A white paper is due soon and, let’s be honest, dealing with our fragmented, make-it-up-as-we-go-along system is a priority. But as the famous joke goes: to get to our destination, we probably shouldn’t start here. And where is here? Well, slightly more than half of students are educated in academies while slightly more than half of schools remain under local authority control – which has significant funding implications for continued reform.
Ideally, we need a single, coherent system with common rules for all and a regulator empowered to act on underperformance.
There are three options: get rid of academies and return schools to LA control; make all schools academies and reimagine a role for LAs; or get all schools into new school-operating organisations run by MATs and LAs that are legally and operationally equivalent. None of these end states is easy or cheap to achieve, but the first is probably the most expensive.
There are lots of policy ideas circulating but they can be simplified into groups. The first aims at clarity – a single arm’s length regulator to act equitably over all schools. That is to be welcomed, but merging the ESFA and the RSCs’ offices risks concentrating too much power in one place and creating conflicts of interest. Better to separate the funding agency from the regulator and to require all actors in the system to be more transparent about their plans and approaches. Above all, setting a clear strategic direction for the system as a whole is a must.
The second group of ideas involves giving more power to different agencies. But there is no shortage of power to intervene in our current system. In fact there is probably a surfeit of it, but a lack of coherence for exercising that power. There are simply too many organisations for the ESFA and RSCs to regulate: 152 LAs and some 2,390 MATs and SATs, which gives each RSC less than half a day per year to even think about the organisations over which they exercise authority.
We do not need supercharged RSCs to conceive, create, direct and dissolve MATs. This completely subverts the idea of school trusts, and any regulator that needs those powers is de facto not a regulator but tantamount to subsuming the entire school system back into direct administration from Westminster. Can we really expect it to have the capacity to exercise this degree of power? This very real risk is that adding more powers into a fragmented system will only cause more damage. You can’t put a jet engine on a bicycle and act surprised when you’re picking up teeth from the road.
The third group of ideas are false incentives to encourage both schools and LAs to move to an all-academy system without adequate funding. Giving individual academies the right to appeal to the regulator to change MATs seems sensible at first glance, but it is actually an invitation to chaos. It allows schools to opt out of school improvement and requires legal contortions to apportion rights to a body that no longer exists.
Worse still, it incentivises charities to act against their organisational purpose of giving oil to the squeakier wheels, because making people like you is easier than improving outcomes for children. All to encourage schools to join MATs by giving them the impression that they can leave if they don’t like it.
A more dangerous idea is that LAs should be given additional powers following the SEND review. Again it seems innocent and logical, but conceals a divisive intent. LAs don’t need more powers in SEND ̶ they need more money. With no Treasury support, that money will have to come from efficiencies elsewhere, and giving LAs more power will simply encourage them to pass the blame on to mainstream schools to meet unfunded SEND needs.
Above all we should resist the urge to legislate for legislation’s sake. A white paper to sort this mess out is long overdue, but starting the engine without consulting the system thinkers we haven’t yet lost to previous reforms will only see us picking up teeth later.