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'Five reasons why our school system's not broken'

Leora Cruddas sets out to debunk some of the negative, unevidenced 'facts' about the English education system

The Labour Party should abandon any idea of returning academies to local authority control, says Leora Cruddas

Leora Cruddas sets out to debunk some of the negative, unevidenced 'facts' about the English education system

Over the summer, I read Hans Rosling’s Factfulness. In it, he offers a compelling fact-based narrative of why we are wrong about the world – and why things are better than we think. I believe the same could be said about education. Below are several "facts" about the English school system – and I'm going to debunk them. 

1. 'English schools are broken'

Melissa Benn wrote in the Guardian in early August that schools in England are broken. Here’s an alternative, fact-based worldview:

  • At the end of August 2017, 89 per cent of schools were judged to be good or outstanding at their most recent inspection.
  • There are 1.9 million more children studying in good or outstanding schools since 2010.
  • We are ranked as a top-tier education system.

So what causes people to claim our schools are broken? In Rosling’s terms, it is the "gap instinct". This is the belief that the world is divided into two: us and them. In the English education system, this translates into academies versus local authority schools, where it is claimed that academies are broken, or indeed, breaking our education system.

Debate has raged over the past eight years about who does better: academies or local authority schools. Because we have been trapped by the gap instinct in this binary thinking, we have lost sight of the real success: that our education system is improving.

Secondly, the view that "English schools are broken" falls prey to the "negativity instinct" – the belief that things are getting worse. This stops us from recognising actual improvements.

Rosling argues that the negativity instinct is fed by stories all around us, but he warns that for journalists, good news is not news. Gradual improvement is not news. He isn't blaming journalists – he points to our basic human instinct (our need for stories), which sometimes leads us to reach an overdramatic worldview.

Rosling also teaches us to beware of "rosy pasts" – the claim that things were much better in the old days. So let’s beware of this single, dramatic perspective – this unevidenced view that our schools are "broken".

2. 'Academies plan turns schools into businesses'

Let’s turn now to another dramatic claim – that academies turn schools into businesses. 

Now, although academy trusts are companies limited by guarantee, they are first and foremost charities. All academy trusts have a single legal and ethical purpose at the heart of their governing document: to advance for the public benefit education in the UK.

As charities, academies cannot make a profit. Academies – like all schools – should be financially sustainable and efficient. This is a requirement of schools in almost all education systems. But this does not make them businesses.

Businesses have a single purpose: creating profit. Academies – again, like all schools – have a single purpose: the education of children and young people. The value proposition of businesses (profit) is fundamentally different from schools (education).

The view that academies turn schools into businesses is not fact-based. It is fear-based. The reality is that the vast majority of academy trusts do indeed advance education for public benefit.

Of course, there are some exceptions that attract headlines, such as "Troubled Wakefield City Academies Trust to give up all 21 of its schools". This could lead the public to believe that all academy trusts behave in this way. This is the "generalisation instinct". Rosling warns us to beware of vivid examples – often, as in this case, these are the exception, not the rule. It is a sad truth that one can find a very small number of examples of unacceptable behaviour in all types of school – but it is the exception, not the rule.

3. 'Academy chief executives earn fat-cat salaries'

In July 2017, academy pioneer Lord Adonis warned that "multi-academy trust bosses' pay needs to be curbed". 

Let’s look at the facts: the overwhelming majority of trusts (96 per cent) do not pay anyone more than £150,000. This is data from the Public Accounts Committee report, Academy Schools’ Finances, published in March 2018. The facts simply do not support the vivid headline.

This claim falls prey to the "size instinct". It is a claim out of proportion to the facts. Rosling exhorts us to put things in proportion.

Let’s put this in proportion in a different way. The school teachers' pay and conditions document (which is used to set pay in local authority schools) allows a headteacher of a single, large school to earn up to a maximum of £137,500. Is it fair or proportionate, then, to say that a leader who is responsible for 50 schools should earn a maximum of £12,500 more than this headteacher leading just one (albeit large) school? Of course, this is public money, and we must ensure that it is spent as Parliament intends, but we need a more proportionate and calm way of talking about this issue.

4. 'Academies care more about money than pupils'

The Observer ran a story on 30 June 2018 with the headline “A market-led school system has put finances before the needs of pupils.

The crucial data on which this headline is based is that there is (sometimes) a drop in the percentage of pupils with free school meals (FSM) in good and outstanding academies.

The fact is that fewer pupils are eligible for, and claiming, free school meals.

To refute this claim, one chief executive told the story in a different way. At one of the schools in the trust he leads, the percentage of pupils on FSM has fallen by 10 per cent since 2014. But the raw numbers of FSM pupils actually rose (530 to 564). This is because, as the school came out of special measures, parents came back, thereby increasing the roll (857 to 1,080) and reducing the FSM percentage.

This falls prey to the "blame instinct". Stories like this create a sense of the "bad guys". Rosling warns us to look for causes – such as the fact that fewer pupils are eligible for FSM – rather than villains.

Rosling also says that sometimes numbers – particularly numbers on their own – don’t tell the whole story. In this case, the percentage (pupils on FSM at a particular school) hides the fact that the raw number of pupils on FSM actually rose.

5. Unruly pupils are 'excluded by failing academies to boost standards'

This was a headline in The Telegraph on 13 March 2016, but it is also a fairly common claim in the non-evidence based public debate.

Machin and Sandi from the London School of Economics analysed the data:  “We found no evidence that pupils excluded from academies were worse performers than pupils excluded from control schools.” The researchers also say that this was the result of a strict disciplinary approach rather than a strategic effort to improve their aggregate educational results.

There are many unevidenced claims being made about our education system and specifically about academies. Let’s start practising "factfulness" in order to think clearly. We may discover that not only is our education system not broken, but that the vast majority of leaders and teachers in all types of school are doing a very good job.

Our education system is better than we think. Let’s start to tell this story.

Leora Cruddas is chief executive of Freedom and Autonomy for Schools National Association, which is planning on becoming the Confederation of School TrustsShe tweets @LeoraCruddas

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