Innovation is inhibited by league tables not by lack of freedom says Commission

Janet Downs's picture
It’s a central plank of the Government’s flagship academy programme: if schools want to innovate then they must free themselves from local authority "control" and become academies.

But the Academies Commission found it’s not lack of freedom that’s preventing schools from innovating. It’s league tables and Ofsted.

The Commission wrote that it had “heard considerable evidence that the current accountability framework inhibits change and innovation.” It quoted one submission in full:

‘High-stakes inspection regimes which are increasingly tightly drawn through a combination of new testing and the revised Ofsted inspection framework are likely to make schools very cautious in their approach rather than run risks through innovation. Schools will play safe and follow well-worn routes to ensure their own safety. The responsibilities placed on heads mean that they risk jeopardising their careers, with no back-up for decisions they take. This is likely to make them more risk averse.’

This is not new. An Ofsted inspector criticized the “frightening” new Ofsted regime in June 2012. In May, an Assistant Director of Children’s Services warned that the conditions were right for a “perfect storm”. Two of these conditions were raised floor targets and the new Ofsted framework. Even earlier, in 2008, Sam Freedman, now one of Education Secretary Michael Gove's special advisers, wrote:

“This is a question of the atmosphere created by high-stakes testing, and constant interventions designed with the media in mind, more than anything else. The National Curriculum and rules over teacher pay and conditions both actually give considerable freedom to innovate but there is only risk - and little value - in doing so.”

Surely Gove was advised that schools already had “considerable freedom to innovate”? That would have saved £1 billion in overspending on the academies programme.

And the Academies Commission confirms that schools needn’t become academies in order to innovate:

“Most things an academy can do, a maintained school can also do.”

Surely Gove was advised that “high-stakes testing” discourages innovation? The OECD warned about the possible negative effects of the excessive emphasis on raw exam results in 2011.

Instead, the DfE has continued with “constant interventions designed with the media in mind, more than anything else.” How else to explain the repeated references to “rigour”, the retrospective imposition of the EBacc, the proposed exam reforms? What else but grabbing headlines is the spin about free schools “revolutionising education”, the tough talk about smashing complacency and the false rhetoric about freeing schools from the dead hand of LA “control”?

The Government has yet to respond to the Academies Commission report. Why the reticence?

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