From the frontline: thoughts on the school-led system

Former executive principal Ros McMullen sets out her vision of what a school-led system now needs. In the first of a two-part series, she says it is time to think about how to join the social policy agenda with the education reform agenda, and to unleash the best school leaders to operate as community leaders

Systems have a tendency to heal themselves, which is one reason why managing fundamental change in any organisation, large or small, is incredibly difficult. People do not like change as it creates uncertainty: they look for reassurance and attempt to make sense of change through the prism of what they already know. Leaders who are serious about creating real change therefore need to make certain that any changes work together to prevent the system from simply returning to the old, and, perhaps even more importantly, need to create a commitment for the change from staff at all levels who will be have to implement and sell the changes. This takes time.

While this seems self-evident it does not fit the pattern of the term of office for an education secretary, and I suspect this is why we often hear that “creating chaos” was Michael Gove’s aim and that “coherence comes at the end”. The problem is that coherence still isn’t coming. I’m not even spotting it on the horizon. What I do see
are excellent people, some of them good friends and long-term colleagues, desperately trying to bring coherence in the middle of a series of serious policy collisions. Meanwhile, we are receiving evidence from all over the place that the system is “healing itself” in terms of what it has always outputted; whether that is to do with the performance of the disadvantaged, entrance to Oxbridge or the prevalence of ex-public school graduates obtaining the plum jobs.

Instead of developing solutions, blame and entrenchment have become endemic

So where are we now? We have been hearing for a long time that there has rarely been so much agreement politically about what we want our education system to do. It seems this has come about as the “left” largely accepted that providing a one-size education system that fits all will not provide the opportunity for equality, and the “right” developed a desire to “close the gap” between the achievements of the advantaged and the disadvantaged. What a great opportunity this new found common purpose presented us with! So what has gone so wrong?

Unfortunately, the new found common purpose has become so stuck in ideology and personal whim that, instead of developing coherent solutions, blame and entrenchment have become endemic. The left have retreated into old arguments about who should run schools and democratic accountability and, for the past eight years, have missed almost every opportunity to add sensible alternatives to the debate. Meanwhile, the right have been unable to wake up to the fact that the outputs from the system are not solely the fault of practitioners (“the blob”).

Policymakers want to talk to people who agree with them; it is nice and comforting. But over 15 years of headship I learned that talking to those who didn’t agree with me enhanced my ability to make more effective decisions.

If, as all politicians are now saying, our priority is to “close the gap” perhaps it is time for us to take a serious look at what causes the gap. Far from the popular myth that grammar schools provide marvellous social mobility, we know the middle classes filled them and expansion in the middle class post-war was driven by the economy, not by grammar schools. We have learned that by putting all state-educated children in one type of comprehensive school, the middle classes fill the top sets and still do better. And we have also learned that families who can afford to pay for privilege get a return on their investment. There are exceptions, but they are indeed exceptions.

It is, therefore, not sensible to say that what we call schools or how we structure the system makes the most impact: it is the aspiration and culture of a family that is the single biggest determinant of how children succeed in schools. This is why many poor immigrant and refugee children succeed.

The cycle of under-aspiration and poverty in the indigenous white underclass needs to be tackled and if the history of education reform and policy teaches us nothing else, we really ought to have learned this by now. A government wishing to achieve a step change in education needs to fully understand that the school system is not standalone and that meddling with its structures, accountability frameworks and control will not close the gap unless aligned with other serious social policy initiatives. A large part of our current problem is that not only has this not been understood, but many other social policy initiatives are working in direct opposition to the stated aims of education policy reform.

Parking that on one side, we can also see that much of the education policy post-Blair is also making things worse.

Breaking up the traditional local authority (LA) model for delivering education has proved successful in some ways, particularly for schools where failure had not been addressed for many years. There is no doubt that some of the early academies have been incredibly successful with many growing into successful chains.

How that early academy policy evolved, however, has caused significant problems. The stated desire to make every school an academy left local authorities in an even worse state and not every school is an academy. Moreover, there is now a whole raft of schools that successful academy chains do not wish to take on because “this school will not fit our model”. I have sympathy with the chains that say that, as accountability pressure is a driver to protect your own business, stick with what can be done easily and successfully. With diminished LA structures, however, the regional school commissioners and headteacher boards (who largely consist of those who have led “outstanding” schools) are simply not be able to deal with supporting the problematic leftover schools.

The desire to academise quickly led to some chains growing nationally without any vision or structure: many were like the worst kinds of LA without even the advantage of being local. Rebrokering these academies, although necessary now, is a distracting and expensive problem that should never have happened.

Along with most school leaders I welcomed the autonomy that leading an early academy provided and I was privileged to work as a national leader of education for the National College. The subsequent loss of the college and the development of teaching school alliances have led to a lack of national
co-ordination. Teaching schools are too thinly spread and have too much to do. The best struggle to serve in an atmosphere of concern over loss of status and finance; the worst behave like an exclusive members’ club.

The autonomy to do what is right for your own community, to be entrepreneurial and innovative, has been so eroded over the years that I now believe that I had more autonomy as an LA headteacher in 2000 than I did as an academy principal in 2013. This is deeply disappointing for those of us who signed up to the autonomy agenda and to a school-led system. The over-regulatory, scrutiny pressures that have followed the expansion of academies mitigate completely the entrepreneurial and innovative culture. Now the definition of successful is about teaching what central government wants you to teach in the way they want you to teach it.

There are communities where we can identify, as a result of poverty, endemic
under-aspiration. We need to attack the
cause using the expertise of school leaders who have proven track records of success within such communities. This means giving such school leaders:

• the freedom to address their exact context

• the ability and resource to commission and direct the local support services

• the ability and resource to develop local support services to tackle the problems impacting most seriously on aspiration

• a national network of support which is enabling rather than controlling

• a partnership with academics in order that all policy development is researched and analysed.

This will not be cheap but the alternatives are expensive: now and in the long term. And, of course, accountability poses problems. I’ll consider some of the accountability and control issues next week.

Ros McMullen is an experienced LA head, academy principal, executive principal and chief executive. She is now the managing director of RMCeducation
(www.RMCeducation.com) and, as a founding member of @HeadsRoundtable, continues to work on the core group

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