Update: 6 May 2016
21 April 2016
Educational excellence everywhere?
By General Secretary Deborah Lawson
The Government’s White Paper Educational excellence everywhere is a blueprint for education for the next five years.
It outlines a radical vision, including:
- teacher recruitment and retention;
- growing school leaders;
- further reduction of local authority responsibility;
- a national funding formula; and
- all state-funded schools to become academies, or have an academy order, by 2020.
The paper sets a clear direction and pace of change. What it does not include is detail, and the devil, as we know, is always in the detail. Too much detail would inhibit contribution by the profession to the development of that detail. However, in this form, without any previous consultation with the profession or the unions, the paper provides just enough information to cause widespread alarm and contention that distracts from any more favorable elements it may contain.
It is clear from the reactions of the profession, national and local politicians on both sides of the political divide, academics and other stakeholders, that alarm bells are ringing loud and clear; alarm bells the Government would do well to listen to, carefully.
Change is controversial, and the proposed changes are controversial. The most contentious is the universal academisation of all state schools.
The Government has long held the ambition for all schools to become academies, but until now there has been some element of choice, unless a school was failing or required improvement.
The White Paper moves the academy programme to a final phase, one that is galvanising the profession to oppose it, especially when, as the Commons Education Committee found, there is no clear evidence to show that academies raise standards overall. The Committee had urged the DfE to be ‘less defensive and more open about its implementation programme, and review the lessons of the rapid conversion of secondary schools to inform future expansion’.
The Government, however, seems to be preoccupied with systems and structures in its race to achieve a higher PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) ranking. This preoccupation distracts from what really matters – the content of education – and demonstrates that Ministers have paid little attention to the Committee and haven’t considered the resource implications for local authority schools – especially small primary schools – that are good or outstanding , of being forced to become an academy for little, if any, discernable benefit.
There is some good news. ‘Educational excellence everywhere’ is an admirable aspiration and one to be supported.
Chapter 2: ‘Great teachers – everywhere they’re needed’ looks at recruitment and retention. It is a mixed bag of proposals.
There is recognition of the cost incurred recruiting teachers, with a promise of teacher vacancy website.
Reform of initial teacher training content and delivery has promise, but does not address the very real issue of recruitment and retention of teachers being experienced now.
More contentious is the replacement of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) with a supposedly stronger, more challenging accreditation based on a teacher’s effectiveness. The aim is to raise the quality and status of the teaching profession. In the short term, this could be counter-productive, putting off prospective teachers until there is clarity on what is to be expected of teachers in the future.
Standards for CPD are being developed, but the question remains about resourcing and how much and how frequently.
Chapter 3: ‘Great leaders running our schools and at the heart of our system’ proposes an ‘improvement period’, or Ofsted ‘holiday’, to encourage heads to take on challenging schools.
This has potential to prevent the ‘helicopter head’ or ‘football manager’ approach and recognises not only that it takes time to turn a struggling school around, but that failure to deliver a turnaround in a very limited time does not encourage teachers into leadership roles or benefit pupils.
This, along with the National Teaching Service and the launch of the Excellence in Leadership Fund, indicates some improvement for heads, which will be required if there are to be sufficient effective leaders accountable for a self-improving system.
Chapter 4: ‘A school-led system’
Here we find the most contentious issues, including building capacity of academy sponsors and multi-academy trusts (MATs), ‘coasting’ schools, the position of local authorities and, of course, that all schools will become an academy.
Chapter 5: ‘Preventing underperformance… school-led improvement ‘
This moves responsibility for school improvement from local authorities to school system leaders, giving ‘choice’ to schools to support ongoing improvement based on sound evidence.
Chapter 6: ‘High expectations and a world-leading curriculum for all’
More contention here around primary assessment and the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) but with the promise of more support to teachers to deliver a stretching curriculum and reform of the alternative provision (AP) system so that mainstream schools remain accountable for the education of pupils in AP.
Chapter 7: ‘Fair, stretching accountability, ambitious for every child’
This looks to embed reforms which focus on progress of pupils, with Ofsted to focus on underperformance and consult on removing graded judgements on quality of teaching, learning and assessment ‘to help clarify that the focus of inspection is on outcomes and to reduce burdens on schools and teachers’.
Balance of power
As I have said, the positive aspects are overshadowed by the far-reaching implications of compulsory academisation. In the worst case scenario, this could be the final death knell for national pay and conditions and the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD).
The Secretary of State claims to want to break schools ‘free’ from the shackles of bureaucracy, to raise standards, but in doing so appears to have little regard for local democracy or accountability.
One should not take precedence over the other, but a balance could, and should, be achieved. The demise of local authorities and the rise of Regional Schools Commissioners moves responsibility to the latter; the difference being that RSCs are not democratically accountable to their communities and, given the size of the areas they cover, that would an impossible task. This calls into question the capacity of RSCs to take on a role that previously some local authorities, with all their resources, struggled with.
Forcing all schools to become academies is not the silver bullet which will deliver the outcomes the Government is seeking, especially in such a short space of time.
There is only one group who can do that – education professionals – teachers, school leaders and the wider education team. After many years of being ‘done to’, the profession is tired and weary of yet more change, especially change which ignores their repeated entreaties to government to listen to them.
Voice has long been against the rapid academisation of schools and although we welcome the Government’s vision for educational excellence everywhere, we are unable to support the compulsory conversion of all schools into academies, given the lack of evidence available to demonstrate the worth of such a programme.*