Priority No 1: action on `coasting' schools

15th May 2015 at 01:00
Conservatives roll out plan for government - but unions push back

The first few weeks of any new government can be a teething period, as ministers work out how they are going to implement their manifesto promises. And that is looking increasingly likely to be the case for reappointed Conservative education secretary Nicky Morgan and the schools, heads and teachers she oversees.

Top of her to-do list, TES understands, is passing a controversial Act of Parliament that would give her greater power to sack headteachers and intervene in "coasting" schools. This legislation is likely to be announced in the Queen's Speech at the beginning of next month, and to become law before the summer.

Perhaps inevitably, heads and their union leaders have reacted with horror. Headteachers' jobs, they say, will become even more insecure at a time when many worry about "football manager syndrome" owing to increasingly severe accountability measures.

The reforms, which featured in the Conservative Party's manifesto, would allow the government to force any school judged by Ofsted to "require improvement" to become an academy, or to be placed under new leadership.

Before the election, prime minister David Cameron vowed that he would wage an "all-out war on mediocrity", promising that any school that was not judged good or outstanding by the inspectorate would "have to change".

His party is now planning to capitalise on its working majority in the House of Commons and introduce the new bill at the earliest opportunity. A source close to Ms Morgan told TES that enacting the plans would be the Department for Education's first act under the new Conservative administration.

"The first thing we will be doing is introducing an education bill, which will feature in the Queen's Speech, in order to tackle coasting schools as per our manifesto pledge. That is definite," the source said.

School leaders are worried that such a move would effectively turn the current "requires improvement" grade into a "category" that necessitates intervention, which would have a "devastating" impact on the profession. More than 3,300 schools across England are currently rated "requires improvement".

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said that such a move would have far-reaching effects on headteacher recruitment, at a time when the profession is already facing a recruitment and retention crisis. Mr Hobby also raised doubts over whether there was capacity in the system to make changes in so many schools.

"The decision to turn `requires improvement' into a `category' is now my first priority and I will be trying to find out what exactly this means. If they were to introduce it in a classic `Govian' style, it would be devastating for schools," he said.

"But do they really have the capacity in the system to do this? There aren't enough academy chains, multi-academy trusts, system leaders or national leaders of education to intervene in so many schools."

However, the move is not without its fans among headteachers. Andrew Truby, executive head of St Thomas of Canterbury School in Sheffield, insisted that schools were accountable to the pupils who suffered as a result of underperformance.

"Although it's controversial, the success of the academy approach and its ability to improve schools quickly meant that some headteachers who were not up to the job were moved on," he said. "But ultimately it is the children's education that is suffering if a school has been left to struggle on its own."

Threat of strikes

More trouble from the classroom unions is on the cards for Ms Morgan. Since last Friday's election result, they have been warning of industrial action this autumn - at local and national level - unless the education secretary can convince them that more money will be pumped into the system.

At its annual conference last month, the NUT voted to ballot members over strike plans if the government refused to increase the level of funding to schools. The ATL has also threatened to strike over pay. This week, both unions refused to rule out industrial action in the coming months.

"We want a national settlement where all schools can do their best and strike action will remain an option, including national action, if we felt that was the most suitable way to go," said Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT.

However, another new law proposed by the Conservatives - this one from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills - could make it more difficult for unions to take strike action. Under the proposals, education unions would need the backing of 40 per cent of eligible members before they could proceed with strikes, with at least 50 per cent of members required to take part in any ballot.

`The biggest concern is the children'

Andrew Truby, executive headteacher of St Thomas of Canterbury School in Sheffield and director of the Learning Unlimited Teaching School Alliance, says there is a limit to how long a school should be left underachieving.

"The biggest concern is always the children, so if a headteacher is left to turn things around, how long should they be left for?" he says. "If they are part of something bigger, like an academy chain, there might be more capacity to turn things around quickly."

But moves to give the government greater power to intervene in schools that require improvement could mean that potential leaders are deterred from taking on headships at struggling schools, Mr Truby adds.

"It wouldn't be very appealing if you were on your own, but if you were part of a group, with all those resources behind you, you would be more likely to take it on."

Future focus

Conservative Party plans for education:

  • Protect per-pupil spending in schools.
  • Introduce "resit tests" for Year 7 pupils who fail to reach expected standards at the end of key stage 2.
  • Ensure all students are entered for the English Baccalaureate performance measure at GCSE.
  • Open at least 500 new free schools over the next five years.
  • Expect every 11-year-old to know their times tables by heart and be able to perform long division and complex multiplication.
  • Invest at least pound;7 billion over five years to provide good school places.

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