Balancing the building blocks

I enjoyed reading Sam Freedman’s blog ‘What should we have put in the White Paper?’* He argued that it should have been built more round key principles so that it read less like a laundry list of policies.

Sam suggested that there were three core building blocks for developing a self-improving school led system – namely autonomy, accountability and capacity building. I am not sure Sam’s analysis entirely hits the mark as there were at least two other design principles underpinning the 2010 White Paper. The impact of those principles is still very much with us five years down the line.

First, competition, choice and diversity have been explicit elements of the coalition government’s education strategy. The significance of this driver has been to the fore this week in the argument about the expansion of free schools and the somewhat dubious claim that they have helped raise standards in surrounding schools. A belief that greater diversity of schooling linked to increased parental choice helps sharpen school performance is not confined to just those on the right of the political spectrum.

Nor is competition just limited to attracting pupils and students or positions in performance tables. Increasingly heads are telling me about the competition to recruit  teachers. Chains see themselves as competing against other chains and even teaching school alliances (TSAs) are offering competing school improvement and leadership programmes and packages

However, competitive pressures are not just negative in their impact: they have their upsides as well as their downsides. They can stimulate innovation, make schools more responsive and – given the right leadership – put them on their mettle to sharpen up their act.

Second, the development of system leadership and improvement was also a strong theme in the 2010 White Paper. The growth of academy chains and TSAs – and the associated expansion of NLEs, LLEs, and introduction of specialist leaders of education and national leaders of governance accelerate a strategy started by the last government. The Tory wing of coalition may not have started off as big believers in school-to-school support but structured collaboration has taken root as a driver of school improvement in many areas. It is this element that provides the means to deliver the all-important capacity building identified in the Sam Freedman blog.

However, for me the key question – which Sam also alludes to – is the relative weight that will be given to the various principles or drivers. In the next parliament. Will these various principles be appropriately balanced, as the first diagram below illustrates?

Drivers of improvement1

Or will, as the second chart shows, one principle be elevated above the others and effectively drive how the school system operates? For example:

  • Will accountability continue to be too dominant a force and so skew and undermine the intention behind collaboration because inspection and performance tables focus only on individual schools?
  • Will the growth of cluster working and academy groups be driven by defensive considerations (‘We don’t want to be gobbled up by a predator chain’) rather than a vision of pupils can benefit from schools working together?
  • How can the accountability framework be adapted to maintain rigour while promoting a development rather than a compliance culture?
  • Will tighter funding settlements intensify the pressure on schools to maximise the numbers of bums of seats – even if this at the expense of other local schools?
  • Can other incentives counter the competitive pressures for groups of schools to hoard rather than share their knowledge and understanding?
  • Is it possible for groups of schools in an area to all end up being run by the same sponsor, federation or cluster without limiting parental choice?
  • How can we minimise the risk of some multi-academy trusts emphasising uniformity to the exclusion of innovation?
  • What levers are appropriate for those TSAs (and MATs and federations) that are ineffective practitioners of collaboration and capacity building?

driver of improvement 2

Getting the right balance between the various drivers of improvement is not easy. However, the starting point has to be for the next government – in partnership with school leaders – to develop a shared vision of how it sees school improvement growing over the next five years. And then considering how the various policy levers need to be adapted to meet that objective.

* See http://samfreedman1.blogspot.co.uk Saturday 7th March

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