Yesterday, the Education and Adoption Bill completed its committee stage in the House of Commons. It passed, not surprisingly, unaltered but there remains a lot of debate to be had especially in the Lords. Despite intense scrutiny, there remain huge unanswered questions about the bill and in many cases Nick Gibb’s response amounted to little more than an assertion that black is white.
Ministers are clinging to the notion that academisation is the answer despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The public evidence session of the committee saw several witnesses, notably Rebecca Allen and Becky Francis, comprehensively take apart most aspects of the bill. Their evidence is well worth reading. But, so far, at least with no significant effect.
The purpose of the Bill according to the DfE press release is ‘to sweep away bureaucratic and legal loopholes’ that prevent schools from being improved. The plan is that all schools found inadequate by Ofsted will become sponsored academies. There will be a duty on governors and local authorities to co-operate with the process and sponsors will no longer be required to consult parents and local communities.
There is also to be provision for “coasting schools” to be given a notice to improve and a rather vague promise of support from “expert headteachers” and if necessary “new leadership”. It stops short of promising academy status for them though.
The rhetoric surrounding this initiative is extra-ordinary. The equating of sponsored academy status with improvement is absolute. You would think that no sponsored academy had ever gone wrong and no local authority school had ever improved. This of course should mean that Morgan has incontrovertible evidence that her approach works just about every time. In fact this is an extraordinarily flawed bill on just about every level.
First should come some matters of principle. The Secretary of State is setting herself up as the only decision maker who matters. No one else’s view is to count for anything. Not for Nicky Morgan the Cromwellian warning “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken”. Good governance is about listening to a range of views and considering evidence from all directions. But not in Nicky Morgan’s world. Anyone who disagrees “puts ideological objections above the best interests of children.”
It’s a fundamental rule of organisations that this kind of arrogance leads to trouble sooner or later. Every management textbook will tell you this is a bad way to run anything. But it’s what we’re going to get.
Second, it is absolutely clear that the evidence does not back up the assertions. The Select Committee said so. The RSA Academies Commission said so. The record of failing academies and failing multi-academy trusts says so. Morgan is setting a high standard – academy status is the only path to success, so we are entitled to assume that their record should be pretty spotless – otherwise we might have expected a little more caution.
So to set the balance straight, here are 5 letters written by Ofsted to significant academy chains: here
Then you could add the 99 warning letters
sent to poorly performing academies. Or the 14 academy chains prevented in 2014 from taking on new schools because of concerns about their performance. Or the 21 financial warnings
issued to academies in the last year.
Then, if you look at the overall statistics, 2.7% of all schools are inadequate according to Ofsted. But 13% of sponsored academies are in that category. No less than 35% of sponsored academies require improvement. Now it’s reasonable to say that many sponsored academies are in challenging circumstances. We know too that there is a huge bias in Ofsted against schools in such areas. And we know that some sponsored academies have done well and some chains are effective. But so are many maintained schools and – despite all the obstacles put in their way – many local authorities.
So does this amount to evidence of a magic bullet? Does it justify riding roughshod over local and professional opinion all over the country? Is it evidence that people who disagree are putting ideology above children’s futures? The DfE prefers to argue by producing the odd anecdote and some quotes from academy leaders who’ve done well out of the system. But they consistently steer clear of trying to present any argument based on hard evidence. When you look at the evidence, it’s the DfE that would seem to be the ideologues, promoting one particular way forward in defiance of evidence that suggests that the world is a little more complicated than that.
We should also think about what is not in this Bill. There is nothing that will actually make sure there are enough good teachers in classrooms – especially in areas where recruitment is difficult – at a time when new teacher numbers are in free fall. Nothing to show how we will find more good headteachers at a time when the job is so insecure that fewer and fewer people want to take it on. Nothing to create the structures of support and challenge that over time we know is how you bring about long term change. Nothing to make sure that there are enough school places in the right areas to meet escalating pupil numbers. Nothing to put right the deeply damaging changes to the curriculum and assessment regimes that may well turn out to be Gove’s most toxic legacy.
And at the end of the day there is nothing to tell us how the DfE is going to successfully manage more and more schools. The Public Accounts Committee
has consistently savaged the accountability systems run by the DfE and the EFA. There are no proper systems for identifying problems at an early stage. Anyone who has dealt with the EFA knows that it is a deeply dysfunctional organisation that often can’t even get the basics of funding and administration right.
The system will remain shrouded in secrecy. Issues like the choice of sponsor will be even less transparent than they have been so far. 1000 more sponsored academies over five years will demand either even bigger chains or many new sponsors. But we know big chains expanding rapidly are the most likely to fail. And there is no evidence that there is a massive queue of new sponsors queuing up. Like much of this government’s programme, this is a leap in the dark based on a touching faith that it’ll be all right on the night.
But on the evidence of the last five years, it will make very little difference to pupils’ education. Some schools will improve. Some will get worse. Just as they would if none of this happened. The top down structural model of school improvement is irrelevant to the real needs of children. But ministers do it because it creates the illusion of action and gets them headlines. The daily grind of incremental improvement doesn’t interest them but it is what will really make a difference for children.
This is a bad Bill not just because it seeks to centralise decision making to an unacceptable degree. It’s also bad because it puts public assets into private hands with no proper accountability. But above all it’s bad because it’s based on an approach to managing complex systems that is naïve and simplistic in the extreme. What a massive waste of everyone’s time!
(The initial version of this post was published on the SEA blog here