Hallgarten is director of creative learning and development at the Royal Society for the Arts

The WISE report on creative public leadership is available here. The RSA is also hosting an event this evening to mark the publication of the report


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