We must look past our structural obsession and see the real goal

8th October 2010 at 01:00
The last 20 years have seen lots of new school types - and they have made no difference

The apparent reluctance of schools to accept Education Secretary Michael Gove's invitation to convert to academy status may be due to a growing realisation that structural change can bring more costs than benefits. Along with other parts of the public sector, education has experienced almost a quarter of a century of continual restructuring, what the political scientist Christopher Pollitt called "redisorganisation". This appeals to politicians because they think they will be able to demonstrate a quick fix - that the structural buttons they have pressed will rapidly transform results.

There is no convincing evidence for this belief. When I recently reviewed studies of the effects of the varieties of new school formats of the past 20 years, notably grant-maintained and specialist ones, it became clear that the status of the school didn't in itself contribute to any improvements. Any gains were the result of outside factors such as differences in intake or extra funding.

A typical finding was that from the five-year evaluation of the academies programme by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the last government: "There is insufficient evidence to make a judgment about the academies as a model for school improvement." Nor does increasing competition between schools reliably lead to higher standards, according to a recent review of international research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. But there are huge costs to these changes that are generally not taken into account. For example, making the school system very complex for parents to understand disadvantages many and produces more social division.

The holy grail of these policies is to give schools more independence. But how beneficial is this? Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College, has said there are three factors that mainly account for the stronger academic performance of the top private schools: a far higher ratio of subject specialists; much smaller sizes of classes - around half the size of those in state schools; and higher parental expectations.

None of these is to do with their degree of independence, nor with some mystical ethos that could be transferred. So expecting state schools to mimic the private school set-up without bestowing similar advantages on them won't bring equivalent success.

In practice, the extra autonomy is never given to every state school, which would make the system unmanageable. It's given differentially, so some get more powers over admissions, the curriculum and buildings, together with extra funding, while others remain as they are. The dangers with the conferment of this kind of privileged status are obvious: academic and social divisions and false hierarchies are likely to multiply. Some categories of school, currently academies in particular, become political "favourites" and their success has to be engineered.

International research points up the risks of persisting with such an approach. Studies by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that the most successful countries, both in terms of overall performance and the relative performance of disadvantaged students, have secondary education systems that are unified not divided. Sweden, so often cited now in discussion about schools policy, has been making strenuous efforts, not least in a very recent Education Act, to bring all its schools, whether state or independent, into a common administrative and regulatory framework.

A number of lessons emerge. We should be very sceptical about the predicted benefits of structural changes, especially those designed to put some types of publicly funded school, such as academies, on a radically different footing from others. The National Audit Office has warned that the planned expansion of academies carries significant risks.

The costs of such changes, including the non-financial ones such as disruption, distraction and public confusion, should be fully factored in. A mature democracy should provide for the genuine assent of stakeholders to be sought and obtained. The heavy vote against the academies policy at the recent Lib Dem conference in Liverpool tells its own story about the policy's legitimacy.

Most importantly, rather than structural change whose educational value has not been demonstrated, attention should focus on less headline grabbing and more productive tasks, such as enhancing teacher quality and school leadership. The initial response to Gove's blandishments suggests these lessons have not been lost on the educational community.

Ron Glatter is emeritus professor of educational administration and management at the Open University.

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