Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw opened his interview on Radio 4's Today programme, this morning, by stating that it was time to stop focusing on school structure. Instead we should be focusing on the learning environment and the culture of the school. Could this be seen as a direct rebuke to Michael Gove, for whom the structure of schools - specifically the creation of academies and free schools - has been virtually the sole focus?
Ofsted's Annual Report
does praise the original sponsor-led academies, set up in areas of disadvantage. However it makes no comment on the later converter academies (now 70% of all academies), instead stating that "Ofsted will assess the impact of conversion to academy status in the coming year".
It has been widely quoted that Ofsted list nine authorities where all secondary schools are Good or Outstanding, especially the fact that seven of them are in London. (Indeed of the top 17, those with 93% or more Good or Outstanding, 14 are in London.)
Are these nine boroughs ones that have focused on academies? The school-level exam data for 2012 (the most recent available) indicates that these boroughs are less likely to have academies than the average. At summer 2012, these boroughs had 25% of their secondary pupils in academies, compared to 35% nationally. While Westminster and Bath had above average numbers in academies, two boroughs (Camden and Tower Hamlets) had at that stage no schools at all listed as being academies.
A government focused on the wrong priorities
This government famously overspent £1 billion on academy conversion. The DfE Permanent Secretary Chris Wormald justified it to the Public Accounts Committee
on the basis that "the Government took a very conscious decision that its major school improvement programme was the academies programme".
On could take Michael Wilshaw's interview this morning as suggesting this was not a sensible decision. The government could instead have focused on what we know makes schools better, and learning from the most successful areas, like London. Ofsted has previously studied the reasons for the success of the London Challenge programme and made clear that, unlike the claims made
by Michael Gove, its success was not down to academies.
Ofsted listed ten causes
of the transformation of London schools, including clear, consistent leadership, robust pupil tracking systems, support from local authorities and others, heads mentoring other heads, commitment to success of all London children (not just those in their school) and collaboration between schools. Examining a sample of academies, Ofsted found they had been separated from their networks of support since conversion and their commitment to wider school improvement had narrowed.
Improvement must have come from non-academies
It is great news that 8 out of 10 schools in England are now rated Good or Outstanding. We should congratulate the schools, their leadership teams, their teachers and all their staff. But we should be clear that this is not down to the government's academy/free schools programme. A large majority of academies are schools that were already Good or Outstanding, as that was initially a condition of conversion.
The improvement to around 80% being Good or better will have come from those schools that were previously in special measures or categorised as "requires improvement". Most of the schools in these categories were maintained schools, as these were not generally able to convert to academies.
Time for evidence not ideology
The Ofsted annual report does not suggest there is anything wrong with academies. And, as for all schools, we should thank the dedicated staff in those academies that are seeking to do the very best for their children. However the clear message from Michael Wilshaw is that focusing on structures is the wrong government priority. It is strong leadership, high expectations, teacher development and collaboration between schools - whether academies or not - that has delivered results in areas like London.
Those approaches provide a clear route to delivering similar results across the country. If we had a government that based its policies on evidence of what works, rather than ideology, we could have seen similar success around the country..
Michael Wilshaw has also today repeated his belief in the importance of local authorities: “Too many local authorities don’t seem to believe that education is their problem. Well it is.” Again, this seems to be one in opposition to the Secretary of State's desire to reduce or remove the role of local government in our schools.