Never look where their hands are pointing. A childhood obsessed with magicians teaches you that, but it’s also true for politicians. Never look where their hands are pointing: it’s always a distraction.
With that in mind the Schools Week team pored over the 128-page education white paper unveiled last Thursday pulling out every possible policy.
The most spectacular was the plan to force all schools to become academies by 2022. It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who once said ‘All men are born free but everywhere are in chains’ but Nicky Morgan will be the education secretary remembered for promising schools freedom, but only if they sign up with an academy chain.
The irony of this is lost on no one. But remember: never look where the hands are pointing. There’s more to this than meets the eye.
Forced academy sanctions won’t apply until at least 2020, possibly 2022. Why wait so long? Could it be there isn’t actually a plan to legislate for the change but merely a hope everyone will jump?
Likewise, the lines in the white paper about increasing the “rigour” of teacher accreditation are also rum. As reporter Sophie Scott’s story lays bare on page 2, the training period could actually be reduced to a few months.
Even knowing we’ve got past the bluster on those items, we dug deeper. Which policies were the politicians trying to distract from? We found three.
First, is the quasi-comical line: “In the rare scenario that a trust stops operating an academy at short notice (and there is no immediate, alternative provider) the secretary of state will be responsible for the running of the school . . . and she may direct a local body to do so on her behalf.”
Imagining Nicky Morgan running round to take over a school is faintly amusing (‘make her do lunch duty’ one tweeter said) but it distracts from the end of that sentence. Which local body will she direct in this emergency? Local authorities will be reduced to a few people in charge of school place planning and special needs. Unless she’s suggesting zero hour contracts for school improvement teams, it cannot be them.
A more sinister idea, told to me by one headteacher, was that she is foreshadowing a future in which the education secretary could force an academy trust to take on any failing school. Without that ability, schools could be left stranded.
A second point, buried on page 103, describes a new fund for exploring “opportunities for social impact bonds” in post-16 alternative provision. Another word for impact bonds is “payment by results”. The companies providing the education is only paid if it gets certain outcomes. In a trial completed by the Department for Work and Pensions, improved attendance was worth £1,400, an entry level qualification, £900.
The theory is that paying for results saves a lot of money over the longer term. Pupils with low exam grades more often go on to become unemployed, and expensive.
But it relies on the ability of the government to accurately define and police the outcomes. On its contract management history one would be forgiven for thinking the Department for Education is not competent to do so.
Impact bonds also open a slippery slope towards companies making profit from schools, a suggestion disliked among the bond community. The “social” in their name means the groups involved would be not-for-profit, with extra cash going back into the business. “Think of it as smart philanthropy rather than a push for profit,” one told me.
But it would be easy for the government to first argue that payment-by-result is important for youngsters in alternative provision as it saves so much money in the long run. Then, if it works, make the argument it should be extended to all schools.
The final, most worrying gem, is a benign-looking point in section 5.22 announcing that regional schools commissioners will be given funds to procure improvement services for academies under their watch. Sounds good, but it means commissioners will now be in charge of telling academies:
1. How they should improve
2. Arranging and paying the consultants to do it, and then
3. Deciding if it has worked
How can we then expect commissioners to be objective? Telling an academy trust it has failed after putting it through a school improvement plan they wrote will be tantamount to admitting they can’t do their job.
Forcing freedom on schools is bizarre. Planning not to enforce it until 2022 is even stranger unless you are hoping that people will do the hard work for you, and convert before you even need to pass a law.
While that battle is being fought, however, remember the other 37 policies, plus these oddities, will also be on the go.
Never look at where the hands are pointing.