April 2019 edition: A System View

A System View

Recently we passed a major milestone in the history of English education which, given everything else going on, received relatively little attention. More than 50% of pupils in England now attend an academy: schools regulated by the state but not run by the state. We’re not the first state where this is true, the Netherlands has had a highly autonomous system for many decades, but it certainly makes us extremely unusual in global education.

What’s also unusual is the speed with which it has happened. Less than a decade ago there were just 200 academies, and they were seen by Labour as special exceptions for urban secondary schools where nothing else had worked, rather than a system solution. The speed with which schools responded to the Gove reforms, offering the opportunity to opt-in to academy status, took even those of us who were working in Government by surprise.

In retrospect, the initial financial benefits to becoming an academy played a big role in this but it also reflected the pretty limited value secondary schools in particular saw in their relationship with local authorities. Primaries, who have historically valued this relationship more, were less likely to jump despite the financial benefits. This should act as a warning to anyone who thinks going back to previous models is the way forward, especially as local authorities have significantly less capacity than they did pre-2010.

What we should do now is a harder question. The unexpected speed of the reform programme has caused plenty of problems. Too many MATs were allowed to grow at unsustainable speeds and without evidence that they could scale effectively. A "middle tier” of Regional School’s Commissioners had to be developed hastily and without clear agreement on their purpose. Some key system questions, like the long term role of local authorities, were left unanswered. While the DfE have got some of the initial issues under control now, the lack of political airspace for anything other than Brexit since the referendum has left the reform programme without direction and with many of these questions still unanswered.

At the same time we’ve seen that the core logic of the academies programme holds. With the right MAT leadership in charge, it has been possible to take a group of schools and scale curricula and pedagogical approaches across them. It’s also possible to use that scale to train teachers and leaders more effectively and give them more career progression opportunities. Some MATs, including those serving the poorest parts of the country, have totally transformed their schools and given us a new bar for what’s possible. And all of this in spite of dealing with the harshest education funding environment in twenty years.

If we’re to get this happening more consistently across the country though, we need the Government to re-engage and work with the sector to develop a "second stage” reform plan. For a start we need to go back to the principle set out in the unloved 2016 White Paper that all schools should eventually be required to be part of a MAT, albeit on a longer timetable. There should be two quid pro quos that were missing from that White Paper. Firstly, there needs to be a clear role for local authorities as champions for their young people. They need to have stronger powers over admissions, SEN and exclusions so they can fulfil their duties and prevent some of the bad behaviour we’ve seen from a small number of MATs. Secondly, we should consider an arbitration mechanism so that individual schools can leave MATs if they can prove it would be in pupils’ interests to do so.

Alongside this the Government need to invest in MAT sustainability. Rather than allocating endless tiny pots of money for various central initiatives, they should pool this into a MAT development fund that’s used to support the sustainable growth of promising MATs. This should be administered by an independent organisation to avoid the Government simply giving money to their favourites.

The speed with which schools responded to the Gove reforms, offering the opportunity to opt-in to academy status, took even those of us who were working in Government by surprise.

Sam Freedman

Finally regulation of MATs should continue to be streamlined. Regional School Commissioners should be responsible only for brokering and intervening where there are governance concerns about a MAT. They should play no role at all in overseeing the educational offer which is regulated by Ofsted. Now that the new curriculum and exam system are in place, Government should pledge not to make any further changes so that MATs can focus on improvement. And, of course, the Treasury should prioritise schools and colleges in the upcoming spending review to ensure all schools have the resources to provide a good quality education.

With the right plan in place we can build on the core idea of the academy system – well-led MATs that support groups of schools to improve – while fixing some of the problems that have arisen through over-hasty implementation.

This article has been written by Sam in a personal capacity.