GREATNESS EVERYWHERE !
This Academy-White-Paper is obsessed with greatness. The words “great leaders”, “great teachers”, “great education”, “great outcomes”, “great results”, “great practice”, and “great sponsors” are splattered across the 124 pages. It is not clear what is meant by a “great leader”, but the Government thinks it knows for it is determined to find them and put them in charge of schools.
In a nutshell the Government intends to make every school an academy, most of them in multi-academy trusts (MATs), where the children will be taught by “great teachers”, in “great schools” with “great leaders” and “great governing bodies” that are supervised by “great MATs”.
END OF LOCAL AUTHORITY RESPONSIBILITIES
The responsibility of local authorities for schools, exercised since 1902, is to be taken from them and handed to what one critic estimates as 1,000 trusts each with around 10 academies. A writer in the Conversation notes “Local authorities provide many services to schools, from the vetting of contract and human resources management, to payroll services and delivering expertise in commissioning, tendering and procurement. They also provide many support services from school transport and peripatetic music teachers, to anti-bullying advice and educational psychology services.” Is every trust to replicate these services? A despairing letter in the Financial Times says “the empirical evidence to date provides no support for the idea that academy trusts are any better at improving schools than local authorities (and may indeed be much worse)” and goes on to note that there is “growing evidence that Ofsted believes some academy chains are not competent or trustworthy providers”. A similar letter in the Guardian says “The policy appears to be based on a combination of ideological zeal and extraordinary organisational naivety”. Others refer to “chaotic upheaval” and “breathtaking stupidity”.
There is much else in this paper that is worrying (including reducing teacher training in universities) but trivial compared to the government obsession with setting up academies. I’ve counted 87 items of Government intent, all starting with the phrase “We will …” Whether the Department for Education has the resources to effect all 87 of these in addition to turning more than 10,000 schools into academies is not clear.
The only thing great about this paper is its length.
GOVERNMENT VISION OF EDUCATION
The paper starts with the government’s three-fold vision of what education is about:
· “the engine of social justice”,
· “the engine of economic growth”, and
· “the foundation of our culture” (paragraph 1.3).
It is clear that the second of these is the main concern. Thus:
· “Education is … the best investment we can make in the future of our country.” (1.3)
· “Our education system must compete with those around the world” (1.3)
· “Other education systems – from Shanghai and Singapore to Poland and Germany – are improving even faster than we are.” (1.7)
OH DEAR! SUCH A LIMITED VISION
What a pity that the Government didn’t wait for the just published evidence to the Select Committee on Education into the purpose of education where there are 165 submissions, many of which support (in various ways) the twelve “aims of education” as identified in the Cambridge Primary Review and expressed by Prof Robin Alexander as promoting “well-being; engagement; empowerment; autonomy; encouraging respect and reciprocity; promoting interdependence and sustainability; empowering local, national and global citizenship; celebrating culture and community; exploring, knowing, understanding and making sense; fostering skill; exciting the imagination; and enacting dialogue.”
GOVERNMENT PLAN FOR EXCELLENCE
How does the Government propose “to achieve educational excellence everywhere”?
· “putting the best leaders at the heart of the school system, with the support to thrive:”
· “recruiting and developing great teachers wherever they are needed;”
· “setting high expectations for all – supported by fair, stretching accountability measures;” and
· “enabling pupils, parents, and communities to demand more from their schools.” (1.13)
The paper says that “the fastest and most sustainable way” of achieving this is:
· “to trust this country’s most effective education leaders, giving them freedom and power”. (1.14)
· “good, enthusiastic leaders should be able to use their creativity, innovation, professional expertise and up-to-date evidence to drive up standards” (1.18)
The first hint of how this “freedom and power” will be given to the “most effective leaders” is in paragraph 1.20:
· “For too long, local authorities were unchallenged in their provision of state-funded schools … Academies offer an alternative – breaking the monopoly, and allowing the best schools and leaders to extend their influence, taking over from weaker ones.”
"GREAT" LEADERS - BUT WHO SETS THE VISION?
There are many references to “great leaders” – I’ve counted 27 in this paper but haven’t found a description of what this entails. But we are told how they will be supported.
· “Building the infrastructure to support great leaders: the growth of multi-academy trusts (MATs) expands the reach and influence of the most successful leaders so more children can benefit from their expertise, and offers many more senior roles and rapid progression opportunities, ensuring the best leaders can play new, more influential roles across more schools.” (1.37a)
These “great leaders” however are to be restricted in their “freedoms” for their governing bodies will set the “vision” for the school as well as holding them to account.
· “Governing boards need to be skills-based and focused on the strategic functions of setting a vision and holding school leaders to account for the educational and financial performance of their schools.” (1.38)
EVERY SCHOOL AN ACADEMY BY 2020
By page 15 it is clear that every school is to become an academy.
· “Spreading excellent practice and ending the two-tier system. … This white paper sets out how, by the end of 2020, all remaining maintained schools will be academies or in the process of conversion.” (1.41)
Apparently there will be an advantage in MATs having schools spread around the country.
· “When every school is an academy, groups of schools will be able to span geographic boundaries, with the best MATs expanding to run schools in our toughest areas in a way that no high-performing local authority ever could. This provides real accountability, competitive pressure and choice – improving performance, enabling innovation and scaling success.” (1.4).
Academies, it is claimed, have driven improvement – but no clear evidence of this is cited!
· Over the last five years, the academies and free schools programmes have freed thousands of headteachers and leaders to drive improvement in their own schools and across the system. (4.1)
It is not clear from what they have been freed other than the obligation to follow the National Curriculum.
How should we know that becoming an academy improves the education provided? Because the Government tells us:
· “A system in which all state-funded schools are academies will deliver better results for children through:
· Empowering great teachers and leaders–autonomy and accountability will better position people to succeed and provide more effective leadership structures
· Better responding to changes in performance–the system will prioritise responsiveness and clear accountability over an arbitrary requirement for all schools in a local area to be run by the same entity, regardless of its effectiveness
· Sustainability – schools will operate in more sustainable groups, and we will end the dual system of running schools which is inefficient and unsustainable in the long term” (4.6)
On page 20 is a first and brief reference to character building in school.
· “Character and resilience: education should prepare children for adult life, giving them the skills and character traits needed to succeed academically, have a fulfilling career, and make a positive contribution to British society.” (1.55c)
This is elaborated in Chapter Six:
· “A 21st century education should prepare children for adult life by instilling the character traits and fundamental British values that will help them succeed: being resilient and knowing how to persevere, how to bounce back if faced with failure, and how to collaborate with others at work and in their private lives.” (6.33)
· “These traits not only open doors to employment and social opportunities but underpin academic success, happiness and wellbeing. The country’s leading state and independent schools already demonstrate a concerted focus on instilling these kinds of character traits throughout school life. Although we want that for all children, there are many different methods and the government has no intention of mandating a particular approach.” (6.34)
But what a revealing statement of government ignorance: “Education should prepare children for adult life …” What does our Government think schools have been doing over the centuries? What about the personal qualities that are fostered during the years of schooling based on individual happiness, love, family, community, and pursuit of the good life? These get just three words, in paragraph 6.34, “happiness and wellbeing”. And as every teacher knows, schools do not “instill” these: they foster them.
CHANGE DRIVEN BY IDEOLOGY NOT EVIDENCE
Undoubtedly there is common ground between Government, teachers, parents and the wider community that education matters and that children should get good schooling. But the authors of this White Paper show a frightening level of ignorance about what good schooling is and how it is achieved. They are driven by ideology, not by reason. The contention that academy trusts will provide better schooling than local authorities is not substantiated by evidence.
THIS IS NOT A GREAT PAPER - IT SHOULD BE WITHDRAWN
An online petition “Scrap plans to force state schools to become academies” has attracted over the 100,000 signatures which should prompt a debate in Parliament. Our MPs should recognize that irrespective of their party loyalties, this White Paper deserves their ridicule. For the sake of our children, grandchildren and beyond, academisation must be stopped now.
This essay was posted on School Improvement Network on 23 March 2016 and here next day