Ron Glatter, emeritus professor of educational administration and management at the Open University and a visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education, writes:
In the past few weeks the main party leaders have been setting out their stalls on education. From their speeches it’s doubtful that they’re aware of the devastating report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) School Oversight and Intervention, published at the end of last month, or that they grasp the scale of the challenge.
The report, which drew on an earlier study by the National Audit Office (NAO), paints a grim picture of a set of arrangements that are clearly not fit for purpose. In its first paragraph, the committee calls the system “complex and confused” and as you read on you see what an understatement that is.
For many years, school autonomy has been the key objective, but it has been driven forward “without an overall strategy” leading to confusion about who is responsible for what between the Department for Education (DfE), the Education Funding Agency, local authorities and academy sponsors “allowing schools to fall through gaps in the system”.
Last September, the government brought in eight Regional School Commissioners to provide more local oversight of academies, but there are fears this could simply increase the confusion.
In an autonomous system governors and trustees have a crucial role in monitoring performance overall but the DfE doesn’t have any record of their number, skills or capacity; a weakness that became clear at the time of the so-called Trojan Horse events in some Birmingham schools.
The government’s performance indicators are far too narrow for effective monitoring, says the PAC and points out that schools which are doing well in terms of educational attainment can still have serious safeguarding, governance or financial management issues.
The PAC presents evidence that there is great inconsistency over which schools are targeted for intervention. Astonishingly, a higher proportion of underperforming schools that had received no formal intervention went on to improve than those that had been subject to intervention.
And it comments acidly: “The Department has taken an optimistic view of sponsor capacity for too long”, saying that in its keenness to expand the programme it has allowed some chains to expand too quickly, with inadequate monitoring of their performance and capacity.
Overall it is a breathtaking catalogue of failures and it follows a series of recent reports pointing in a similar direction.
On the very same day the Commons Education Select Committee, following a year-long inquiry under its Conservative chair Graham Stuart MP, produced a report which said there had been too much speed and too little transparency in developing the academy programme and that at this stage there was no evidence for the superiority of either academies or free schools over schools maintained by a local authority.
Last year a study by London’s Institute of Education concluded that the checks and balances on academy trusts relating to conflicts of interest were too weak. Another research study on academy chains for the Sutton Trust found that while some chains did well there was “enormous variation between chains” and a majority underperformed the mainstream average for their disadvantaged pupils.
What lessons should we draw? Too often the mandarins get the blame. Last month the NAO gave an extremely rare “adverse opinion” on the DfE’s financial statements, having found in them a level of error and uncertainty that was “material and pervasive”. In response a DfE spokesman is reported to have acknowledged that the task of consolidating the accounts of thousands of academies was “enormous”.
The idea that so many schools (currently 4,500 out of 21,500 but the government originally envisaged that the model should apply to virtually all schools) could be run from Whitehall was always absurd and it has been demonstrably unravelling. The politicians set the mandarins an impossible task.
It’s often said that structural change is not the answer to improving schools and that much more attention should be given to raising the standards of teaching and leadership. Of course that’s true but organisation still matters hugely – excellent teaching and quality leadership can’t fully work their magic in a capricious and dysfunctional framework. The ramshackle infrastructure that now exists cannot underpin a 21st century school system. It would fail millions of children and parents as well as the wider society and economy.
It is a nettle that the next government must grasp. Encouragingly, the cross-party Education Select Committee pointed the way. It said in its recent report that “both major political parties have suggested that all state schools may be brought under a single regime in the future” and it called on a future government to decide whether “the existing dual system” should be persisted with or brought to an end.
Only a unified system, with a strong, locally-based middle tier, which the Select Committee also championed, would be robust enough to provide a foundation for national educational excellence in the years ahead.