With the close of the government’s consultation last month on the Green Paper proposals, ‘Schools that work for everyone’; and the spring term underway, it is a useful time to take stock of the education landscape while we await the government response and digest the recently published accountability data.
Today we find ourselves in a position of greater autonomy than 10 to 15 years ago, but the autonomy is undoubtedly prescribed; constrained by Ofsted and league tables, and sitting alongside a lack of system coherence and the right incentives. An autonomy further dented by a lack of confidence by education leadership, in part caused by the conflict of judgements between Ofsted and the Schools Commissioners.
In 2014 the Education Select Committee conceded that the competition within the academy programme probably means we have better schools now, but that there was a need for government to be more open about how it runs the programme and for Ofsted to have full powers to inspect academy chains. The calls for transparency still dominate the round tables at CMRE and other education think tanks, with claims that the School Commissioners’ network-based approach to finding sponsors is stifling competition and resulting in poor sponsor fit.
In September, Reform published a survey of MATs, revealing that a third of all respondents had declined when asked to take on a new school. The most common reason for this was the geographic location of the school; then the financial status – such as it carrying a deficit; and then, changing the school’s culture and ethos. These issues raise real challenges for the viability of MAT expansion as the route to improvement everywhere and for all.
The incentives to encourage MATs to take on schools in difficult circumstances are also inadequate. Some believe the announcement in December on the new National Funding Formula will go some way to address this, while those in the cities are facing significant cuts.
In our last piece of sponsored research, the CMRE concluded that leadership skills have turned out to be much more contextual, embedded and difficult to transfer than was previously supposed. This has important implications for the feasibility of plans for grammar-led MATs, and for placing requirements on Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and independent charitable trust schools. The recent Select Committee on selection in November was also pretty damning on the evidence-base for the wider benefits of selection.
Significant NfER research in 2015 showed that early on in the academies programme, investing in a school, and changing its leadership altered local perceptions of the school and the prospects of its pupils, but it is not clear that this was due to greater autonomy. And it begs the question, what would this approach look like in a high-performing school? Extending the same autonomy to a wider group of schools has had little short-term impact on innovative practice or pupil performance, so there is still no clarity on the importance of autonomy for all schools, and there can definitely not be any direct comparison between secondary and primary contexts.
Policy implementation has been awash with change, making evaluation of different approaches in different contexts near impossible and leaving us with more questions than answers: What do we do when the improvement tool of choice doesn’t work? How do we ensure more sponsor capacity? What is the impact evaluation of school to school support?
New LSE research clearly shows the lack of evidence and outcomes for the academies programme as a tool for improvement. The variation in performance between local authorities and between multi-academy trusts is greater than between the two groups, so it is more relevant to ask if a child is attending a school in a high-performing MAT or a high-performing local authority than if he or she is attending a school in a MAT or in a school in a local authority. If a child were moving from a high-performing local authority to a low-performing MAT (and presumably vice versa) you could expect the child to drop seven grades across his or her GCSEs. The LSE also highlights that neither local authorities nor MATs in the North of England are making above average improvements.
Academy performance is clearly variable but we don’t really know why. What researchers need to do now is to identify what lies behind these disparities. Factors might include issues of system and policy design, different institutional responses to autonomy, issues of governance and leadership, teacher turnover, motivation and effectiveness and curriculum design.
One Education’s contribution to the debate is to sponsor further research from CMRE which seeks to clarify current thinking: where and how present arrangements help or hinder outcomes; whether the balance between autonomy and accountability is right; whether the lack of the right incentives and increasing regulation curtails leadership decision-making; and the disruptive potential of ‘Schools that work for everyone’.
Read more about our sponsored education research.