‘Tread warily in this brave new academy world’

Teacher training needed reform. But are school-led routes the only solution? Accountability, parent power and the question of who controls schools all need to be addressed too – and soon

Last week, I explained how the school-led system is stifled by a lack of true autonomy for school leaders, and is failing to improve education for the poorest because wider public services are withering.

Beyond school leaders, however, several other issues are holding back our brave new world of education.

Teacher training has been crying out for reform for some time and the impetus for schools and academies to become more involved has undoubtedly improved the overall quality of such training. However, the diversity of routes we now have, with the inherent unfairness in some of them, is a problem. The salaried and unsalaried routes for School Direct, despite the routes being similar, are unfair. An implied differential status is accorded to them, as shown in the recent job adverts asking purely for those who trained through Teach First. Graduates report they are confused as to the best entry routes (there are about nine on the government’s “Get into teaching” website).

Universities feel stymied and frustrated and unable to plan effectively. Schools lament the loss of the graduate teaching programme, where teaching assistants could become classroom teachers. There is an overall dissatisfaction with the quality of School Direct applicants, and there is a shortage of teachers at a time of increasing student numbers. The needed reform seems to have resulted in a chaotic situation in which we cannot provide any coherence to teacher supply. All of this is contributing significantly to the teacher recruitment crisis.

And then there’s the accountability regime that school leaders now face.

Accountability is a good thing. Schools and academies need to be accountable. However, the current accountability framework is colliding with school improvement, inclusion, the ability to measure system improvement and the much-lauded autonomy of leaders.

Much has been written about the chaos within the key stage 2 arrangements this year, and the introduction on new GCSEs and A-levels. Primary schools are faced with removing fluency from fluent readers to ensure they “pass” phonics testing. Schools are incentivised to remove difficult-to-teach pupils before GCSEs. If whole school improvement leads to results rising for everyone but are faster for non-disadvantaged pupils the school is judged as “widening the gap” and penalised. Every school must improve but pass results must remain broadly the same, according to the exams regulator, or it will show standards are eroding. And in a time of headteacher and teacher recruitment crisis, pay and job security is aligned to these results.

In the midst of all the above, perhaps the two single things that trouble me most are the active discouragement within the system to improve struggling schools, and the inability to measure system improvement. Now that pass rates must be broadly maintained year-on-year there is absolutely no incentive for any school to work to improve another school. Any increase in their pass rate could make it harder for your own students. This actively works against school-to-school support. Furthermore, if pass rates have to be kept broadly similar how can we measure improvement and added value across the system?

Parents look to be getting a great deal. There is much rhetoric about giving them control of schools, and it plays well electorally, but is very dangerous. I have run schools where giving parents control would mean students wouldn’t have to attend, do homework, behave or pass exams! Quite frankly, as a parent, I have no desire to control my children’s school anymore than I want to control my local electricity provider – who I assume know far more about the supply of safe electricity than I do.

What the newly academised system does, though, is give more control to the Department for Education. But they cannot run schools. So instead we have the Education Funding Agency trying to do so via contracts, and, through over-regulation, killing the autonomy of leaders and creating much unnecessary and draining workload.

It may be that the new regional schools commissioners are a better group for managing schools. But we are expecting an awful lot of them and there is no clear framework for how they work. As civil servants they are also quite specifically not democratically accountable.

Going back to local authorities is also not an option for two reasons: many were not good at it, and all have decreasing budgets and capacity. But the question of who controls our schools need to be addressed – and soon.

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 continues to work with the Heads Round Table.


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