Governing academies regionally may be the way to iron out inequalities in schools

Writing in the Conversation, Richard Riddell, from Bath Spa University, says  a new system regional control system for academies could end end up providing a more reliable focus on inequality than the local authority systems it replaces.

Parents and teachers are still coming to terms with a series of structural reforms to education, the most radical of which – as announced by George Osborne in his budget speech – will be to transform all UK secondary schools to academies by 2022.

As the dust settles, I think that the system that eventually emerges might provide a more consistent context for addressing the inherent inequalities in English children’s attainment than the dying local authority-supervised system it replaces.

Osborne’s announcement was swiftly followed by the first government white paper on education for six years: Educational Excellence Everywhere. Among other things, it sets out the organisational arrangements for English schools the government expects to be complete by the end of this parliament.

All this had been precipitated a few weeks earlier by a consultation document on a new national schools funding formula in which the government said: “we expect local authorities to step back from running school improvement (for any schools) from the end of the 2016/17 academic year”.

These are big changes, but they are not unexpected. In a new book, I have argued they can easily be traced back to the third education white paper of the Labour government in 2006 – and arguably even further back to a 1995 Conservative letter to local education authorities.

The push for self-improvement

These reforms are not merely a creation of the Conservative (or coalition) governments. For more than ten years, “system leaders” – accredited national, local and specialist leaders of education drawn from high-performing schools – have been steadily replacing staff formerly employed by local authorities to provide support to schools. These schools are either those identified as being in difficulty by failing to meet an ever-widening net of expectations, or those that just want to improve their offer to some or all of their children, even if already considered “good” or “better” by the schools inspectorate Ofsted.

As a consequence, many headteachers I interviewed no longer find local authority (LA) staff who understand their work and can be helpful to them – local authorities have been hollowed out. So although most headteachers bear no antagonism to their LA, many have just moved on mentally: they do not look to the local authority for anything now. A fundamental shift in attitudes has taken place.

Rapidly increasing academisation of schools since 2010 – now to be completed under this government – accelerated this shift. So did the stringent budget cuts imposed on local authorities from 2010, that are set to continue. But I also found a dramatic and irreversible decline in regard for local democracy in nearly everyone interviewed, whatever their professional role or background.

LAs have not helped themselves: moves to cabinet and now mayoral government have reduced the great public deliberative processes that were a strength of the English system for 100 years. Some council “vision” documents still show elaborate flow diagrams whereby schools implement council priorities. Even the Local Government Association has openly spoken of the crisis in democracy.

The rapid pace of academisation is not the whole story. The system emerging from the now dying local authority one is being supervised by eight Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs), appointed in 2014.

I interviewed two of them before they took up their posts. They were hugely impressive: measured, focused practically on how schools realistically improve, and driven by a moral commitment, particularly to disadvantaged students. They are supported by Headteacher Advisory Boards – part-elected and part-appointed – all of whom have time built into their working weeks to support the commissioners.

Together, their role has been to intervene into academies and free schools in difficulty and help develop system leaders. This is now being extended to all schools, including those currently maintained by local authorities, and they will oversee the transition to a fully academised system. Currently there are eight RSCs responsible to the National Schools Commissioner (David Carter), though the government has not ruled out there being more in the future.

Signs of progress

But there is a wider story of developing school partnerships I came across in my research. In some places – often originally provided with start-up funding by their local authorities – thriving school partnerships are engaging in rich development activities, using system leaders.

One partnership in the West Midlands, for example, provides rotating half termly “learning walks” whereby senior staff can hear about a particular innovation in a school and then spend time in classrooms seeing it in action. A teaching school alliance elsewhere, which I came across in my research, has amalgamated its professional development programme with one formerly provided by the local authority and now runs it from a local university. And some of these partnerships are already becoming the first port of call for development queries from their schools.

But this is uneven. In some parts of the country, the largest number of academies are free-standing – neither being in chains nor having any established partnerships of their own – leading to uncertainty. And the variable quality of academy chains has been well-documented. Secondary schools generally do not yet have one consistent set of partnership relationships through which they can focus all their improvement work – an idea advocated by the education scholar David Hargreaves. All of this is still developing.

Democratic it ain’t though, and schools-led not yet. Nevertheless, with a focus on inequality in outcomes for children – essential in England – the system now in development could prove more reliable and consistent than the old one, though of course not yet.

And the story of local authorities’ other responsibilities towards schools is not yet finished with this white paper. I argue for new ones for some, including supporting local communities – especially in deprived areas – to articulate their own visions for their future development involving their local academies. The LA story has just reached another staging post. It’s time to move on.

 

Read more articles from the Conversation

 

Some interesting insights and suggestions here from Richard Riddell – would do you think?

Please let us know in the comments or via Twitter…

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The Conversation

Michael Rosen on academy schools: ‘Local democracy bites the dust’
House prices soar in affluent areas where schools improve their Ofsted rating
Categories: Academies, Local authorities and Policy.

Comments

  1. TW

    And not a word about the core purpose of academisation and the attack on local democracy i.e. setting up schools to be taken over by edu-businesses out to make money.  Do people actually get paid for writing this guff?

  2. The first education white paper for six years?   It appears the Bath Spa lecturer has missed the Education and Adoption Bill which has just passed through Parliament.

  3. The first education white paper for six years?   It appears the Bath Spa lecturer has missed the Education and Adoption Bill which has just passed through Parliament.

  4. The first education white paper for six years?   It appears the Bath Spa lecturer has missed the Education and Adoption Bill which has just passed through Parliament.

  5. The LGA document cited above about the ‘crisis’ in local government implied the problem was Whitehall:
    ‘The current model we have for local government set
    in the context of a highly centralised national state
    will not see us through for very much longer.’

    The document only discussed England – it is in England where local democracy is threatened by central Government.  It notes that:
    ‘People in Scotland,
    Wales and Northern Ireland already have a
    much greater say over everything from health to
    transport. Yet local government in England is still
    battling for the same freedoms to tackle national
    and local priorities’.

    But even that which remains in England of local democracy will be taken away by this Government.

  6. In response to TW, nor any reference to the so-called ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by academies, such as the freedom to employ unqualified teachers, make changes to nationally negotiated pay and conditions, ignore other agreements like school meal standards, devise their own curriculum ( though have any had the vision or courage?).
    I applaud Richard’s attempt to listen to those at the heart of the shifts and to try to take a measured view of what is happening, but the pragmatism of heads and partnerships is not a basis for a whole national policy and as he does point out, the situation is ‘uneven’. Not good enough either to say it isn’t working ‘yet’ – many children will pass through the primary or secondary phase, or even both, before this can be made to work.
    I agree again with TW that the real political, financial and ideological motives for academisation cannot be ignored. That would be undemocratic, but then again so is the total academisation announcement, as something of that scale should have featured in the Tory manifesto. I despair at the chaos that is likely to ensue.

  7. The Education Select Committee recently said the RSC system, much-praised above, was confusing, opaque and inconsistent.  http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2016/01/confusing-inconsistent-opaque-unclear-select-committees-verdict-on-regional-schools-commissioners

  8. And we should mention the serious recruitment problems schools face in finding headteachers in the first place. A huge percentage of deputies have no intention of moving into headship now and as it is many schools barely get a field and frequently have to bear the costs of readvertising.

  9. And we should mention the serious recruitment problems schools face in finding headteachers in the first place. A huge percentage of deputies have no intention of moving into headship now and as it is many schools barely get a field and frequently have to bear the costs of readvertising.

  10. clivetaylor915

    SchoolsImprove
    Ah!
    A sort of LA then?
    Shouldn’t someone get a medical appointment for the turkeys who think they things up?

  11. clivetaylor915

    SchoolsImprove
    Ah!
    A sort of LA then?
    Shouldn’t someone get a medical appointment for the turkeys who think they things up?

  12. clivetaylor915

    SchoolsImprove
    Ah!
    A sort of LA then?
    Shouldn’t someone get a medical appointment for the turkeys who think they things up?

  13. wasateacher

    Although he hasn’t made the mistake of saying that local authorities control schools, this “I think that the system that eventually emerges might provide a more consistent context for addressing the inherent inequalities in English children’s attainment than the dying local authority-supervised system it replaces” implies the same.

    The problem is going to be how an expanded Schools Commissioners set up is going to cope with the fact that so many of the multi academy trusts have schools scattered around the country, some are more committed to a ‘one size fits all’ approach, others already seem to have difficulty overseeing their schools and, as a result, have huge variations of standards.

    What is also very clear is that the DfE is already far too stretched, especially with so many resources being diverted to the conversion of schools into academies.

    His article made me think nostalgically about ILEA.  For all its faults, it was well structured and supportive, providing training for all levels of teachers.  I remember going to a course in Exeter and being told by teachers in Devon that they were devastated by the demise of ILEA – so much which was good filtered down to them.  (yes, there were some things which weren’t so good, but we don’t seem to notice those things when it is applied to academies, so why do we focus on them when looking at ILEA)

  14. climbdg5

    SchoolsImprove I know…we could call those regional groupings “Counties” and give them other stuff, like waste and roads to look after.

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