So, what does the government’s new ‘coasting schools’ plan actually involve?
Things we know:
– As soon as a school is identified as ‘failing’ the Regional School Commissioner will intervene immediately.
– If the school does not have a ‘credible plan or capacity’ for turnaround then the government will make more moves.
– Headteachers, and other senior managers, will be sacked if necessary.
– Squads of ‘super heads’ will be sent to the school in order to turn it around.
– Maintained schools will be encouraged (possibly forced) to become academies. Those who are already academies will have their academy sponsor switched.
How is this different to now?
Much of it isn’t.
At present, if a maintained school is rated as inadequate it receives a letter within 5 days from the Department for Education to encourage takeover. If the local authority doesn’t do it, the DfE gets involved anyway. In academies, the RSC does likewise.
The big shift is that this won’t just happen for schools labelled as inadequate but also for schools rated as ‘requires improvement’ (or ‘satisfactory’, as it used to be known).
Intervening in ‘requires improvement’ schools is a strange (and slightly worrying) shift
Schools rated as ‘requires improvement’ are often not that different on achievement to ones rated as ‘good’.
Back in February, we used government data to create graphics starkly showing this fact, and warning of the many ‘false positives’ that will see heads fired even though their school is really no different to a ‘good’ one.
There are other serious questions to ask, too.
1. Where will the super heads come from?
There is a dearth of good headteachers. That’s partly why schools struggle to get good ones in the first place. Upping the ‘football manager approach’ to head-dom, where you get instantly fired over mistakes, isn’t going to make the role more attractive, and I’m not hearing any great plans for how we’re finding or grooming new ones.
2. Given there are so many ‘get-out’ clauses to these interventions, will decisions be transparent?
While some schools are academised quicker than anyone can get a protest group together, others are allowed to limp on in inadequacy. IES Breckland – a free-school managed by a for-profit provider – has been inadequate for over a year. It hasn’t been removed from its sponsor. Why? We don’t know. Almost everything about the process of selecting and monitoring academy sponsors is hidden from view.
With the stakes upped, accusations of ‘politics’ – of Ofsted being sent in to force academisation on one school while another is let off scot-free – will get worse, and faith in the inspector will collapse completely.
More transparency would help. When there is greater accountability people need more assurance of fairness. More publication of minutes, more public consultations about decisions sound like ‘bureaucracy’ but they are critical in ensuring the takeover isn’t marred with conspiratorial disgruntlement from the off. Transparency would genuinely help. I’m not holding my breath, though.
3. What happens when a school has changed hands twice and is still failing?
We are now reaching this point. Some schools originally sponsored in the early 2000s, later switched sponsors and yet still require improvement. Is the plan to switch them around forever?
There is nothing wrong with challenging failing schools. There is everything wrong with trying to do it on the backs of imaginary people
Ultimately Morgan’s plan is spreading capacity around the system. That’s a good thing. We should want excellent people to be in challenging places and the most successful academy sponsors to take on the toughest schools.
The really big inherent problem is that we aren’t doing much to build that capacity. This whole plan relies on there being excellent headteachers and amazing sponsors. Unless I’m missing something we are just hoping they are going to spring up from somewhere, run open-armed into the zaniest schools, knowing all the while that if they fail they will be unceremoniously dumped because of an Ofsted judgment that could turn on a penny.
There is nothing wrong with challenging failing schools. There is everything wrong with trying to do it on the backs of imaginary people. I said in 2010 that ‘wing and prayer’ is not a great strategy for school improvement. It still applies now.