What can we do with our English state schools system to drive long-term improvement?
In England, we have a complex patchwork of schools and school types with strong local hierarchies difficult for families to navigate (West et al, 2009)
In a paper published in September 2020, Ron Glatter explores the education system in England, its leadership and management, and the changes implemented over the last 15 years.
Glatter cites former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair:
Our aim is the creation of a system of independent non-fee paying state schools. It will be for schools to decide whether they wish to acquire a Trust – similar to those that support Academies – or become a self-governing foundation school. (Blair 2005, 4 – Better Schools for All, DfES)
The author explores how policy developments have led to highly marketised and privatised arrangements across the school system in England. The author writes that “secondary heads and their staff have much more autonomy; schools being much more diverse than is generally the case elsewhere.”
Autonomy or control?
Apparent freedoms are in contradiction to emerging research. This OECD report published in 2020 suggests that English teachers have one of the worst agency when compared to 47 other countries.
Another paper argues that pedagogy for teachers is being steered from a distance; that centralising curriculum and assessment processes have had a significant impact on teachers’ professional status.
This paper offers a good overview of English education history, with references from 1930 to 2010s. One that stands out and raises a smile is this from 1959: “the process of education in this country has always been a slow evolution, not subject to sudden change” (quoted by McCulloch 2017, 27).
Although reforms have been relatively swift over the last decade, the impact on the ground is still difficult to evaluate.
Thatcher and Gove
Michael Gove and Margaret Thatcher get a mention. “Previously, power was spread around in a rather casual, haphazard fashion, through opaque and unsatisfactory arrangements.”
Thatcher created a centralised national curriculum, regular assessment and a funding and resources model. Gove allowed schools with excellent inspection reports to become academies and gradually, be free from further scrutiny.
Of course, there was a raft of other reforms.
Free schools emerged, “intended to be established by parents, teachers or other groups and funded by the government” added to the ‘liquorice allsorts‘ system we now have today. A phrase quoted and coined by Prof Alan Smithers.
Glatter rightly highlights “the sector has undergone five major reorganisations during the last two decades, and no institution has survived longer than a decade… with such continual change… the collection of robust evidence about which policies and reforms have worked and why” are extremely difficult.
The author highlights that the human cost is thousands of students grappling with confusing qualifications, little confidence from the profession and a recruitment crisis. “As a result of the kinds of reform strategies outlined, a largely unhelpful debate has claimed that structures are of little consequence, with outcomes depend upon high-quality teaching and leadership.”
Glatter references Kogan (2002) and the term ‘hot knowledge’ which “grows cold when far away from its point of origin.” Examples may include ‘why students/schools perform the way they do’ to performance indicators and Ofsted judgements without the nuance or context factored into the reporting process.
There is much more to take away from this paper; “autonomy for schools is not a simple concept.” Whilst the powers for Ofsted have increased, local authorities have been squeezed. The academies program has allowed schools to opt-in for some freedom, but by belonging to a multi-academy trust, they lose their legal identity.
The multi-academy business model and the language of policies “has clearly emphasised private sector and corporate structures” (Greany and Highham, 2018, 85). We should also consider illegal schools, re-brokered schools and all the discourse on ‘stuck schools’, coastal schools and the illusion of what constitutes a failing school.
“Forced academisation under which a LA-maintained school fails an Ofsted inspection and is made to become a sponsored academy, forced to join a MAT selected without any necessary involvement from staff, governors, parents or local community.” I know this scenario very well.
Competition and collaboration are also discussed. There is a great deal of history, policy-making and evaluation of the various models introduced across England discussed throughout this paper. I have barely touched the details.
Some of the interesting questions posed include:
- Is it the school or the accountability measures that equate to individual school success?
- What are the risks of a centralised decision-making system?
- Why does England not top the OECD tables?
- Despite the high costs, where is the evidence that serial restructuring and weakening of LEA control has increased standards?
- How do we balance the tension between the autonomy of individual schools versus the wider community and public interest?
- Why do politicians continue to cite the increased number of good or outstanding schools as a testimony to their success, but without referencing the increased number of schools?
- What can we do to tackle the systematic negative correlation between school intakes with more disadvantaged children and more favourable Ofsted judgements?
- The Department for Education should clarify goals for the system. Without it, “education reform is doomed to fail” (Simons, 2017)
- The system of contracting out the provision of schooling to a huge array of third-party providers should be phased out.
- The accountability system should be greatly simplified and made more supportive.
- No school should any longer be its own admissions authority.
- Provision should be made for local democratic and strategic coordination and community governance covering all schools in an area.
These are some great recommendations. Glatter ends with:
Moving in the direction of these suggestions would create a more coherent and inclusive school system in England and a far more satisfactory context for the effective practice of school leadership and management.
If you’re interested in reading more about education history across England, there is also this brilliant website by Derek Gillard, published in 1998, with information dating back to AD43!