Bounce back up after being smacked down

22nd June 2012 at 01:00

By the time of the next general election, it seems likely that nearly all England's schools will be academies and will rely for funding on a personal legal contract with the secretary of state of the day. As these contracts - which can be terminated at any time - are with an individual minister, academies and free schools are best described as government schools. That is, they exist at the whim of central government, controlled by, dependent on and directly accountable to a single minister.

This establishment of government control over individual schools has been accompanied by a related change in the public perception of teachers. From being seen in previous eras as professionals who do their best for their pupils, successive modern administrations have routinely portrayed teachers as being content with underachievement, requiring the smack of firm government. Constantly changing instructions on what and how to teach have caused those at the chalkface unnecessary stress and distracted them from their work.

Despite this depressing prospect, however, we believe there is hope. We believe that after an election in 2015, a determined new government should follow a six-point programme that would reverse this position.

First, it should acknowledge that individual funding contracts with some 23,000 schools in England is a uniquely foolish way to administer a country's school system. It is unique in that no other country has been unwise enough to adopt it, and it is foolish because it is unnecessary. With voluntary-aided (VA) schools, England has a form of school that can do all that an academy or free school can do and more. Education secretary Michael Gove's successor, therefore, should require all academies to bin their 50-page contracts with him or her and convert to VA status. Ring-fenced school funding for such schools should be channelled through local authorities at a fraction of the cost of the quangos now doing the job.

Second, the new government must recognise that ministerial pronouncements that local authorities must retain a strategic role in the school system are no good if they come alongside financial cuts that ensure they lack the capacity. The new administration must recognise that it is essential to develop a set of democratically elected local education guardians who, with local MPs, would work with the local council to harness local collaboration among school staff, parents and heads. The alternative to this, preferred by the present chief inspector, is for the government to appoint district commissioners. We believe that this would simply complete the concentration of power in the hands of a single national politician.

Third, new ministers must tackle the many myths surrounding competition in schools. Few education secretaries appear to have learned the key lesson of sport - competition between equals usually leads to improvement, but competition between unequals has the opposite effect. The comparatively rapid improvement made recently by schools in Birmingham, London and Greater Manchester suggests that collaboration, with shared data and focused inter-school visits, is considerably more important than competition. Instead, the new powers that be should try to encourage competition to bring about system-wide improvement within groups of schools, urban or rural, which would measure themselves against sets of similar schools in other areas of the UK and internationally. League tables should rate localities rather than individual schools and be constructed more widely than from a narrow set of examinable outcomes.

Fourth, the new inhabitants of the Department for Education's Sanctuary Buildings, buzzing with adrenalin after an election victory, should turn to history for guidance. These politicians should look at reforms that took place in 1895. For that was when the last centrally sanctioned experiment with paying teachers by results was brought to an end as a failure. After 25 years of treating schools as a mechanism for delivering a tightly controlled curriculum and regarding teachers as little more than persons paid to convey information, the government realised that this did not work. Unfortunately, performance-related pay is making an unwelcome return under the coalition. A more sensible approach is to encourage a school system as a shared enterprise in which teachers work with parents, governors and others to achieve the best they can, in ways that are sometimes measurable but are often not, for every single child in their care. A new government could take the lead in encouraging the sense of common purpose essential to achieve system-wide educational improvement.

Fifth, while Gove has recognised that the national curriculum is holding schools back and has offered freedom from its constraints, a future government should legislate to transform the national curriculum into a series of broad aims with statutory guidance for schools created by an independent expert body. Schools could diverge from that guidance while remaining accountable for the consequences of doing so.

Finally, Ofsted has become increasingly overstretched, overpowerful and opinionated. It should be replaced at no extra cost by two independent agencies. One would need to have the necessary professional expertise to help and encourage schools, whether already successful or not, in their efforts to improve and to report, area by area, on what has been achieved and what more needs to be done. A second agency would be developed from existing centres of research. It would analyse and publish reports on national and international educational data for schools and the government to use in making evidence-based decisions.

The acute problem that English schools face is a combination of over-centralised micromanagement accompanied by a degree of fragmentation that is proving to be the enemy of equality and social justice. A new government will need the political will to restore throughout the school system, by means such as those described above, the sense of common purpose that is the hallmark of successful education systems around the world.

Tim Brighouse is a visiting professor at the University of London's Institute of Education. Sir Peter Newsam is a former chief schools adjudicator.

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