Never has Dennis Healey’s first law, “When you are in a hole, stop digging”, been more pertinent. The DfE has retreated into a cul-de-sac of petty manoeuvres (like the new consultation on reforming the LA school improvement grant) or sheer irrelevance (like its obsession with academies), precisely when we most need sensible, reliable and competent leadership.
Just like school improvement, it boils down to a question of vision – or as Ofsted would put it, ‘intent’. What do we want from our school system? For this DfE, there seems to be only one hapless answer: full academisation. Yet ask pupils, parents, teachers, leaders, governors or the wider public, and structures will be way down their list of ambitions, far below highly successful, happy and content pupils.
And the truth is that these outcomes can be found in any school with no compelling evidence that one type outperforms another. The profile of schools from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘outstanding’ is broadly similar across all types.
The consequence of this lack of meaningful intent from the DfE is a stulted implementation. It fails to maximise the totality of resources available to support the school system. The pointed preference for academies in ministerial visits, the wasteful side-lining of the skills and expertise of good local authorities, and the turmoil and waste of resources of the process of forced academisation point to a major gap in the department’s knowledge and experience. It is in a sense the biggest LA in the country, yet seems clueless as to what LAs do for the school system.
I created and was chief executive of the independent The Learning Trust (TLT) that had responsibility passed to it by the secretary of state for all school and early years services in Hackney, from 2002 to 2012. In that period, we opened eight secondary academies, five of which were built from scratch and three conversions. We also closed two secondaries, and our partnership work saw the local authority provide sites for several more schools.
In choosing the sponsors of our academies, three tests were set: they had to agree that the schools would be non-selective, mixed and play a full part in Hackney’s wider family of schools. Our sponsors include individual philanthropists, an international bank, a livery company and a local authority.
The importance and independence of each school was valued and supported, and each school played a role in the wider school system. This balanced approach ensured there was universal support from parents for the model. TLT’s school improvers worked in harmony with all schools, and the results were remarkable. Each school enjoyed success.
Academies were originally designed to secure good schools for children in areas that had a long record of failing pupils. The idea was never to create a cartel of MATs with schools forced into membership. Yes, there were some very poor local authorities, just as now we have some very poor MATs. But rather than incubate system capacity for improvement, we’ve ended up with a devastating wholesale withdrawal of local authority education departments in many areas.
And what are the impacts? Inability to sort the exam and assessment debacle. Failure to ensure schools with two or more poor Ofsted judgments are improved. Ongoing problems in ensuring a sufficient supply of high-quality teachers. An absence of effective challenge to rogue academies and MATs. And a lamentably weak recovery programme.
If Ofsted inspected the DfE the way it inspects LAs, it would have been put in special measures by now – in the same basket as the most woeful LAs of the early 2000s.
As vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi saw how invaluable good local authorities are in delivering government targets. It would be a shame if he now ignored the very critical role they do, can and should play in schools.
It’s time to rebuild the coalition of willing support around schools to ensure recovery and improvement can move ahead apace. Time for the DfE to put down its shovels, and if it can’t pick up the tab, then at least help pick up the pieces.