Education and Adoption Bill: right aim, wrong means

The Secretary of State has to be right. No child or young person’s future should be jeopardised by being educated in a school that is judged inadequate.

Schools where pupils do not make the progress they should, ought also to be challenged and supported.

And I am an advocate of the careful growth and nurturing of multi-academy trusts (MATs).

Put all this together and you might think that this means that I support the content of the government’s Education and Adoption Bill. But I have reservations.

First, it’s partly the underlying culture and message of the Bill. I thought we were meant to be moving towards a system where schools led improvement. That has been the government’s mantra. But this Bill feels like yet another notch is being turned on the rack of central intervention. It is more of the ‘done-to’ heavy duty accountability regime which is in danger of becoming increasingly counter-productive.

Second, it reinforces the image of academy trust sponsorship as being a punishment for ‘bad’ schools rather than MATs being held up as the deepest and – when practised properly – most effective form of school-to-school partnership. I want MATs over time to become the partnership of choice for schools – not because they are mandated but because they show themselves to the best vehicle for schools to support each other.

Third, we have to be honest. Academisation and sponsorship – which are to be the automatic fate of schools found to be inadequate – have not been a success in every instance. In 2013/14 a school was proportionately more likely to be rated by Ofsted as ‘requiring improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ if it was a primary or secondary sponsored-led academy than if it were a local authority maintained school*. Getting on for a hundred academies have had to have a change of sponsor either because the original sponsor has either collapsed or has not been able to make the improvement required. I understand a further 100 academies are currently under consideration for being transferred to a new sponsor.

I have no problem in acknowledging that in some cases take over by an academy trust might well be the best and most appropriate route for a struggling school, but to rule out federations, intervention by a National Leader of Education or a package or support from a teaching school alliance as other options seems perverse. Ironically Clause 4 of the Bill requires governing bodies of schools subject to intervention to formally accept exactly one or more of these broader forms of support. But the requirement to academise trumps everything else if a school is inadequate. I don’t follow the logic of that.

One of the consequences is that faith schools judged inadequate will probably only be able to be supported by other faith schools since it is often very tricky to transfer voluntary aided schools into a MAT that is non-faith sponsored.

Fourth, removing the requirement for consultation may speed things up but irritating and irksome as the process can sometimes be it is not a bad discipline to have to explain the rationale for change – even where some parents or community groups use consultation to orchestrate opposition. I feel uncomfortable about the imposition of a new school organisation without parents having any voice in the matter. If people are going to be obstructive there is every chance that some of them will resort to judicial review given there will be no other means of making their point once the Bill becomes law.

Fifth, the Bill does nothing to clarify the respective roles of Regional Schools Commissioners and local authorities – in some ways it adds to the confusion. We have a very messy middle education tier.

Sixth, the action on coasting schools is based on a false premise – as Professor John Hattie pointed out in his excellent publications for Pearson last week**. He reinforced what Professor David Reynolds has previously highlighted – namely the issue of within school variation. Coasting is as likely to be found within a school as between schools. Defining a particular set of schools as coasting misses the point.

The Hattie challenge is to focus on this variability and mobilise collaborative expertise within and between schools to ensure that every child makes at least a year’s growth for a year’s input. Hattie’s eight-point agenda for improving the impact of teaching and learning on every young person underscores the irrelevance of most of this Bill to what is going to make a difference to teachers and young people in the country

If I were the Secretary of State I would stop legislating. Period. Instead I would do whatever it took to get John Hattie over here to work with the school system on embedding the principles of Visible Learning.

Now that really would provide a giant rocket booster to the trajectory of a self-improving school system!

* See HMCI Annual Report 2013/14: Schools https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/384707/Ofsted_Annual_Report_201314_Schools.pdf

** See https://www.pearson.com/hattie/solutions.html

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