A new DfE white paper? Let’s hope it solves the academy mess, writes Matt Hood

 

Tony Blair came to power in 1997 on a promise of standards and not structures. Ten years’ experience of transforming the public realm changed his mind. He left office reflecting that when it comes to raising standards it turns out structures do matter. Or, in policy wonk speak, ‘how a service is configured affects outcomes.’

And he’s right.

In 2010 I was a civil servant in the Department for Education working on the last white paper. I was tasked with thinking through the role of local authorities within this new diverse education landscape where free schools, sponsored academies, converter academies and local authority schools all co-existed alongside each other. It’s fair to say that, despite my best efforts, I failed miserably in that task.

The result of leaving that question, and many more like it unanswered has been an unhelpful dose of confusion for everyone. We have a system where Local Authorities, Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), Ofsted, Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs), DfE brokers, and schools are not only unclear about the details of their own job description, they are also unclear about the job descriptions of everybody else. Back to policy wonk speak – this poor configuration affects outcomes as precious time and energy is spent running sub-optimal parallel systems.

I’m counting on my successor to do a better job than me for the 2022 plan

If like me, you’re in the process of converting your own school into an academy you’ll know that the act itself isn’t going to improve outcomes for your kids. But would running one, coherent system across all schools help to raise standards for the system? I certainly think could help.

If that’s to be the case I’m counting on my successor to do a better job than me when it comes to the 2022 plan. I’d like to see Ofsted as inspectorate and not political commentator; RSCs focused on MAT capacity and a transparent process for moving schools between chains; the best local authority teams heading out to start their own MATs; and councillors carving out a new role in admissions and advocating for parents. One system, with clear roles, helping us to get on with the task of ensuring that all children get an excellent education.

And just think! We might even be able to go back to calling schools, schools again.