There’s much to be welcomed in the government’s new schools white paper. At the structural level, efforts to rationalise and professionalise governance continue; there are measures to support the growth of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) and make them more accountable at trust level, and to incentivise deployment of the best leaders into more challenging contexts.
Further reforms to initial teacher training will increase the proportion taking place in schools, with greater emphasis on subject knowledge and evidence of what works in teaching and learning. There’s a long-overdue proposal to support this emphasis on outcomes by discontinuing the Ofsted practice of grading the quality of teaching separately. There are also welcome moves to make information about the schools system, and school quality, more accessible, enabling parents to demand more from their schools. The government appears sincere in its commitment to building a system that is both school-led and properly supported – at least in terms of being better networked, informed, and incentivised, if not amply resourced.
Whether or not the reforms succeed ultimately comes down to how successfully the system identifies governance and leadership capability, releasing schools’ capacity for growth. This remains the case, despite the government’s pulling back from full system academisation by 2022. The revised plan is to give Regional School Commissioners (RSCs) authority to require conversion of all schools in an area if a council is underperforming or if it is no longer financially viable for it to run schools.
The government will be stretched to bring about this level of structural change on several fronts.
First, and most obviously, the resources of the eight RSC offices responsible for orchestrating the changes are clearly inadequate. A product of what Education Committee Chair Neil Carmichael referred to as an ‘act first, think later’ approach to structural reform, the extent of the brief is not yet clear, so who should do what and how is still being figured out. Meanwhile, estimates of the number of ‘coasting schools’ prioritised by the Education and Adoption Act 2016 vary widely. Many primaries do not seem to be up to the challenges of the new primary curriculum. Delivery to standard will be still more so for these in the context of funding cuts, mounting pension costs, rising pupils numbers, and challenges in teacher recruitment. Securing improvement among these coasting schools, alongside those deemed to be ‘requiring improvement’ or ‘inadequate’, is only likely to get tougher.
Second, there just aren’t enough Academy Sponsors: there weren’t in the early years of the programme; there never has been since to keep pace with the programme’s expansion. Almost all sponsor applications are successful (96.4%), so it’s not like the DfE are turning them away. Indeed, it’s been reported that sponsors have often been pressured into taking on more schools against their better judgement, only to be chastened by regulators for ‘growing too quickly’, compromising school improvement. Part of the problem has been the lack of clarity and variety of expectations of sponsors, which is why the commitment to developing proper performance measures for MATs is so welcome. In the meantime, the lack of joined-up thinking about the expected degree and timetable of improvement has led to an absurd situation whereby on latest estimations (November 2015), the number of MATs that have been ‘paused’ by the DfE includes 17 of the largest 20 chains.
Independent analysis of sponsor capacity by the NFER last September found less than 30% were strongly positioned for growth, with the regions in greatest need having the least capacity to address this need. Growing capacity looked like a serious challenge when ‘coasting schools’ were the target, but taking all schools at a stroke from an underperforming or unviable local authority (LA) is another proposition entirely. While the white paper evidences where the shortages are likely to hit hardest, and pledges resources and support to help MATs grow sustainably, it’s hard not to feel there’s a degree of wishful thinking going on here.
There are also real challenges at the governance level. The difficulty many schools have had with recruiting appropriately qualified governors, which is particularly acute in some rural, coastal, and deprived areas, is well known. Nationally, one in 10 posts remains unfilled, despite the Herculean efforts of SGOSS and a range of other agencies. The white paper’s emphasis on skills-based governance, and the government’s decision to lift the requirement to reserve places for elected parents, will entail a significant overhaul of the way some boards are composed. Though MAT growth is expected to concentrate governance at the trust level, certain functions will continue to be delegated by many to regional and local school level. This, together with the pledge of a new competency framework for governance in different contexts implies not less accountability, but rather a refinement of different governance functions.
Within the context of greater autonomy, professionalisation is important, but can never be a substitute for educational leadership – perhaps the most serious deficit facing schools at present.
Ministers expect that academisation will largely be about local schools forming MATs, but it’s widely believed that there is only a ‘shallow pool’ of leaders that are up to providing effective support. They’re declining in number too: a report by Policy Exchange last year found 21% of all primary heads are within five years of retirement age, and there are not enough suitable candidates to replace them. Chain rationalisation of leadership and management responsibilities will certainly help to address this by capitalising the premium attached to the most capable leaders, but this is only possible in clusters of a certain size.
These are formidable challenges. The government has not made its pathway to reform any easier: having made such a poor argument in forcing schools to convert. It has seriously undermined its authority to make the kind of judgements that intervening to shut down ineffective LA schools will require its RSCs to take.