At the beginning of November we had two highly significant education announcements on consecutive days.
On the 3rd November the Secretary of State announced a £10 million fund for five academy sponsors to take on schools and build academy sponsor capacity in the north east.
The next day the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in partnership with the Northern Rock Foundation also announced a £10 million package. This fund is aimed boosting literacy levels for disadvantaged primary school pupils in the north east, and seeks to involve all 880 primary schools in the region.
Taking a leaf out of Ben Goldacre’s book, it would be interesting to track the relative impact on school improvement of the respective strategies over the next five years because the two announcements are quintessentially symbolic of the different approaches being taken to education improvement in England.
The government has put most of its eggs in the basket of structuralism. It believes that the academy sector is, in the long term, the best vehicle for harnessing the power and potential of the best schools to drive improvement across the system. In effect the government narrative has changed from being focused on autonomy for individual schools to autonomy for groups of schools.
Structural reform is where the government’s heart lies. But almost as a sideline it continues to back another horse – namely more organic learning networks which tend to be more inclusive and focus on improving curriculum and pedagogic practice and leadership of learning. This can be seen in the creation and sponsorship – under the previous government – of the EEF and the establishment of teaching school alliances (though the performance of alliances has been as mixed as that of multi-academy trusts). In funding terms learning networks are a Cinderella – they have been financed on a relative shoestring.
The roots of this structures/standards dualism go back as least as far as Tony Blair. Having accepted Sir Michael Barber’s advice and led Labour into government with a focus on standards, the former prime minister then recanted and decided that structures were after all more important as agents of reform – and duly introduced Foundation schools, Trust schools and sponsored academies.
Of course, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive – we don’t have to make a binary choice. The most effective school systems combine and align a range of different improvement levers, as the graphic below (taken from the recent CfBT report on approach to urban school reform) illustrates and reinforces .
My conversations with school leaders have brought home the manner in which the current emphasis on structuralism is leading to a very fragmented school system. We have a patchwork quilt (perhaps mish-mash might be a better term) of school groupings, improvement programmes and interventions. Some schools have the nous to belong to several groups (both formal trusts and learning networks) in order to maximise learning and support while others struggle to find the right partner and are getting left behind. The maturity and depth of partnership work is very variable. Learning between schools and groups of schools is haphazard. Some are pretty closed in guarding their approach to learning while others are more open.
Nobody really has a clear remit for all the schools in an area – Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) are required to focus primarily on dealing with failure in both the maintained and academy sectors. Some local authorities do still see themselves as responsible for the education and wellbeing for all children in their area – whatever type of school they go to – but rely on soft influence and the shared moral purpose of local headteachers to develop coherent local solutions. Other authorities have given up on seeking to play any significant school improvement role. And anyway the government seems hell-bent on forcing local authorities out of the picture altogether.
The creation of separate headteacher groups to support RSCs and run regional teaching school councils further reinforces the binary divide between structures and learning networks.
Learning from other parts of the world suggests that this is no way to run a railroad let alone a school system. In each part of the country we should be focusing on aligning different strategies to drive improvement. The arrangements might look different in different parts of the country but school improvement should draw on the principles of the Challenge-style programmes and, compared with the existing RSC regions, be organised on a smaller scale but with a bigger remit:
- sub-regions rather than regions should be the basis for co-ordinating school improvement – the current RSC boundaries are artificial and too big. There are 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) covering the whole of England and these might well provide a sensible starting place for brigading education improvement activity and linking the work of schools to the skill needs of the local economy. In some cases it might make sense to group LEPs together – particularly in city region areas.
- co-ordination should be steered and led by commissioners – appointed from individuals with a background of effectively leading school improvement in a geographical area or across a group of schools;
- commissioners should be supported by a board of headteachers and system leaders with proven expertise in facilitating school improvement and research-based pedagogy;
- the remit of the boards and commissioners would focus not just on struggling/failing schools but would embrace building the capacity of schools to improve teaching and learning and accelerate pupil progress. The sub-regions would also provide the right scale for co-ordinating the planning of school places, the recruitment and training of teachers and the development of school leadership; and
- commissioners would be accountable to elected mayors in all the parts of the country that had them – reflecting the devolutionary thrust of the government’s policy agenda.
These sub-regions would work with and through:
- local authorities to plan places, commission new schools and integrate the delivery of other services relating to the safety and wellbeing of children;
- multi-academy trusts, federations and teaching schools to ensure all schools were part of an accredited schools group that would be accountable for the development and performance of the schools in the group;
- schools to peer review and benchmark performance and share and move knowledge and expertise around the region;
- teachers and leaders with the skills to lead enquiry-based learning across networks of schools;
- universities to train and develop teachers; and
- employers to develop career pathways and placements; and
Aligning roles in this way would maximise the resources of the school system, marry structural diversity with programmes to improve teaching and learning and ensure that no school was left behind.
It’s time for us to move beyond structures or standards and find a sensible way to combine the impact they can both bring.