Education white paper’s ‘policy fantasies’ don’t address the real issues facing schools

The 2016 White Paper finishes the messy reforms began in 2010 to create a fully school-led system.  I announced this to my teacher-friend over dinner last night. She hadn’t a clue what I was talking about.

In 2010, a McKinsey report on the ‘best education systems in the world’ shaped policy wisdom on how to turn a system from ‘good to great’. The doctrine said governments could only ‘mandate adequacy’, they couldn’t make schools ‘great’ – that had to come through more school autonomy over pedagogy. Great schools would focus on the process of learning; using coaching, reflection and collaborative CPD to self-improve. To prevent variation in outcomes, schools would share responsibility for one another and this self-improvement could spread.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the situation didn’t look exactly like this. Pretence at giving professional autonomy (through, say, free-schools) had been counterbalanced by a highly detailed curriculum; new, harder tests; and more prescriptive performance measures. The DfE was prescribing what was taught and, it seems, who would be funded for extra freedom.

There was autonomy from government though – local government. Over the parliament, academy numbers shot from 203 to 4722. Each one took funding and power from their local authority. By 2015, some schools were in local Teaching School Alliances (TSAs) or Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) – a replacement framework for collaboration. Many were floating alone on the seas of change. Others still existed in a half-world of local collaboration, bailing the water from their LA dinghy, while water gushed through the funding holes.

The new white paper has put them all in the same proverbial boat. By 2020, every school will be an academy, most will be in MATs, LA’s duties will largely disappear. An extra 300 TSAs will be created for national coverage (at the moment TSAs don’t operate in areas with the most struggling schools). So the school-led self-improving system is ready?  Well, not quite.

I’ve written before about why I think the self-improving school is a fantasy – in the current high-stakes, low-capacity context teachers don’t have time to learn, the majority are simply trying to stay afloat. This is the case for schools too, and hence the school-led system. TSAs and lead schools in MATs haven’t got time to focus on the process of learning; trial teaching interventions see some succeed and others fail and turn this into ‘evidence-based’ practice. They’re trying to cope with curriculum reform, a recruitment crisis and justifying the meagre money they’ve managed to get from government to create some services to sell.  Their ‘customers’ are short of time too –they want quick-fixes which will stay the hand of Ofsted in giving their leaders the chop.

The self-improving system was one where schools could focus on learning. But in the school-led system, that’s the last thing on their mind. Schools are expected to lead teacher training, leadership development, school improvement, research and system innovation – and teach a few children in their spare time. How this will affect their long-term health? Weaker schools splashing the cash on sticking plaster services, while stronger schools lease out their best teachers to other schools – their own staff losing PPA time (and sanity) covering lessons for kids who won’t sit exams this year (kick that can down the road).

You can’t get something for nothing and the frontline is where we see the price of education austerity – in workload, teaching quality and teacher retention.  These are the issues my friend has heard about. But they’re not being addressed by the white paper – its policy fantasies are just making them worse.

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  1. Excellent analysis. The fragmentation of education is sad to see. Funding changes bring more worries. The rise in academies will mean less transparency, as MATS redistribute resources and a national formula won’t reflect local needs. DfE will control how much LAs get for services that Schools Forums have previously given money for, so the LA could run them. Everything will have to be traded, wasting time in everyone operating systems to charge each other.

    LA duties won’t all disappear – they will be left with the difficult bits, trying to ensure vulnerable learners get the right provision, without the levers to achieve that, while relying on DfE to fund increases in SEND demand, which hasn’t happened so far.

  2. wasateacher

    And this ignores the financial incompetence. Just today the Eastern Daily Press is reporting on a school which is £500k in debt after just a few months of becoming an academy. Yes, there seems to have been quite a lot of autonomy to ‘mismanage’ the accounts of quite a few individual academies: the number of academy trusts given financial notices to improve is increasing. The huge number of converter academies which seem to have used their ‘freedom’ to go downhill according to Ofsted – those schools which were rated good or outstanding and are now requiring improvement or, even, inadequate. Then there is the money wasted on transferring an academy from one failing trust to another. Add to this the information that the Department for Education is unclear about who actually owns much of the land which is now occupied by academies, land which almost certainly was in public ownership.

    This is the chaos which the Government wants to extend, presumably so that more of their friends can make a financial killing.