The reaction to the government’s White Paper has been dominated by the plan for all schools to be academies by 2022. This is unsurprising, as it represents one of the biggest structural changes in the history of the English education system. It has also meant, though, that the wider strategic shift in the White Paper has been overshadowed.
Back in 2010, I was involved in writing the coalition’s White Paper The Importance of Teaching.
The core argument was that school improvement couldn’t be driven top-down from either central or local government. Instead, weaker schools should be supported by stronger ones, bringing “school-led improvement”.
This wasn’t a complete change of direction: it built on “school-led” policies that were introduced under the previous Labour government, such as the academies programme, NLEs (national leaders of education) and the London Challenge.
However, the proposals were on a different scale. There was to be a massively expanded academies programme, with good and outstanding schools encouraged to convert and become sponsors. Teaching schools were to be rolled out around the country. SLEs (specialist leaders of education) and NLGs (national leaders of governance) were introduced.
In retrospect, it was naive to think that simply expanding all of these programmes would lead automatically to a national school-led system. For a start, a lot of Labour’s programmes were focused around London, which had enough density to support collaborative models of school improvement as well as a cadre of particularly talented school leaders.
Secondly, these programmes were on a relatively small scale, which allowed for a lot of direct support.
Rapidly expanding these programmes to a national level has led to lots of great success stories – whether it’s academy trusts turning schools around or teaching schools sharing their development practices.
But these successes have been patchy. Those parts of the country with few outstanding schools have had little to support improvement, and a lack of support has created uncertainty for school leaders.
The White Paper acknowledges both of these problems – the “cold spots” without the capacity for school-led improvement, and the overly laissez-faire support mechanisms.
There is a lot of talk about “supported autonomy” and there are positive solutions such as policies to ensure a proper spread of teaching schools; additional investment in “cold spot” areas; and Ofsted holidays for strong schools stepping in to help weaker ones. The big question for me, though, is whether this is enough.
I’ve spoken to heads at successful schools who are scaling back their support for others under the pressure of ever-increasing accountability, funding reductions and recruitment challenges. Convincing them to recommit to a school-led system will likely require more than Ofsted holidays and bits of extra money.
I suspect that for this model to work, substantial resource needs to be routed through its institutions. So, for example, we could see more of the National College for Teaching and Leadership budget given to teaching schools.
High-performing schools will have to be properly funded to set up, and sustainably grow, academy trusts.
The role of the regional schools commissioners will have to evolve. We can’t expect eight people scattered across the country to do all of the relationship-building necessary for a school-led system to work.
Supported autonomy is surely preferable to either laissez-faire or hierarchical direction, but we have yet to discover exactly how much support will be needed to make a school-led system a reality.
Sam Freedman is executive director of programmes at Teach First and a former government policy adviser