Primary Focus* could be viewed as just another report from another think tank about the future of education. But in my view it is more significant than this.
The report calls for all primary schools to be ‘spun’ out from their local authority and for them to choose an academy chain to join.
I can hear the groans all round the staff rooms: yet more policy wonks proposing yet more structural upheaval. That is a perfectly reasonable reaction – and the onus is on those proposing the upheaval to justify it convincingly.
But I think Policy Exchange has made that case. The report argues that moving all primary schools into being part of a formal (academy) grouping represents:
“The best way in which to drive greater strategic capacity and capability in the primary sector. It achieves this by establishing collaborative practices around teaching and learning, by supporting teachers and individual school leaders to focus on what happens in classrooms, and by supporting a culture of continuous improvement and development. In turn, these actions improve outcomes.”
I have been arguing this cause for some years – but that’s not the only reason I welcome the report. The report is significant because it is written by grown-ups. What I mean by that is that although the report originates from Policy Exchange – a right of centre think tank – its recommendations take account of thinking and proposals coming from the Labour Party and others in the education world. The report is not partisan or ideological but draws on thinking from a number of quarters to confront an issue that has been fudged and fumbled (by governments of both parties) for too long.
So although under the proposals primary schools would become separate from local authorities, LAs can choose to set up their own arms length chain or learning trust (echoing some of the thinking in the Blunkett report prepared for Tristram Hunt).
The report recognises that the process of creating a network of primary chains will require steering and joining up – either by Regional Schools Commissioners or – with another nod in the direction of Labour thinking – Directors of Schools Standards.
The report allows schools to change chains – another idea that has been gaining currency. But again there are sensible conditions that would avoid destabilising chains.
The report is mature enough to accept that academy chains do not have the monopoly of wisdom and are not the only school improvement game in town. So the continuing complementary role of teaching of teaching school alliances is also affirmed.
If I have an issue with the report it is the chapter that strives mightily to try and show how structures beget standards. For myself I think the evidence on the performance of academies and academy chains is, at this stage, stretched too far. For me the better argument to make is that we know that school-to-school collaboration can deliver great value and we need to focus more on understanding the conditions that make for effective collaboration. Formalised accountability arrangements and executive leadership – which are what academy trusts provide – are important and necessary but by themselves are not sufficient drivers of successful school partnerships.
So while seeking to create an infrastructure that will result in the creation of primary school chains across England we should also attend to the other preconditions for the successful development and operation of academy chains. And that thought provides a further incentive for me to write the next section of the page of my blog dedicated to effective academy chains**!