Why seek new fixes? Consistency works

19th June 2015 at 01:00
The quality of teaching within schools varies wildly. Fix that disparity, and you can stop tinkering with structural reforms

Anyone who believed that the academies programme was about freedom and autonomy for schools must now find themselves rudely awakened.

The government's education bill gives Nicky Morgan sweeping new powers to add to the 3,600 schools already appropriated by her predecessor Michael Gove.

We are witnessing the emergence of a national education service, overseen by regional schools commissioners, who are empowered to impose academy chain conversion on schools deemed to be "coasting" or requiring improvement.

Further measures are to be taken to streamline the academy conversion process - sweeping away the democratic rights of parents and governors to have a say in who runs their school.

The education secretary argues that these measures are needed to deliver social justice, to ensure that every child has an excellent education, and to guarantee that no child spends a single day longer than necessary in a failing school. These are laudable ideals. The question is this: is forced academisation the answer? The evidence is unequivocal: forcing schools to convert that are deemed by Ofsted to be failing or requiring improvement does not result in better educational standards for those pupils.

A recent report by the Department for Education (bit.lyDfEacademies1) shows that school effectiveness and pupil performance is above the national average in only three of the 20 leading academy chains (those with five schools or more).

A wider analysis of academy results by the National Foundation for Educational Research, which analysed school-level GCSE data since 2007, finds no significant rate of improvement of GCSE results for academy schools over and above the rate of improvement in all schools (bit.lyNFERacademies1).

For primary schools, the case for academy conversion is even weaker. A detailed analysis by the Local Schools Network of DfE statistics reveals that academy conversion actually slows the progress of under-performing primary schools (bit.lyLocalSchoolsAcademies). Meanwhile, the most recent figures from Ofsted show that only 17 per cent of outstanding primaries are academies.

So Nicky Morgan faces an uncomfortable truth: the vast majority of primary school leaders with the expertise to give support and system leadership to weaker primary schools do not, themselves, work in converter or chain academies.

Show us the evidence

Is it any surprise that the cross-party Education Select Committee concluded in its recent report on academies and free schools that "there is at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools"? And that the committee recommended the DfE to "commission such research as a matter of urgency"?

Ministers, however, seem reluctant to do this - an attitude that can only be described as strange: surely any government interested in the effectiveness of its education policies would want recent and robust evidence of how well academy chains support the schools they control?

Some of the chains, too, run more schools than local authorities. Yet last year Morgan refused to give Ofsted the power to inspect them. Just what, one wonders, does she have to hide?

And then there is the question of what is meant by a "coasting" school. Amazingly, ministers cannot provide a definition, so they've instructed the DfE to undertake a consultation process to create one. The fact that politicians are unable to articulate the problem their education bill is designed to address tells you all you need to know about the quality of their thinking.

Although it might be comforting to mock the afflicted MPs who continue to believe that school structures are the route to system improvement, we should mourn the parlous state of current education policy-making.

Because if we really are to improve the standard of education for all pupils - particularly for disadvantaged students - then we have to improve the quality of teaching in our schools.

Smoothing out the bumps

The UK education system has one of the highest levels of variation in student outcomes - a major cause of which is the variation in teaching quality within schools. According to Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) data, this is four times more than the variation in teaching quality between different schools.

Reducing in-school variation of teaching quality would be one of the most effective ways of closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

But improving teaching quality across the age range and in different subjects in primary and secondary schools requires a clear focus on teaching and learning; the sensible collection and interpretation of pupil progress data; a commitment by the senior leadership to targeted, professional support for teachers; and access to excellent continuing professional development.

Effective school leaders know this and focus their energies on fostering and supporting continuous improvements to teaching and learning in their schools. But this painstaking hard work is neither headline-grabbing nor a quick fix.

No wonder the politicians, wanting to make their mark by appearing to be decisive, resort to further fiddling with school structures and in so doing ignore what is the biggest present and future threat to education standards - a growing teacher recruitment and retention crisis. But that's too hard a problem to solve, so it's buried under yet more academies policy puff.

Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

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