"A tale....full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" – Macbeth Act V, Scene V.
Since the announcement in the Budget on Wednesday that all schools will move to academy status, the airwaves and social-media forums have been full of those proclaiming that the move will variously lead to the abolition of comprehensive schooling, the privatisation of schools, and the ending of public education.
I must have this confused with what I thought the government had announced, which is an extension of the current legal status of schools to that already held by 60 per cent of secondaries and around 20 per cent of primaries. Sound and fury signifying nothing, indeed.
As someone who wrote a paper for Policy Exchange in 2014 advocating just this move, I’ve come in for my fair share of reasoned and not-so-reasoned criticism about this, and have spent much of the past 72 hours talking about the issue.
The most sensible piece I’ve seen was in these very pages, from Russell Hobby, who said: “I have no problem with schools choosing to become academies, but I wonder what problem universal academisation is designed to solve.” Let me set out my answer, which is about addressing four problem Cs.
A truth universally acknowledged
The first – and to my mind biggest – argument is capacity. It’s pretty much universally acknowledged, including in the White Paper, that one of the biggest issues holding back a step change in standards is constraints on capacity across the system. That relates to things like human capacity (not enough teachers and leaders), financial capacity, physical-estate capacity, and school-improvement capacity. Some of these capacity constraints occur fairly evenly across the country, and some of them are particularly acute in certain geographical areas – what the White Paper calls cold spots.
“Exactly!” say some. This is the issue that needs to be addressed. Why are we distracting schools with this unnecessary structural change?
The trouble is that this argument treats structural change as separate to this issue, rather than being, in fact, the best way to solve it. It’s clear that schools need to work to recruit and retain teachers, to develop new leaders at all levels, to become more financially efficient and continue to improve their performance. That can best be done in an organisation which has sufficient scale to deliver back-office efficiencies and effective teacher CPD, to train and nurture future leaders, to potentially run its own teacher training, and to be a hub for pedagogical expertise. The structures, in other words, “beget the standards” (as Blair concluded about academies in his autobiography).
Now, it’s clear that, in some instances, local authorities can do this. But, given the trajectories of wider developments in policy, all future projections show that, on the whole, the LA capacity to systematically help primary schools improve will continue to decline in future years, driven both by cuts to wider local-government spending and by the fact that ongoing secondary academisation will remove funds from councils (given that, in many LAs, the secondary topslice cross-subsidises primary services).
The fact that some LAs are at present successful – while clearly welcome – cannot be extrapolated out to all LAs, and performance in 2016 doesn’t give much indication for performance in 2020. On the whole, in 2016, more capacity for improvement exists within schools and existing multi-academy trusts, reflecting the sustained shift of resources and people to the frontline since 1988, and especially since 2010.
That isn’t to say that we don’t need more done to further increase the capacity of schools to form new MATs and engage more widely in the system. But building capacity should be done by starting from the strongest starting position.
But, even if we accept that some LAs could help with capacity, this leads on to the second reason for academisation, which is conflict of interest.
Simply put: as a point of principle, there is a conflict between local government representing the interests of all of its parents and children, and representing the interests of (some of) the providers of services to those same individuals by holding a formal position over the governance (and sometimes employment of staff and ownership of assets) of some schools. How can a council truly represent the interests of the users of public services, if it is also representing the interests of part of the services which the users may not like and want to see improved? That is why it has become commonplace, in public services from healthcare to waste management, to separate the function of commissioning (in this case, the role of the LA in ensuring enough school places) from the function of provision.
I’ve written before about how I’m sceptical about much of the eulogising of democratic accountability – the evidence from local elections shows consistently that local councils aren’t held accountable for poorly performing schools via a change in the party composition of councillors who are subsequently elected.
But, even if you don’t hold with this thesis, and highly value the democratic-scrutiny role of local government, this is an even stronger argument for eliminating this conflict of interest. The only way in which a council can exercise its role as champions for all children truly, is if it steps away from having any formal involvement in the provision of any schools in its area. To come back to the previous point, where an LA does have capacity to improve, then I’m all in favour of the school-improvement part of it spinning out from the council and becoming a multi-academy trust to help local schools – something I would expect, in reality, to happen in a reasonable number of areas and as an option for a large number of primary schools.
Two parallel systems
The third issue is complexity. At the moment, we have a dual running system for schools in this country. Two ways of allocating funding. Two ways of overseeing performance. Two ways of legislation affecting schools. Two ways of ensuring that a high-quality curriculum is taught.
This dual running system is expensive – needlessly so, at a time when resources are tight. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s unnecessarily complex. It adds confusion where there should be simplicity. And it limits the incentives and frameworks that we want school leaders to respond to. Who do parents go to, if they have a complaint with their child’s school? Who will hold the school accountable for poor performance? How much money is spent per pupil and how can that be seen and what do schools need to do to get extra funds? What are the goals and outcomes which school leaders should be responding to? At a time when the capacity challenges in the system need addressing, we need as simple and as unified a system of oversight as possible, and we have the worst of that at the moment.
Furthermore, this complexity would have been added to, rather than taken away, if government were to have proceeded with a softer version of the policy. This softer version would have increased the incentives to convert, but still allowed those who wished to do so to remain with the local authority. This approach, although superficially attractive, would simply have continued the dual running system, with further confusion as the responsibility of one set of organisations (those overseeing academies) grew at the same time as one shrunk (those overseeing LA schools). It would have acted as a continual distraction to schools, local authorities, central government and academy trusts in the absence of a clear path and timescales.
Reaching into new areas
And the fourth issue is continual improvement. Before academies (and some of the similar forerunner schemes for bringing schools out of LA oversight), even failing schools remained within the ambit of the local authority for improvement. If the LA was successful at school improvement, all was well. But if it wasn’t, then that school had few other options – and the pupils within it, equally few.
The introduction of sponsored academy status for turning around failing schools changed that by introducing the principle of improvement carried out by the most appropriate stronger provider, not just the one in geographic vicinity. But a system which constantly relies on top-down brokering and forcible removal of underperforming or coasting schools from weak LAs is expensive and time-consuming.
To be clear, top-down intervention will still need to happen under the new system: we are already seeing that one of the major tasks of the regional schools commissioners is rebrokering academies between different providers.
But universal academisation offers two advantages for driving further school improvement. Firstly, it allows schools to join with high-performing MATs not in their geographic region – meaning that effective models of school improvement can reach into geographic areas where previously they could not go, at a scale that allows them to be effective.
And, secondly, a model whereby schools can move between MATs, in certain circumstances – something which the White Paper hints at, and I’m a strong advocate of – allows for a self-improving dynamism in the system. Highly performing MATs will be able to grow and provide benefits more widely, and less-successful ones will shrink. This ought to lessen, rather than increase, the need for regional schools commissioners or a successor organisation to engage in mass scale rebrokering.
Nicky Morgan’s speech launching the White Paper, and the document itself, makes clear that academisation is not a panacea. (Though it should be noted, as I have written before, that claims that academies perform worse than those schools that remain under local authorities are based on a fundamental error in the comparison between the two groups.) But it is clear, I believe, that from where the schools system operates now, continuing the logic of the 2010-2015 parliament and moving all schools to academy status in an organised way represents the best structural solution.
We should unify all schools together under one simple legal status, which maximises the capacity in the system to allow schools to continue to raise standards and narrow gaps.
Jonathan Simons is head of education at the Policy Exchange thinktank and author of TES’ Whispers from Westminster column
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