Five areas need to be given priority if schools-led system is to become a reality
English schools have a large measure of autonomy compared with many other countries. But this is qualified by some of the most important determinants of what happens in schools sitting with the Department for Education. The control of the curriculum, qualifications, accountability and inspection means that while in some ways schools have considerably more freedom than they did 30 years ago, it may not feel that way.
I was acutely conscious of this as a minister. One seemingly modest decision made on the basis of a 10-page submission on school accountability could send secondary schools scuttling to alter their curriculum and communicating with parents and pupils on subject choices. And, until recently, oversight of thousands of academy schools was concentrated in a building in Westminster, and was most definitely not school-led.
Self-improving school systems do not make themselves
We still rely heavily on a voluntary and sometimes rather amateur governance model, where there must be a real question over whether quality is high enough to entrust improvement and challenge to the school, without outside oversight and challenge.
Ofsted is an independent and necessary external inspection service, but it is one that may risk driving schools to large volumes of compliance-type activities, which run the risk of quashing innovation and originality. And we have Ofsted moving cautiously into what can look like school improvement work – which brings significant risks and is not always consistent with a school-led model of improvement.
Our school funding model and our inspection system heavily incentivise schools to focus on their own quality and interests, rather than working with other schools to drive system-wide improvements in leadership.
Finally, in breaking down the power of local authorities, promoting the spread of academy schools, and reducing the influence of organisations such as the National College, we are in danger of boosting autonomy while creating not a self-improving school system but a collection of 24,000 largely independent and self-focused schools, without the necessary glue to hold them together and to drive progress.
So, what do we need to do if the schools-led system is to become a reality, rather than departmental rhetoric?
First, the country would benefit from reviewing the role of central government and local government in education. It is right that ministers have influence over a core national curriculum and an accountability framework, but they should avoid excessive interference over what periods of history or particular works of literature are studied, and avoid a pace of change that risks errors and is inefficient for students and schools.
Second, we need to continue reflecting on Ofsted and how to deliver good external inspection. I would certainly not remove the inspectorate function, and I would be reticent even to remove the outstanding grade – a move championed by some. We do want to recognise those schools that do better than “good”, and I think there are limits on our ability to rely on data alone. But Ofsted must not lead to a narrow focus by schools on compliance issues rather than inspiring and challenging teaching.
Next, government must understand that self-improving school systems do not just make themselves. Remove central and local government roles and you create space rather than guaranteeing change.
Fourth, what national or regional institutions are needed to make a school-led system work, and how can we ensure they will be high quality and not merely some lowest common denominator? Who will train and even help deploy the next generation of school leadership? Can this be left to 24,000 autonomous schools?
Finally, what protections must be put in place to ensure a school-led system does not become an excuse for a cosy and unchallenging consensus, which in some areas amounts to a conspiracy against the interests of parents and pupils?
David Laws was schools minister from 2012-2015. He is now executive chairman of the CentreForum Education think-tank .
This is an extract from the book ‘Self-Improving Schools: The Journey to Excellence’, published by John Catt Educational