When I started blogging almost exactly seven years ago, I did it as a commitment to reflection and self improvement. The idea was that there would be a twofold benefit:
- By writing down my ideas and opinions, I would be forced to think a little harder and more formally about them
- By publishing them openly and accepting and adapting them in light of criticism and challenge, the ideas get better
If I am honest, as I promised to be in my first blog, I have had lots of benefit from the first point but less from the second. This is mainly because I have never really been challenged. I suspect that this is not because people agree with me but simply because nobody knows I am here. The internet is a big place…
However, it is entirely in this spirit that I write today's piece as I genuinely don’t know if this is right and I am feeling for something.
The new Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds has today published an advance copy of his vision for education which is interesting. It is more interesting that the NAHT appears to be endorsing elements of that vision.
To stop myself from letting any of my own prejudice or cynicism leak into this too early I will repeat his key message verbatim from the DfE press release:
“Accountability is vital. Children only get one shot at an education and we owe them the best…where they are being let down we need to take action quickly – so no one ends up left behind. But what I’ve found from speaking to many of you these last few months is that there is also real confusion within the sector… I believe school leaders need complete clarity on how the accountability system will operate. I’m clear that Ofsted is the body that can provide an independent, rounded judgement of a school’s performance. This means we will not be forcibly turning schools into academies unless Ofsted has judged it to be Inadequate. I believe strongly that becoming an academy can bring enormous benefits to schools. Hundreds of schools every year voluntarily choose to become academies and I want this to be a positive choice for more and more schools as we move forward. We must also have a system that does more than just deal with failure… But we will do so in the right way, and there will be a single, transparent data trigger for schools to be offered support – which we will consult on. I intend this to replace the current confusing system of having both below the floor and coasting standards for performance… I have a clear message to schools and their leaders: I trust you to get on with the job.”
Now to the exploratory bit. What does this really mean for the education sector? And in order to be a fair as possible I’ll look at each statement in turn.
“Accountability is vital. Children only get one shot at an education and we owe them the best…where they are being let down we need to take action quickly – so no one ends up left behind.”
I won’t dwell on this bit as, oddly, I blogged about the problems with ‘accountability’ as a buzzword in complex spaces very recently. It sounds good, everyone instinctively agrees but it lets you off the hook of actually understanding the most difficult problems as you can simply find a scapegoat for failure, not solve the problem and save money too.
“But what I’ve found from speaking to many of you these last few months is that there is also real confusion within the sector… I believe school leaders need complete clarity on how the accountability system will operate.”
Very true. Lack of clarity is the only defence a scapegoat can provide to prevent their own sacrifice. If you tell me to do three mutually contradictory things, you can’t really hold me to account for any of them. School and MAT leaders are under no illusions that they are accountable but the problem is to whom (OfSTED, ESFA, RSCs, LAs, Governors, MATs, EAs, Charities Commission, NAO,HMRC, PAC…?) and for what (KS2 and KS4 attainment, Good or better judgements, above floor, above coasting, compliant to AFH,
“I’m clear that Ofsted is the body that can provide an independent, rounded judgement of a school’s performance.”
Ofsted is definitely the most capable body to judge schools’ performance in the round (although it still has much to learn about MATs, their governance and other constraints of being governed by both company and charity law). But the interesting thing about this statement is that it seems to hint to a massive reduction in the role of National and Regional Schools Commissioners. The current situation is that Ofsted judgements are only one of the many inputs to RSCs who then decide with their Head Teacher Boards (HTBs) under authority delegated to them from the SOS whether a school should be forced to become an academy or be re-brokered from one MAT to another.
“I believe strongly that becoming an academy can bring enormous benefits to schools. Hundreds of schools every year voluntarily choose to become academies and I want this to be a positive choice for more and more schools as we move forward.”
Well he can hardly say that the academies programme and everything that has come with it doesn’t yet appear to have achieved much. But this is a massive change for the clear government policy of 18 months ago that all schools would become academies. Why? Simply, because I suspect government has finally worked out what it should have known 10 years ago that massive structural change costs more, takes longer and delivers less than most people think. They now know that they simply do not have enough money or political will to make all schools academies. Nor the money to roll the programme back.
Of the roughly 12.5k primary schools in England that are not academies, 9.5k have fewer than 400 pupils (so effectively non-viable over the long term) and almost 7k have fewer than 250 pupils so completely at the mercy of fortune.
"We must also have a system that does more than just deal with failure… But we will do so in the right way, and there will be a single, transparent data trigger for schools to be offered support – which we will consult on."The response to the speech from the NAHT General Secretary (which has obviously been pre-approved by the DfE) gives more light to this line.
This appears to suggest that if a school falls into category 4, currently labelled, "Inadequate" but possibly about to be renamed, "requiring support" or "requiring intervention" then it will be forced to become an academy. Much reduced in scope and authority Regional Schools Commissioners will be required to make this happen. Less system leaders and much more Public Executioners. And the National Schools Commissioner has already signalled that he is leaving at the end of this term, which might be because he has seen this coming.
"I have a clear message to schools and their leaders: I trust you to get on with the job.”This appears to shift the whole system away one which labelled itself as aiming to improve outcomes for all children to one which says very clearly to all schools, "There is the line. Stay above it and you will be masters of your own destiny."
This looks like good politics as it reframes the debate with targets that are likely to be hit in the short term. But I am completely unsure as to whether it will be good for the system as it looks like kicking a lot of risk down the road for someone else to worry about.
It clearly signals smaller, simpler government, which is a political choice. It may also signal an end to creeping, contradictory bureaucracy. Putting things in boxes and arguing about the labels rather than looking to improve the whole, which is a good thing.
Assuming that the new line is drawn somewhere above a current Ofsted Inadequate judgement and somewhere below national floor standards; probably bisecting schools judged as coasting, what does that mean for schools that are struggling ? You won't really get any help until you've properly crashed... Or we set the rules of the road, it's your job to drive the car.
I am interested in why the NAHT has endorsed this as I suspect that it has only looked at the short-term impact on its members, which is less chaos, confusion and stress. Rather than the long-term where it may have marched its members to the scaffold.
When I designed the business model for the Elliot Foundation with my co-founders in the winter of 2011 we considered three issues:
1. How much does is cost to keep the plates spinning? What are the business as usual costs for keeping a normal distribution of schools safe, solvent, structurally sound, legally compliant and educationally improving?
2. How much does it cost and how long does it take to turnaround a school that is seriously struggling?
3. What tolerance is there in the ratio between schools that are broadly good and in need of significant support before the system fails?
The biggest challenge was that if you don't get enough to keep the plates spinning then everything fails. Only time will tell if this new direction is an end to unnecessary, expensive and fruitless intervention or the abandonment of a generation of children on a lonely Spartan hillside.
 I am completely aware that Ofsted judgements and floor and coasting standards are not on the same continuum but for the sake of simplicity let's assume that they are as the approach is to have a single measure