School leaders want to focus on pedagogy, the curriculum and the purpose of education. Politicians, should not bog them down with more structural change, says Julie McCulloch
It’s a fair bet that most parents don’t think about schools in terms of organisational structures, of multi-academy trusts, regional schools commissioners, brokering, headteacher boards, and the rest of the lexicon of terms with which we’ve become so familiar. They think about what their children are learning and how well they are doing, about whether their school is balancing SATs prep with delivering a broad and balanced curriculum, about what subjects their children will take at GCSE and A-level, and how this will prepare them for their future lives.
But Labour have put the way in which we organise the school system firmly back in the spotlight – if indeed it has ever really been out of the spotlight – at their conference in Liverpool, with shadow education secretary Angela Rayner’s pledge to end academisation.
The discourse is bruising for those who work in academies
In the conference centre, it is not hard to detect the mood over academies. They are not the flavour of the month, and while politicians and activists may chiefly have the government in their sights, the discourse is bruising for those who work in academies and who have diligently being doing their very best for their students.
What Labour’s direction of travel would mean in practice is not entirely clear. But the shadow education secretary seems to have significant reform in mind. “We will use our time in government to bring all publicly funded schools back into the mainstream public sector, with a common rulebook and under local democratic control,” she said in her speech yesterday afternoon.
Many school leaders, on hearing that, will breathe a weary sigh at the thought of more upheaval. We have spent the last few years arguing that the government should stop obsessing about organisational structures. The last thing that we want to see is a future government, of any complexion, spending yet more time and resources attempting to unpick the system and put it back together again.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t concerns which need to be addressed. Schools which fail their Ofsted inspection shouldn’t be forced to become academies, for example. This is a policy which is causing real harm. Too many schools in this position – by definition those most in need of support – cannot find an academy sponsor and are then left in limbo, with their parents, staff and students facing extended periods of uncertainty.
But neither does it make sense to prevent schools becoming academies if they feel that is in the best interests of their pupils, and we hope this is not what Labour intends when it talks of ending academisation. If schools and governing bodies have carefully weighed all the options, and decided that they can secure the best support by becoming an academy and joining a MAT, surely we should trust their judgement.
Labour’s plans touch on many topics – admissions systems, related-party transactions, the provision of new schools – all of which are worthy of consideration. But let’s do that on the basis of evidence. Let’s look at what works and what doesn’t work, at what needs to be fixed, and how best to fix it – and let’s do so without any pre-determined outcomes in mind.
The things that matter most are what happens in the classroom
And most of all, let’s not spend another parliamentary term fixated on school structures. Because the things that matter most are what happens in the classroom. Giving pupils the best chance in life means ensuring that all our schools and colleges have sufficient funding, that all schools in all parts of the country are able to recruit and retain the teachers and leaders they need, that our overbearing accountability system is made more proportionate, and that we look at how we shape the curriculum for a world that is changing at a rapid pace.
School structures have a role to play. It is essential that schools are well run and well supported. But structures are not a panacea, and they never have been. There is a real desire among school leaders to get back to the heart of education – pedagogy, the curriculum, the purpose of education. Politicians, of whatever party, should harness that energy and enthusiasm, not bog them down with more structural change.