Five points on academies U turn

Most policy announcements never turn out entirely as expected but here are five initial judgements about Nicky Morgan’s academy U-turn.

  1. It will lead to more a more sensible growth in the academy and MAT landscape – headteachers and governors are now more likely to make sensible decisions about whether and how to convert to academy status and whether to join or form their own MAT. And, hopefully, we are more likely to avoid the over-rapid expansion of some MATs – a real risk still in my view.
  2. The condition that forced academisation could still be on the cards for schools in those areas where too few remain with a local authority to make their schools improvement function viable,may perversely put peer pressure on schools to eschew academisation because it undermines the viability of their authority.
  3. The announcement has repercussions for other bits of the Education White Paper. For example, is it feasible, to now withdraw all school improvement funding from local authorities? If heads and schools are to be given a window of grace to turn round weak or failing schools before Ofsted comes calling, how will this interact with and impact on the definition of failing local authorities?
  4. We need to see the small print of the government’s new legislation – particularly its definition of what constitutes a poorly performing local authority – which will remain as a trigger for compulsory academisation. The tougher the rules the government proposes the more it will come under pressure to also apply them to diocesan schools and poorly performing MATs.
  5. The government in general and Nicky Morgan in particular are damaged politically (particularly as this is just the latest in a longish line of government policy U-turns) . The U-turn may well encourage resistance to other aspects of the government’s reform programme – such as the testing and assessment regime. The odds on a new Secretary of State for Education in a post-Referendum reshuffle have also shortened.

School improvement & the White Paper: the strategy and challenges, some scenarios and some policy adjustments

The government’s narrative on school improvement

I have now read chapters 4 and 5 of Educational Excellence Everywhere several times but I am still not clear about key aspects of the government’s model for school improvement. In as much as it has it has a clear narrative it seems to be this:

  • Schools leading improvement across the school system is the government’s strategic ambition.
  • The role of local authorities in supporting and overseeing school improvement will be phased out as schools become academies
  • In future many schools will draw their school improvement from MATs.
  • But the government does not want to create monopolies and schools will also be able to choose “the partnerships that will [best] deliver continuous improvement for their own school and for others”.
  • Other sources of support will include teaching school alliances and system leaders “with high standards in their own schools”.
  • The role of teaching school alliances will in future focus on co-ordinating and delivering high quality school-based ITT, providing high quality school-to-school support and providing evidence-based professional development.
  • Areas with concentrations of underperforming schools will receive targeted attention.
  • RSCs will be responsible for making sure that inadequate schools are taken on by a strong MAT and that coasting schools have a strategy and action plan for improving performance.
  • Heads (and presumably MATs) will be given a reasonable period to turn round a failing school but RSCs will transfer schools from one MAT to another in the event that a MAT cannot effect improvement and, in extremis, a poorly performing MAT will be wound up.

Some confusing issues

So far so good – in that whether you agree with the approach or not the plan is at least clear. But then comes the first area of confusion. Paragraph 5.7 of the White Paper states:

“We therefore intend to legislate so that responsibility for school improvement will sit squarely with the best leaders and the best schools – meaning that those with experience of turning schools around and achieving high standards will be able to drive change across the system. This change will also allow schools to form clusters and draw on support based on their school’s specific needs and requirements.”

That paragraph clearly implies legal entities with formal statutory responsibilities. What are these clusters? How will they acquire statutory responsibility? Will their responsibilities only apply to the schools in the cluster or extend to other schools? What form will the responsibilities take – will they be allocated some of the duties previously the preserve of local authorities? How will their role dovetail with that of the Regional School Commissioners (RSCs)?

One possibility that might make sense of the paragraph is if the wording is referring to teaching schools that are to be given the role of being:

“…brokerage ‘hubs’ for other system leaders, facilitating access to improvement support by coordinating the supply and activity of NLEs and SLEs. They will be responsible for providing or brokering effective support for schools that need extra help.”

Most teaching schools are already doing this – though the practice is much more well-established and effective in some alliances (TSAs) than in than others. However, giving TSAs statutory responsibilities – if that is what is intended – would turn them into entirely different beasts. They would need to adopt more formal governance and accountability structures. It would also completely change the dynamics of what they do and how they work. They would move from being learning networks to accountable school improvement bodies.

Even if the new legal provisions don’t relate to TSAs (but to some other unspecified school cluster entity) the role of TSAs still looks as though it is going to become more formal.

“From September 2017, school improvement funding will be increasingly routed through teaching schools in line with their core functions outlined above. In turn, they will be held to account more effectively for the quality, reach and impact of the support which they broker. This new fund will focus on building capacity across the system and ensuring the most vulnerable schools improve and do not fail.”

The last sentence is, of course, a bit of White Paper hubris – if TSAs are to ‘ensure’ that the most vulnerable schools don’t fail that presumably means there is nothing left for the RSCs to do! In practice the government knows this won’t be the case. In fact there is a real issue about what teaching schools would do as brokers and what – in an increasingly academised world – RSCs would do. For example, RSCs will control the intervention fund for “failing and coastal schools” so they would presumably call the shots around brokering support in these circumstances

The other thing about the proposals in chapter five is that they are all written from the perspective of individual schools. Individual schools choose (or are helped to find) where and how to access support. Intervention is brokered for individual schools. But in a world of MATs it will be the MAT rather than the school – particularly where a school is struggling – that will make the calls on the form of support that is most appropriate. Designation and deployment of national and specialist leaders of education (NLEs and SLEs) will involve negotiation with MATs.

Chapter 5 switches between being appropriate to the current pattern of school organisation and a post-MAT world without explaining which bits of the proposals are more likely to be applicable at which points in the development of a school-led system.

Perhaps I am being obtuse – or seeing complexities where they do not exist. If there are simple answers to these points then let’s hear them.

Four scenarios and risks

As the graphic below highlights there are a number of ways in which the government’s school improvement agenda could pan out. One scenario is that, as the government intends, the combination of a MAT-led system, refocused teaching school alliances, an expansion in the number of NLEs and SLEs and a focus on underperformance in particular localities results in progress towards an energised school-led system.Slide1But it might also be the case that the process of mass conversion to academy status, along with the political furore and skewing of leadership time and attention it will entail, proves to be a major distraction from improving teaching and learning. We know from both education and other public services that structural upheaval always brings some short-term loss of focus on performance. The risk of this occurring is even greater in this instance as the government is changing just about every other aspect of the education system at the same time. The curriculum, key stage assessments, tests and exams, accountability frameworks, funding formulae and teacher training arrangements are all changing fundamentally – and in some areas one reform comes before the last one has been implemented. The scale of constant upheaval and challenge is likely to encourage experienced headteachers to opt out rather than stay on.

Another scenario is that MATs become the default home for the vast majority of schools but at the expense of the school system becoming very fragmented. MATs focus most of their energies on progress and learning within their organisation and compete with other MATs for pupils and staff. Teaching schools struggle with their new roles and the brokerage of support for underperforming schools becomes patchy and confused – particularly as RSCs struggle to cope with the workload of a fully academised system.

Perhaps the most likely scenario is the hybrid one – i.e. there is further progress towards a school-led system but at the expense of some distraction and fragmentation.

Four policy adjustments

I would propose that the government could make better and faster progress towards its policy objectives if it made the following adjustments to its school improvement strategy:

  1. Provide a very clear policy direction of travel in terms of schools working through MATs – and support with incentives and Growth Fund – but do not compel mass academisation. Explain and advocate the potential benefits (rather than just using academisation as a punishment if a school is struggling) but make the quality of MATs rather than the quantity of MATs the acid test of progress. In the health service hospitals were only allowed to become Foundation Trusts when they met key requirements.
  1. Set an expectation that every school should be part of a broader local school partnership as well as being a member of a MAT  In some cases this might be a teaching school alliance or Challenge Partners but in other cases this may be an improvement partnership operating at a local authority level. There are already quite a wide range of innovative models that involve joint school and local authority improvement boards that oversee the progress of all schools in the area, using shared data and peer review. They then commission improvement support where it is needed. In other areas authorities and schools have jointly set up school improvement companies to offer support and improvement services on a traded basis. In some instances both models are operating alongside each other. As the school-led system develops in each locality school leaders are taking more of a role in leading this work. The concept of place matters: school-led oversight and support in an authority can provide the cohesion and glue that school systems need. MATs need not and should not be at the expense of collaborating at a locality level to ensure that all children in an area receive the best education.
  1. Instead of writing local authorities completely of any school improvement role, formalise arrangements for RSCs to use local authorities (and the school-led oversight arrangements described above) as their local agents in knowing what is happening in schools.This approach reflects the reality of what is currently happening on the ground in most areas.  RSCs would also use authorities and local school leaders to suggest or help develop solutions to local problems. Using authorities in this way would have the merit of avoiding the need to build a massive new RSC bureaucracy.
  1. In those areas where there is a directly elected mayor make the RSCs accountable to the mayor. This would in turn point to aligning, over time, the RSC boundaries with those of the new city regions and counties that are being established. It would help to establish the democratic legitimacy of RSCs and bring the RSC system more into line with the approach I argued for in The Missing Middle: the Case for School Commissioners

Making these changes will bring not perfection but would support greater coherence. Crucially they might also defuse some of the current tensions and enable reforms to focus on what should be the key objective for all: improving teaching and learning in the classroom.

Train long, plan smart, teach less, teach deep – tackling teacher recruitment and retention

The problems and pressures of recruiting teachers have been well rehearsed. If anyone was in doubt about the scale or reality of the challenge the recent report by the National Audit Office should torpedo any complacency[1]. The government has missed its recruitment targets for four years in a row – though there are some signs that this year’s numbers may be more encouraging. However, fewer secondary classes are taught by teachers with a relevant post-A level. In addition the proportion of qualified teachers is down and teacher vacancies have doubled – from 0.5% to 1.2%.

As worrying are the statistics on teacher wastage:

  •  around 10% of teachers leave teaching each year (higher for secondary than primary) – and the rate rose between 2011 and 2014;
  •  the proportion leaving for reasons other than retirement rose from 64% to 75%;
  •  an estimated 100,00 teachers trained in the UK are working in the international sector, says Ofsted chief Inspector, Michael Wilshaw[2];
  •  Over a quarter (28%) of newly qualified teachers leave teaching within five years – and if all those who started teacher training are included the figure rises to around 55%[3]; and
  •  since 2000 more than 55,000 teachers have never taught after finishing their training – and the rate of non entry is rising[4].

These headline numbers reveal the scope of the problem but they don’t tell us the cause. Of course, teachers’ pay is lagging behind the private sector and is becoming less competitive but that is far from the full story. There is a deeper malaise affecting the teaching profession. I would suggest we are contending with the following factors:

  • a fragmented initial teacher training (ITT) system. The forecasting model is clunky. There is a lack of clarity for potential applicants surrounding the diverse routes into ITT and the multiple funding options. Universities and schools are competing when they should be collaborating. We are shoehorning into a single year’s training both pedagogical and subject knowledge as well as classroom skills and practice. Not surprisingly trainees’ fitness to teach at the end of the year is variable.
  • pupil behavior – just because the teacher unions argue this point does not make it invalid. Surveys consistently show that low-level pupil disruption saps teacher morale.
  •  workload – many jobs are demanding and many professionals work long hours. So in that sense teachers are no different from many of their peers. So we need to beware of special pleading. However, the combination of preparation, assessment and extra curricular activity alongside the intensity of engaging with young people in the classroom for five or six hours a day is undoubtedly demanding – though arguably no more so than a junior doctor or social worker dealing with child protection issues. However, I suspect that what tips the workload factor into being a burden is the relentless treadmill of constant change coupled with an accountability system that continues to raise the stakes. The recent example of the late changes to the assessment of writing at Key Stage 2 is a classic example. Too much of the change feels like teachers and schools are being ‘done to’, with too little space for ‘bottom up’ innovation and reform.
  • teachers in England get less time for professional development, networking and group or individual research than elsewhere[5]. A feature of those education systems that are performing strongly is the time they give to their teachers to develop their knowledge, prepare their lessons and improve their practice.
  • the introduction of the EBacc is arguably leading to some subjects being sidelined or seen as second tier and this may be affecting applications for subjects such as geography, music, business studies; and
  • there no unifying sense of what it means to be a teaching professional – while we should never go back to the days when education was a secret garden and teachers kept their doors closed to other practitioners we need to develop a sense of teachers having a collective autonomy over their own practice. This was meant to be the mission of the College of Teaching but progress on that front seems very slow.

So what we should do about this situation. Here are four big reforms we might consider.

Reshape the way we recruit teachers. We need to end the artificial distinction between university and school based teacher training and streamline the routes into teaching and the means of financial support. There should be a rolling allocation of places based on a combination of national modeling and sub-regional analysis. Universities and schools should build on the existing sub-regional networks to jointly recruit and select ITT trainees, deliver the training and assess trainees’ progress. All schools should be part of such a network (even if they are not directly involved in delivering the ITT package)

Remodel how we train teachers. There are two dimensions to this. First, as the graphic below summarises, a core curriculum for trainee teachers should embrace key 21st century competences. These include building and teaching subject knowledge, understanding the principles of great pedagogy, knowledge of child and brain development at different ages, effective assessment and classroom practice, developing independent learners and research and learning impact skills.

Revised system for training teachersRemodelled ITT

The second linked reform is to move away from trying to cram all this content into one year and instead conceive of acquiring qualified teacher status over three years. Throughout that time trainees would mix classroom practice with theoretical learning and research. They would continue to have placements across the sub region (so building their experience of teaching in different contexts) but after the first year they would, subject to satisfactory progress, have a licence to teach and be paid a starting salary (at the current level). The revised three-year training programme would account for a substantial proportion of credits for a Masters. Trainees could, if they wished, acquire a full Masters, by writing a thesis either during their training or after acquiring the revised Newly Qualified Status at the end of the third year.

Redesign the way that teachers work in schools. We know the huge difference that good teaching can make to the progress of pupils – particularly those from a disadvantaged background. And we know that within many schools there are big variations in the quality of teaching. That surely points to making teaching much more of a collaborative practice both within and between schools– as Michael Fullan has written: “Good collaboration reduces bad variation”[6]. So we should be making:

  •  joint curriculum and lesson planning the norm;
  •  coaching an everyday experience for teachers and leaders;
  •  knowledge-building and sharing a habit;
  • more time for collaborative inquiry-led learning to create new knowledge;
  •  pupil voice, self-evaluation and peer review the go-to tools for assessing and reflecting on teaching and learning practice; and
  • teachers and staff confident participants in randomised control trials and skilled users of effect size data in order to evaluate the impact of teaching and learning interventions.

If school leaders take this approach seriously it will result in teachers spending more time out of the classroom. Many schools will see this as impractical at the best of times and completely barmy at a time of budget cuts. But if the evidence from other education jurisdictions is that giving teachers more time to prepare, learn and evaluate is what makes for a more effective outcome then we would be crazy not to reconfigure how we organise schools in order to achieve this. Some approaches that would help to generate more time for teacher learning, research and reflection include:

  •  using the practice of marginal gains (borrowed from sports and business management) to reduce the time teachers spend on administrative issues;
  • reviewing homework and assessment polices with a view to improving feedback to students while reducing time spent marking;
  •  adopting smart timetabling, including more intensive teaching for four days;
  •  practising online teacher-to-teacher collaboration across schools as a way of sharing lesson plans, classroom practice (by posting video clips), feedback on interventions and peer review;
  • introducing reading clubs for groups of teachers as a way of generating ideas and discussion about pedagogy and improved classroom practice;
  • holding common insets days across schools and hosting teach-meet style sessions;
  • combining sets and/or classes for some lessons to make the best of a particular teacher’s expertise and free up a colleague either to observe or have time on other learning tasks; and
  • training support staff to oversee in a disciplined and effective way students’ individual and group learning time.

It may be not easy to achieve this cultural shift. But to those who say that it is cloud cuckoo land for teachers to have up to a day a week for planning, coaching, learning and inquiry-led research, I would remind them that we had similar objections when the 10% PPA entitlement was first agreed. Redesigning the teaching week is possible.

Rethink how we lead teaching and learning. There are three important principles here. First, the career options and pathways towards being a subject or curriculum specialist, expert classroom practitioner, pastoral leader or school leader should be clearly set out. Below is a chart that adapts an idea that the Education Select Committee first proposed in 2012. Whether it is this model or a variant of it, teachers embarking on their career should aspire to be expert professionals and they should understand the different options for becoming involved in leading teaching and learning.

Routes in to teaching leadership

Second, we need to develop a greater focus on what, in the United States, is called instructional leadership. The graphic below shows what that looks like for leaders of schools in different contexts – i.e. those leading learning in an individual school, those leading learning across school groups and those leading learning across a local authority, sub-region or region.

Leading learning in different contexts

Different roles of teaching leadershipSource: Graphic adapted from an idea developed by Joanne Quinn, Three keys to maximising impact, 2015

Third, we need to put resources into facilitating teaching and learning between teachers to enable them to work together across schools. Coaching and modeling and inquiry-led learning won’t develop in a systematic way between schools unless it is orchestrated. As more schools become part of multi-academy trusts, teaching school alliances, federations and other school partnership groups there is a great opportunity to reprioritise instructional to support inquiry-led learning and empower teachers to be the professional learners they should be.

 Facilitating teaching and learning across school groups

Leading teaching and learning

Schools and school groups have to use the new school structures to focus on learning together and moving learning around. That is the role and purpose of executive leaders and directors of teaching and learning. Unless they are focused on this they are little more than an expensive on-cost in a school’s budget. But if we can develop a cadre of leaders committed to developing their staff and learning with them about how to improve practice and outcomes, we will be well on the way to refining what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century. And that in turn is the long-term answer to tackling teacher recruitment.

[1] National Audit Office, 2016, Training new teachers, 2016, based on DfE data


[3] DfE, Statistical First Release 21/15, School Workforce in England, Main and Additional Tables

[4] DfE, Op cit

[5] OECD, 2013, Key Findings from the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), England

[6] See

Heads Up: change route into headship

Today’s publication of the Future Leaders’ report, Heads Up[i], on the problems of recruiting headteachers is very timely. The report just does not describe the scale of the problem but also identifies what factors that are contributing to a lack of applications for headteacher applications. It picks out the pressure of a high stakes accountability regime, the potential unattractiveness of working in some locations, the career risk involved in taking on a struggling school and the potential bias in the selection system again Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic candidates.

To that list I would add two other factors. First the demise of the National College for school leadership. At its peak the College was acting as a beacon and a rallying point for school leaders: it was a demonstrable affirmation of headship. The centre in Nottingham was a vibrant hub of leadership learning and research. More practically the College was co-ordinating work undertaken at a regional level to estimate the future demand and supply for leaders. It also had an integrated set of courses and programmes designed to lead teachers through to headship which were latterly were delivered through licensed consortia. Of course, both the College and NPQH had their limitations but by dismantling much of the leadership development infrastructure the government has weakened rather than strengthened the school leadership pipeline.

Second, in my work with school leaders I am often told about the gulf between being a deputy and being a head. There is a step-change in the level of responsibility. It is not uncommon to find deputy heads who are happy to continue in the number two role and see little incentive to take on the hassle, responsibility and stress of being the number one leader.

So what are we going to do about the situation? The contributions in Heads Up rightly argue for school leaders to give more attention to identifying developing and supporting the development of emerging leaders. But my own view is that the contribution from Jan Renou, the Regional Schools Commissioner for the North, is much nearer the mark in arguing that we need to rethink the school leadership pathway.

“For future school leaders, the emerging career ladder offers exciting opportunities around well-defined roles: head of school, headteacher, executive headteacher and now chief executive officer (CEO)”

The key point she makes is seeing the role of head of school as the route into headship. ‘Head of school’ is about much more than a semantic change of name. As Jan explains:

“Developing a head of school by giving them more space and time than can be found in a deputy post allows them to learn the ropes with a focus on teaching and learning, and provides them with a ‘safety net’, a mentor, and time.”

Developing the concept of the ‘apprentice’ headteacher has to be a key part of the solution to the leadership recruitment challenge. And it would help if the pay and conditions of service framework gave greater acknowledgement to the ‘head of school’ role.

In practice a ‘head of school’ role can really only work if schools are part of a group with an executive head supporting and overseeing a cluster of schools. Echoing another of Jan Renou’s points this model is more likely to be possible and work best in formal school structured partnerships – such as federations and multi-academy trusts (MATs). Indeed rather than seeing MATs as some sort of quick fix to school failure the government would do much better to promote MATs as the pinnacle of school partnership – helping to grow both teachers and leaders.

MATs also provide the means for strategically deploying young and emerging leaders across the academies in the trust and giving them experience of leading in other schools and context. A strategy that will be all the more powerful if, at the same time, it is linked to them participating in formal middle, aspiring and senior leadership programmes.

To be fair much of this agenda can be and is being developed in the best teaching school alliances but it relies on high trust between schools and governors in order to achieve it and is more likely to be practised opportunistically rather than strategically.

So let’s redefine the career path to headship, affirm the role of ‘head of school’ and encourage more schools to come together in federations and MATs to make it a reality.


Standards + Structures = A Strategy

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[1].

The next day the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in partnership with the Northern Rock Foundation also announced a £10 million package[2]. 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 [3].

Photos Library 2

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.



[3] See

The rise and rise of multi-academy trusts – latest DfE data

Last week the DfE released the latest statistics on the numbers and size of multi-academy trusts in response to a Freedom of Information request that I submitted at the beginning of August.

At the end of July 2015 there were 846 multi academy trusts in England. To put this in perspective there were 391 MATs in March 2011. So that is a pretty rapid rate of growth.

However, the overall numbers only tell a small part of the story. The chart below shows the number of MATs by size of MATs. Two hundred and twelve MATS consist of just one academy – a nearly tenfold increase on the 2011 number. The response from many would be to say, ‘How can they be a multi-academy trust if they only have one academy – that is a contradiction in terms?’ That would be to misunderstand what is going on. Many if not most of these singleton MATs are signaling their intention to grow – a good number of them will have been approved to be academy sponsors (as of July 2015 the number of approved sponsors had grown to 739 and increasingly it is schools that are swelling the sponsor ranks). In other words these academies have established a MAT structure because their intention is to work in partnership with other schools.

Number of multi-academy trusts by number of academies in the trust

Photos Library 2

The rise in the number of MATs that comprise two to five academies – up from 224 to 517 since 2011 – reflects the Department’s change of strategy half way through the last Parliament. Instead of investing in a few large MATs the gameplan has been to encourage a lot of smaller academy groups.

Many of the smaller MATs that were fledgling trusts in 2011 have now grown to have between six and 20 academies. Most of the 105 MATs in this category fall under one of three headings:

  • Long-established MATs such as the Cabot Learning Federation, Leigh Academies Trust or Outwood Grange Academies Trust that have chosen to grow at a slower and, some would argue, more sustainable, rate;
  • Newer academy groups such as the Northern Education Trust, The Wakefield City Academies Trust, Creative Education Academies Trust, Enquire Learning Trust or The Glyn Learning Foundation. Some of these MATs have grown quite quickly as groups of schools have converted together and in other cases the relatively rapid growth reflects the entrepreneurial nature of the MAT Board or CEO; and
  • Diocesan Trusts – this group probably represents the largest and fastest growth in the MAT sector. The form that diocesan trusts take varies enormously and this is an area which would benefit from more in-depth research.

There are 12 MATs that have 21 or more academies – though the number rises to 13 if you include REACH2 which technically is currently a series of MATs working within a wider trust framework but in reality is an integrated organisation. The 13 largest MATs and the number of academies in each of them are as follows:

  • *E-ACT – 23
  • Greenwood Academies Trust – 27
  • *Ormiston Academies Trust – 27
  • *ARK Schools – 31
  • The David Ross Education Trust – 34
  • *The Harris Federation – 35
  • Plymouth CAST – 35
  • REACH2 – 39
  • *Kemnal Academies Trust – 41
  • *United Learning Trust – 42
  • *Oasis Community Learning – 44
  • *School Partnership Trust Academies – 46
  • *Academies Enterprise Trust – 61

The nine MATs marked with an asterisk constituted the largest MATs when I led a study of academy chains back in 2011/12.

The final figure that is worth highlighting is the total number of academies that are part of a MAT – 3,044. That represents around 15 per cent of all secondary, primary and special schools and, even more significantly, nearly two-thirds, of all academies.

So, some illuminating data from the DfE. What we now need is for the Department to get on and finalise the arrangements for publishing performance data for MATs. The consultation on this took place just before the election. If proposals are not forthcoming soon perhaps another Freedom of Information request might be the order of the day!

You can find the data released by the DfE as part of my FoI request at

Corbyn: the problem not the cure

It’s the school holiday so this blog takes a break from education matters. Instead the Labour leadership election is the focus. It’s a blog about the poverty of the intellectual debate that besets this contest.

On one side of we have Jeremy Corybn articulating a view of socialism and equality and a statist view of life that he has been consistent in advocating since he and I were colleagues in the National Union of Public Employees over 30 years ago.

Opposing him are Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. The first two have found themselves tacking towards Corbyn’s position (on welfare, for example), giving repeated mea culpas for being part of the Blair years (in which they were active movers and shakers) and arguing that Labour is not electable with Corbyn as leader.

Liz Kendal also makes the unelectability point but has also been trying articulate an alternative vision but has not yet found the voice or language to do this.

Labour cannot win with Corbyn – that’s true but in a way that is beside the point. We have to take on his arguments particularly on a key issue in the Corbyn campaign – the role of markets in our society. David Ward, the General Secretary of the Communications Workers Union, spelt it out in his an interview with the Today programme on 31st July. In disgracefully suggesting that Blairism was ‘a virus’ within the Labour Party he said that market liberalisation had been a disaster for working people like him. It’s that sort of prejudice and superficial analysis that is fuelling much of the Corbyn surge.

It’s a reaction to the inequities and excesses of the banks and corporatism of much of economic life. There are too many estates and communities that have been left behind and groups workers who have been exploited or cast aside

But the answer is not to in effect reinstate the old Clause 4 and pretend that state control is the answer to everything. We need a new strategy for a new time.

First, let’s recognise that market liberalisation has been far from a universally bad phenomenon.

Liberalising markets opened up telecoms and ended the three-month waits for a phone line and paved the way for internet access – remember those times?

Embracing liberalisation was what saved the British car industry: re-creating jobs for hundreds of thousands of UK employees.

Market liberalisation of the media has opened up a host of TV channels and a rich stream of opportunities for creative talent.

Liberalisation helped to generate the growth and the wealth that Blair used to invest and reform public services.

Liberalisation of the health service under Blair and the introduction of external providers of cataract and orthopaedic surgery was one of the reasons we were able to cut NHS waiting times so dramatically – an advance that is being undermined by the Tories.

Liberalising social care has given thousands of elderly and disabled people the power to control their own care budgets.

Liberalising education funding has empowered headteachers to lead and run their schools, appoint the staff and better meet the needs of their pupils.

Yes, of course there are problems with markets. But we need intelligence not slogans in addressing those problems

Sometimes the answer to the abuse of market power is more not less competition. For example, one of the things wrong with the energy market has been the domination by the big six energy giants – which is now being challenged by new players in the market. Labour should be arguing for stronger action against virtual monopolies and cartels. – a case the Tories have reluctantly been forced to concede.

Sometimes it is producers that need protecting – whether they are milk framers who need a fair price from the supermarkets or workers that are suffering from effects of casualisation of labour.

And sometimes tougher more forensic regulation is needed, as the banking and finance sectors show.

But for Labour to try to turn its back on markets is not only naive but a dereliction of duty. It fails the people who need a government that will help them achieve their aspirations and be on their side when market forces fail.

Along with bold policies that enable markets to deliver a better deal for more people Labour needs fresh thinking in other areas. The quality of the leadership debate has been sterile and dire. The best ideas will come from Labour on the ground engaging with the key challenges that society faces.

Labour should use the opportunity of directly elected mayors for our great city regions to renew our infrastructure, develop with employers, schools, colleges and universities the skills pathways that meets the needs of their local economies. And they can experiment with new ways of managing health and social care budgets in an integrated way. Out of this experience will emerge fresh thinking grounded in the knowledge of what works.

In education Labour should colonise academy trusts and chains as an opportunity to develop an approach to schooling that is about more than delivering an exam production line – as the former Blair adviser, Peter Hyman, is doing at School 21.

Labour Party councilors and directors of housing associations should be coming up with the ideas for radically reforming the planning and finance systems to boost the supply of affordable homes.

Those committed to the NHS should not just be rehearsing the mantra about preserving a NHS ‘free at the point of use’ but working with GP practices and Clinical Commissioning Groups to address the rising tide of demand for healthcare. Every time I go to my GP practice – which is well run and organised – it is heaving. How could we better empower groups of patients with diabetes to be more responsible for their own care? How can we combine regulation., lifestyle and ‘nudge’ policies to tackle our obesity epidemic? How can we better support the carers of dementia sufferers?

The leadership candidates should be building on the thinking of MPs like Graham Allen and Frank Field on early intervention and the experience of the troubled families initiative to develop ideas for scaling up action in some of our most deprived communities.

Thinking on these issues would help guide work on a tax and benefit framework that would balance providing incentives to work with a safety net for those that can’t.

But as far as I can see none of this is being debated. Is it too late to change the discourse of this election? I don’t know but as Liz Kendal has been arguing, we have to try.

Robert Hill was an adviser and political secretary to Tony Blair from 1997 to 2002 and subsequently advised Charles Clarke from 2002 to 2005.

PS And for those who seriously think that Blairism is a virus see below 10 things that every Labour Party member should still shout about what the Blair government achieved.

10 key achievements of the Blair government

  1. Restoring elected government to Greater London and devolving government to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  1. Cutting NHS waiting times from 18 months to 18 weeks and the rate of deaths from cancer and heart disease
  1. Improved rates of literacy and numeracy and using academies to target educational improvement in deprived areas
  1. The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland
  1. Free entry to national museums
  1. The introduction of the Minimum Wage and giving all workers the right to 24 days paid holiday
  1. Introduction of paternity leave for fathers, Sure Start centres to support families and free early education for all three and four-year olds
  1. Scrapping Section 28 and introducing civil partnerships
  1. Doubling the overseas aid budget
  1. Leading the fight against ethnic cleaning in Kosovo and helping to end the civil war in Sierra Leone

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

** See

Cities and Devolution Bill: the glimmer of a more localist approach towards education?

The content of the Government’s Cities and Devolution Bill* is probably not high on the list of school leaders’ concerns to find out about or think about – even presuming that they are aware of it in the first place. But over time this legislation could turn out to be very significant for schools.

The Bill is the vehicle for creating elected mayors and delegating more powers and finance to the areas that are come under the heading of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Schools and education are not specifically mentioned in the Bill – the focus is on giving combined authorities, over which a directly elected mayor will preside, control of transport, housing, strategic planning, health, social care and skills training. It is these functions that are seen as integral to boosting economic growth. Mayors can also potentially take on the functions of the Police and Crime Commissioner for the area, although this will require the consent of all the authorities involved.

The Bill validates an argument I made in ‘The Missing Middle: the case for School Commissioners’** that in England we are in the process of moving to sub-regions being the architects of local economic strategies and growth – and using sub-regional bodies to co-ordinate the strategic planning and delivery of public services to support these plans. It’s an idea whose time is long overdue in what has been a very centralised state.

No service has been more centrally driven in the past 30 years than education. Indeed it is one of the ironies of the post 2010 regime that the Conservatives – who theoretically espouse a smaller state – took stronger central control of the curriculum, accountability targets and school organisation than New Labour ever did. And the Education and Adoption Bill with compulsory academisation of inadequate schools and centrally driven action on ‘coasting schools’ continues this trend.

However, this is where things get interesting. While the Education and Adoption Bill continues along the nationally determined state-centric path, the Cities and Devolution Bill could herald a change of direction – in due course. As I understand the legislation (and I am grateful to Steve Munby for alerting me to this) the Cities and Devolution Bill contains clauses that would allow the Secretary of State for Education to delegate the functions she currently delegates to Regional Schools Commissioners (i.e. tackling underperformance in academies, getting academy sponsors etc) to the new mayors of the combined authorities. There are conditions – the combined authorities would, for example, have to make the case that the powers would be better delivered via the mayor. But if it is appropriate for mayors to oversee the skills agenda is it so far-fetched for them to also have a role in education more generally? Doesn’t it make sense to relate the strategy for meeting a region’s skills needs to the development of young people throughout their school years?

So the Education and Adoption Bill could represent the zenith of England’s nationally driven education revolution. Could we see the mayor for Manchester asking, and in a few years being granted, the overall authority for school performance with that role being exercised through a Commissioner accountable to him or her rather than the Secretary of State. After all as the GLA, Scotland and Wales all illustrate a first delegation of powers is followed by a second and third phase of devolution.

And if Manchester and the other combined authorities in the north-west and the north are granted oversight of education then surely London, which already has an elected mayor, will want the powers as well.

Change will not happen quickly but perhaps, just perhaps, the Cities and Devolution Bill represents the first signs of a resurgence of a more localist and accountable approach towards schooling.



The next 5 years: five key opportunities for school leaders

There’s no question that school leaders will face tough challenges in the coming years. But there is also a major opportunity to reshape the school system. This blog, the second based on my London Centre for Leadership in Learning lecture on 19 May, should be read alongside the slides to be found here

The nature of the challenges is such that it is not possible for schools and their leaders to manage them alone. They will have to collaborate – whether that builds on what they are doing at the moment or takes them into new territory. Collaboration at both a local and system level provides school leaders with the opportunity to:

  • remodel how we train teachers – using the outcome from the work being led by Stephen Munday there is the chance to reimagine how initial teacher training is delivered. Instead of trying to cram everything into one year with variable development support thereafter, the new model would be structured over the existing first three years of a teacher’s career (their training year, NQT year and NQT +1 year). This would provide time to deliver the new core training content, which should include necessary subject and pedagogical knowledge, classroom skills and the acquisition and practice of research/learning impact skills. Although new teachers would, as now, be ‘employed’ at the end of year 1, their placements might continue over the three years and qualified teacher status would be awarded at the end of year 3. Universities and accredited school groups would work together to organise recruitment and training in each sub-region and routes into teaching would be rationalised.
  • redefine professional development – learning from the improving teacher style programmes, the growth of coaching and the action research focus of many teaching school alliances (TSAs) has shown the power and potential of combining formal learning with modelling, analysing and improving practice in the classroom. This needs to become the universal professional development template for the future. Teachers within and across schools would draw on what we know through insets, online research, reading groups and master classes, and would then work together to improve teaching in the classroom using lesson study, peer coaching, action research (involving pupils in many cases) and online forums. They would be constantly looking to assess the impact of their work together to establish new knowledge and improve outcomes. It is this approach that should form the core agenda for the College of Teaching to champion.
  • recast leadership of learning so that we explicitly acknowledge and encourage the role of school leaders in leading learning between schools and across the system as well as leading learning within their schools;
  • build a leadership pipeline using school groups as the basis for deploying school leaders to different leadership assignments as a way of accelerating their development – supported by leadership programmes run under the aegis of a sector-led Education Leadership Foundation;
  • use resources more productively. Partnerships and multi-academy trusts bring a huge potential for schools to improve their efficiency. They provide the basis for sharing posts and roles – particularly at leadership level and in specialist areas. Either through jointly delivering or procuring services they can use economies of scale to make savings in how HR, education welfare, grounds maintenance, catering, ICT and other services are provided. And groups of schools have the financial clout to employ high level financial and business management expertise to help them plan budgets and identify areas for savings.

So, the next five years offer exciting opportunities for collaboration to make a reality of school-led improvement across the system. However, if a collaborative approach is to deliver these outcomes then school leaders will need to adopt the habits and implement the disciplines of effective partnership. For example, school groups will need to understand scale and how to use small clusters led by executive leaders to realise the value that deep partnership can bring. They will need to link clusters to the resources, expertise and learning available through a TSA, federation and/or academy chain.

Effective collaboration involves hard accountability – structures and systems for holding each school to account for progress and performance and measures for assessing the impact of partnership activity. Governance of TSAs and academy trusts must be clearly structured and populated with able people who understand their role – whether that is at school or a wider partnership level – and who are supported in carrying it out. Achieving a balance between hierarchy and networking is another vital discipline; chains need to avoid erring on the side of hierarchy and TSAs need to make sure they do not just rely on networking.

The next five years could and should see a move towards all schools being part of a local school improvement cluster. Ideally there will be a diversity of structural models – no ‘one size fits all’. In some areas this approach is already well under way and in others it needs kick-starting or nurturing. School groups need to be steered and supported along a path to become mature and capable hubs of improvement. In due course all school improvement groups might be accredited.

Some will interpret a self-improving system as implying there is no need for local authorities or regional schools commissioners. That is naïve – and at variance with how things tend to work in high performing education systems. We need a means to ensure that there is a shared vision for improving education in each area, that every child has a school place, that the needs of vulnerable children are looked after, that no school gets left behind or left out of being part of a school improvement group, that schools are challenged to work together effectively, that weak or declining performance is quickly identified and corrected, that data and knowledge are moved across schools and that there is accountability to local communities.

In a self-improving system the issue is not the existence of some form of middle tier but creating the right culture to make it successful, by employing leaders with high-level people skills to key positions and working with and using school leaders to help carry out its roles. And it should be one system for all schools in an area – not one for academies and one for maintained schools.

So individual schools would be part of a local cluster, that in turn was part of a TSA or multi-academy trust, that in turn was part of a sub-regional system for recruiting and training teachers and developing leaders. This approach could yield a rich harvest: more even rates of improvement, a sustainable model of school leadership and improvement, a better equipped and developed workforce, a rebalancing of the inspection system so that it focused more on development and less on grading and school leaders playing a major role in shaping and running the education system.

Are schools leaders confident enough to drive this agenda? Or will they wait to be told what to do?

Are school leaders sufficiently committed to working with each other to improve the system? Or will they, along with the leaders of multi-academy trusts, retreat into competing baronies as financial constraints bite and they vie for pupils and teachers?