Opportunity knocks

23rd February 2018 at 00:00
Some regions head the school-improvement queue while the rest play catch-up, argues Mike Parker

It’s hard to argue against “fairness”. By definition, fairness is impartial and just treatment or behaviour without favouritism or discrimination. As Theresa May put it last June: “The government I lead will put fairness and opportunity at the heart of everything we do.”

The sentiment was echoed by our current education secretary, Damian Hinds, when he wrote last month: “We need to spread opportunity to the parts of the country where children are still let down by the depth and breadth of education available.”

Yet, we have a perverse focus in education in this country that is doing the exact opposite. The latest incarnation that has come to light this month is in school governance. The Department for Education recognises the vital role governance plays in shaping and improving schools, particularly those that aren’t meeting the grade. It is investing £2.4 million over the next two years in new training that targets chairs of governance and clerks, made available to struggling schools across the country.

All fair, until you read the small print. It shows that the DfE will pay £2,000 for governance leadership training per school located in an opportunity area (OA) and rated by Ofsted as “requiring improvement” (RI), or rated as “good” or “outstanding”, but also identified as “coasting”. Yet, if you are RI or coasting, but not in an OA, you only get £500.

Are we really saying there is such a big difference between an RI school in Oldham, which has an OA, and, say, Middlesbrough, which does not – that the latter deserves to be funded to the tune of four times less?

An important service

While the national providers will undoubtedly be providing an important service across the country, they all have a perverse incentive to fight over the lucrative schools within the 12 OAs and focus on them.

I feel desperately sorry for the DfE. It’s not its fault that it is struggling to improve a system with woefully inadequate funding, and is forced to trot out the same tired lines about “more funding than ever in the system”, while the sector mumbles behind its hands about there being more children than ever going through schools. Until parents are mobilised en masse in outrage at the situation, the Treasury will remain comfortable in keeping the purse strings drawn tight. But what the DfE and Damian Hinds can do is take a much closer look at fairness in the system and question whether they’re enabling all children to enjoy equal educational experiences.

A two-tier system for accessing government funding is emerging. Essentially, the OAs are at the front of the queue and the rest are left playing catch up. And while the methodology behind OAs is more than defensible, the omission of the North East, with its litany of negative employment and destination indicators, exposes a flaw in the implementation.

Disproportionate focus

The list of schemes disproportionately benefiting the OAs to the exclusion of all others grows ever longer. Allocations from the first round of the £140 million Strategic Schools Improvement Fund focused heavily on places in and around OAs; the government’s careers strategy includes a £2 million trial of careers activities in primary schools in OAs; and the Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision Green Paper made a commitment to developing practice in building resilience, but only in the OAs.

It is easy to see why politicians might favour such a system; a highly focused, place-based scheme gives the impression that the government is doing a lot of work to boost social mobility without actually requiring the Treasury to stump up the sizeable funds that would be required for a wider roll-out. However, the problem with focusing so much on schools in and around OAs is that it excludes large parts of the country, particularly in the north, where improvement should be prioritised.

While the DfE would argue that the learnings of the OAs are there for all to benefit from, the reality is that they will have little or no impact if you are in Berwick or Boldon or Billingham and the nearest area getting support is up to 150 miles away.

My organisation, Schools NorthEast, held its first chairs of governance conference last month. Of the long list of concerns these volunteers face, a number of whom are leaders of RI schools trying their damnedest to turn their schools around, the desperate need for high-quality training permeated all conversations. In highlighting the new training available, the acknowledgement that their training is worth only 25 per cent of that in an OA lodges a lump in the throat. They, and the children they support, deserve better.

Mike Parker is director of Schools NorthEast

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