'Education reform has turned schools into selfish institutions – the consequences are profound'

10th October 2017 at 14:42
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Politicians have created a culture of self-interest among schools. Such a regime will have a long-term effect on the teaching profession and the children that are supposed to be in its care

Education reform is turning schools into selfish institutions. In a profession that has altruism, or helping others, as its defining mission, this comes close to being tragic. While most schools do fight the depressing, self-interested logic of this regime, its long-term implications for the profession and for children are serious.

I was reminded of this after being contacted recently by an exasperated primary headteacher, whose school serves one of the more disadvantaged pockets of southern England. 

In an email, she wrote: “In a similar way to the [more widely known-about practice of some] secondary schools pushing out pupils before their GCSEs, our local primary multi-academy trust (MAT) is doing the same with special educational needs pupils at the end of Year 5 and beginning of Year 6. 

“We have had four children join us at this stage (and many earlier in their school careers), presumably before they can damage the MAT’s key stage 2 data. Frankly, this is immoral.”

The head told me the name of the MAT and I was flabbergasted, given that it publicises itself as an “inclusive” organisation. She said: “Parents have come to us and said the [primary school within the MAT] have said they’ve done enough for their children – they’ve tried as hard as they can with them – but these pupils have had exclusions and things like that, so you need to try another school with them.”

Excluding pupils informally is illegal, as the Tes feature I wrote back in July discussed. However, my source said the local authority seemed less than interested to intervene.

Changing class

She added that she knew of another local school where the head was subtly trying to shift its social mix. If parents made enquiries about a place there mid-term, they would be invited in for a tour. If the head "liked the look of them", they would be told about the spare places. If not, the message that there was no room at the inn would go out. 

“The head said: ‘The only way you are going to get your results up is to change your class of pupil,’” she said.

This is the result of a school system that I think is embracing stupid accountability and placing huge emphasis on institutional results without digging beneath the surface as to what they mean or how they have been achieved. 

Such a regime is undoubtedly placing ethical pressures on headteachers. Another head, this time from the secondary sector, has just shared the following with me.

He tells me: “I have become more aware of the ethical dimension of my leadership as I have become increasingly conscious of behaviours that distort leadership practices and choices, including my own.

"This distortion often leads to decisions being taken by headteachers in pursuit of personal and professional safety in relation to high-stakes audit-based accountability measures rather than in the best interests of students.”

He is hearing suggestions himself that institutions nearby may be encouraging parents to home school, a fear that was backed up this week on a national level as the Institute for Public Policy Research report said tens of thousands of pupils may be being illegally excluded

Headteachers face a dilemma, he adds: “I want to do the right thing but sometimes doing the right thing feels like doing the wrong thing. It can leave you feeling very vulnerable. It is also possible to feel that those [other heads] who should be censured are being celebrated.”

He also suggests, accurately of course, that school accountability can incentivise bad behaviour by effectively praising the "wrong" schools because it is not curious about results game-playing. He writes: “Ofsted grades and league tables have become proxies for school quality ... These measures hide a multiplicity of sins and sharp practices and say nothing about the context and culture of the school that lies behind them.”

Institutional self-interest

When overworked Ofsted inspectors can reach verdicts on schools without even seeming to notice large changes in their pupil numbers, it is hard to disagree.

Anyone reading this piece on the controversy at St Olave’s grammar school in Orpington, Kent, where a former student argues that “schools that seem high-achieving beyond belief should be scrutinised further”, would be hard pushed to demur from the notion that we have a problem with institutional self-interest crowding out what surely should be the ideal of serving all students well. 

Yet our framing of institutions – beyond the formal accountability structure and also embracing awards schemes – as simple successes or failures, heaping huge praise on those, which raise results quickly. It castigates the ones taking a more principled approach to inclusion, which is not doing so has much to answer for. 

Politicians have set up a structure, which encourages institutional self-interest through having organisations compete for prestige, pupils, funding and – in the new age of academy trusts – patronage from regional schools commissioners for takeovers of other schools. Personally, I have no problem with a little bit of competition; it is the encouragement of self-interest that is the far deeper issue.

How did we get here? This is a subject for another blog I wrote 10 years ago (see chapter 17) about the carelessness with which thinkers on the public sector had been prepared to ditch any reliance on the notion of altruism in the way our services were organised. 

Instead, we were told that we could set up accountability measures which unproblematically relied on self-interest to drive behaviour. This notion has sought to expand free market or neoliberal thinking into perhaps its last frontier of civic life: public services which were previously thought of as altruistically-motivated. We are living with the consequences.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist and author of Education by Numbers. You can read his back catalogue here. He tweets @warwickmansell

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