Whispers from Westminster

11th December 2015 at 00:00
A strong steer on coasting schools

On Monday, the prime minister announced that the government would be accepting Lords amendment 13, sponsored by Lord Hunt and Lord Watson, to amend clause 1 of the Education and Adoption Bill at report stage in the House of Lords.

That got you, huh? Obviously he didn’t say that exactly (although can you imagine if he did? There would be no need to promote a career in Westminster; roll up kids, take a job in politics, to really make a difference and deal with all the biggest issues of the day!). Actually, he didn’t say that at all. But what he did say was that the government would be doing just what the amendment suggests, which is extending the definition of coasting schools so that it also now includes academies and free schools.

The explanation for the change – which, despite being in a prime ministerial speech, received less attention and promotion from the government than the original launch of the bill – was that it expands the government’s “cracking down” on coasting schools, which previously was limited only to local authority-maintained schools.

It’s a very sensible change to make. Regardless of the discussions about the criteria used to define coasting schools, it surely makes sense that, once identified as in need of intervention, the government treats the two main types of schools in the same way. I’ve written before about how one of the main reasons to move to a fully academised system – also promised again in the speech by the PM – is to reduce the dual running costs of the current system. This move is also an explicit acknowledgement that some academies will fail, or coast, and action needs to be taken on them just as much as with underperforming maintained schools.

And this should be welcomed by academy trusts – as Dame Rachel De Souza of Inspiration Trust said, their job is to secure rapid improvement and to be held accountable if they do not succeed.

It also expands the focus on the future role of regional schools commissioners (RSCs), currently under scrutiny from the Education Select Committee as to their continuing remit, resourcing and structure. Some analysis suggests that as many as a fifth of all secondary schools in a couple of regions could be defined as coasting, with a smaller percentage of primaries.

If RSCs are going to be assessing the plans of all these schools and deciding on action, that’s a lot of work. There’s also a risk that the same RSC team that have previously put a school in academy status would then have to adjudicate on its future underperformance. If we worry about the possible conflict of interest in local authorities being both maintainer of and agent for change for some schools, we need to take the same approach with RSCs and academies.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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