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Select Committee Academies report: a clear-headed action plan for a new Secretary of State

Blog Editor, IOE Digital28 January 2015

Toby Greany
Back in 2006-07 I acted as special advisor to the House of Commons Education Select Committee for an enquiry on Building Schools for the Future. Labour’s Barry Sheerman MP was the committee’s longstanding chair back then and it was fascinating to watch him work with a disparate group of MPs to achieve consensus on the findings and recommendations after a year or more of evidence-gathering.
Barry used to say that the Committee became more dangerous as an enquiry progressed. His point was that the MPs may be generalists, but they quickly become sufficiently expert in any given area to be able to home in on the fundamental issues. Yet, re-reading the report now, it seems remarkably quiet on the problems of bureaucracy and waste that Michael Gove MP used as (more…)

Conflicts of interest in academy schools are symptoms of a wider malaise

Blog Editor, IOE Digital24 September 2014

Toby Greany
This post is co-published with The Conversation
As part of its ongoing inquiry into academies and free schools, the Education Select Committee recently published a report that it had commissioned from Jean Scott and me on conflicts of interest in academies.
We found that real and perceived conflicts of interest are common in academy trusts. These range from instances where individuals benefit personally or via their companies from their position in an academy trust, through to more intangible conflicts that do not directly involve money. (more…)

Yes, there is an alternative to England's bewildering school system

Blog Editor, IOE Digital29 November 2013

Peter Mortimore

I have been aware of problems in the education system for as long as I can remember.
As a child growing up in the late 1940s, I was persecuted by the fear of failing the 11+. Both my elder sisters had succeeded and my first brush with probability theory was recognising that similar success for me had to be questionable. And for 80 percent of each generation it was so, with many children bearing this hallmark of educational failure for the rest of their lives.
One of my jobs as a young teacher was in a school with 12 classes streamed on the basis of three timed tests. The validity and reliability of such assessment was highly questionable, yet it determined the course of future lives. One of my – very clever – pupils moved up a stream each year but, because he only stayed for the five years of compulsory secondary schooling, never even reached the upper half.
As a classroom researcher in the 1970s I sat through hours of lessons often in poorly designed, uncomfortable classrooms.  Some lessons were stimulating but others were desperately boring regurgitations of an uninspiring syllabus.
Today the education system, in many ways, is much improved.  Yet urban eleven-year-olds and their parents face a bewildering array of schools. City parents, in such a market economy, have to gamble on which preferences to express, taking into account their geographical location, the SATs results of their offspring, their religious (or non-religious) leanings and their willingness to pay for private tuition.
Academies – answerable only to the Secretary of State – founded with the noble aim of providing a better deal for poor children (just like the “public schools” of past centuries) are re-positioning themselves and using their generous resources to attract pupils with the best odds of success. Free “parent-led” schools are popping up even where there is ample provision and are frequently dedicated to particular faiths. Exams appear to be growing more difficult and universities are getting more expensive. Most sadly, English childhood appears to be much less happy than that of many of our neighbouring countries.
The English education system seems as far from a universal, inclusive, system as it ever was. Yet, the best teaching I have seen anywhere has often been in England and, in general, schools seem well-led. I believe these problems have been caused by recent governments’ (from all political parties) determination to turn the education system into a competitive market economy complete with league tables and punitive inspections.
In contrast, the Nordic school systems that I have observed operate in a different, happier, culture. They provide high quality pre-school provision and admit children into school one or even two years later than in England. The pace of learning is more relaxed and, wherever possible, failure is avoided.  Nordic young people continue developing and frequently overtake the ‘English early starters’ and become well-educated adults.
So what can we do to improve the system?  How can we learn from our North European neighbours? How can we draw on the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses of our current arrangements?  And how can we persuade our Government to create a fairer, happier and more effective education system better suited to life in the 21st century?
My proposals are to try and ensure greater fairness in the system:
• Fairness in all funding: no more favoured schools getting large bonuses. The only payment above actual costs should be an extra sum for pupils with special needs.
• Fairness in governance – with all schools having uniform powers and working within the same national context.
• Fairness in what can be taught – with a limited National Curriculum available to all pupils.
• Fairness in licence to innovate in organisation and pedagogy.
• Fairness in inspections – with the aim being to ensure that all schools are above an acceptable level rather than attempting to fine grade them  on the basis of unreliable – and very limited – knowledge.
•  Fairness in assessment – helping as many pupils as possible reach the highest levels rather than seeking artificially to restrict success on the mistaken Kingsley Amis principle that “more will mean worse”.
•   Fairness in the allocation of pupils to schools so that all schools recruit a “balanced intake” – pupils who find learning easy and those who do not; those coming from relatively advantaged social, cultural and economic family backgrounds and their opposites.
Of course these are huge challenges. My suggestions require much elaboration and refinement. They will be resisted by the politicians associated with the current system and by parents satisfied with the privilege enjoyed by their children. Other people will have to be convinced that what is proposed will be better.
But such a set of ideas offer a chance of solving the worst problems and of creating a fairer education system better suited to life in the 21st century.
I’ll be talking about these ideas at a seminar at the IOE on 10 December. hope you will come along and contribute to the discussion.

The riddle of autonomous schools: how will researchers crack the code?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital30 September 2013

Chris Husbands
The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Margalit Fox’s hugely readable account of the deciphering of Linear B in the 1940s and 1950s tells the story of half a century of frankly obsessive work by utterly determined individuals. Some 2,000 clay tablets unearthed at the Cretan Palace of Knossos at the turn of the century were covered in a script the like of which no-one had ever seen. The challenge to deciphering them was that they were written in an unknown language in an unknown script about unknown topics.
The story is ultimately a triumph of research: a combination of mind-numbingly patient transcription, comparison and analysis, with flashes of interpretive genius, before, in 1953, amateur scholar Michael Ventris cracked the code.
The real fascination of Fox’s book is not in the outcome but in her account of the research process. The hero is Alice Kober, a now almost forgotten classicist in New York who, in a series of technical papers in the 1940s, identified the nature of the script, unlocked syllabic patterns and pointed the way to a solution – a solution which was frustratingly just out of reach when she died age 43 in 1950. Times were tough times for research. Kober’s communication with other scholars depended on a slow transatlantic postal service. Paper was scarce: when Kober could not get notebooks, she began hand-cutting two-by-three-inch cards from any spare paper she could find: backs of greeting cards, examination book covers, library checkout slips. It was in this unprepossessing environment for research that the breakthrough was made.
Here is another riddle: what – if anything – is the connection between Margalit Fox’s fabulous book and the autonomous world of schooling in which we now find ourselves? I’ll give you a clue: complexity. As the experiences of Kober and Ventris demonstrate, complexity is good for research, and a fecund ground for the imaginative development of practice: in complexity there is a great deal to be explained, much to be studied. Autonomy brings opportunities. Autonomy creates spaces in which differences can be explored and evaluated.
A key feature of the autonomous school system which has emerged since the 2010 Education Act is the school group, or chain. There are now something over 500 such groups — a genuinely new feature of English publicly funded schooling – a (normally) non-geographic cluster of schools with integrated management an financial arrangements and, in some cases, strongly corporate approaches to school leadership and teaching.
Autonomous schools can become autarchic schools, looking inward and concerned with their own practices and development. One of the arguments elaborated about the school system being created following the 2010 Act is that it is inter-, not in-dependent: schools are being encouraged to collaborate one with another. And there is some evidence that a consequence is an inward focus within the group or cluster. Where collaborations have a formal and legal form, some of its details are tightly protected.
So we find school clusters or groups developing distinctive curricula, pedagogies and approaches to professional development — and the best of collaborative innovation is structured, coherent and researched. But where concern with branding and commercial intellectual property issues begin to predominate in schooling, researchability can take second place. Not all innovative practices are open to scrutiny. Moreover, autarchic schools could begin to operate as closed systems, drawing together a strongly coherent but strongly protected set of arrangements where the defined pedagogy and practices are unexplored and unevaluated.
The tendency for autonomous institutions to face inwards, to be concerned with developing distinctiveness and in some cases protecting that distinctiveness calls for new and distinctive relationships between academic research and practice. We need to develop practitioner-researchers who can work in schools to diagnose issues and synthesise evidence to support initial teacher education and school improvement. This work needs to be linked to researchers who can stand back and make sense of the bigger picture.
Individual universities can do some of this, but we also need more thinking on how the education research and development infrastructure needs to develop. What might an education equivalent of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence look like and how might a member-led Royal College of Teaching operate? Isolated, separated researchers did solve the “riddle of the labyrinth” but it took them a long time – 50 years from the excavation of the tiles to a solution. That’s too slow. Educational researchers, and universities who employ them, have shown great inventiveness in finding ways to get close to schools. In an autonomous school system, it will be a highly prized skill, and a huge amount may depend on getting it right quickly.
This post is adapted from Chris Husbands’s address to the British Educational Research Association Conference earlier this month

If knowledge in education is sticky, how do we get it unstuck and flowing?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital14 January 2013

Chris Husbands
The report of the Pearson/RSA Academies Commission has been published. I was one of the commissioners and – as I have blogged before – the Commission provided a fascinating opportunity to look closely at the English school system changing at phenomenal speed. In May 2010 there were just over 200 academies; at the beginning of 2013 there are over 2000. Every local authority has at least one and in some local authorities, as far apart as North East Lincolnshire and Southwark, all secondary schools are now academies. As initial responses to the report indicated, academies have not lost their power to excite strong views from both advocates and critics. The Commission tried to get beyond the noise of proponents and opponents to ask hard questions about the dynamics of an academised school system,
Over eight months, and taking evidence in writing and orally from across the education system, the Commissioners sifted responses to try to consider the implications of academisation for school improvement, school autonomy, admissions, system development, governance and accountability. The Commissioners were agreed that academisation has enormous, transformative potential – academies have indeed injected vitality into schools. But the Commissioners also agreed that academisation – the extension of school autonomy alone – will not be transformative and those who argue that it will be are wrong.
Months of listening, and weeks of report drafting, of course, lead up to a single publication date, and, at the beginning of 2013, publication lands in the middle of a noisy, crowded landscape of social media, press releases and news briefings. It should be no surprise to anyone that an academic will be disappointed at the way work is reported, but I was taken aback by the ability of twitterers to summarise our 120 pages of report in 140 characters in a matter of hours, or even minutes, of the report’s appearance.
In fact, most of those who commented tended to see the Academies Commission report as a mirror, finding in it more of less what they wanted to find. We do say, and we did find, that we were hugely impressed not only by the energy, commitment and moral purpose of most academy head teachers and academy group chief executives, but also by their success in cutting through deeply entrenched local barriers to improving aspirations and provision. We also heard evidence suggesting real concerns about provision for vulnerable children, local accountability to parents and arrangements for appeals against academy decisions.  We heard evidence, often from school governors themselves, to suggest that academy governing bodies are often ill-equipped for the role which governing an academy – effectively making governors non-executive directors – involves.
Some academy groups and federations impressed us with their vision and their grasp of the reality of school improvement, but others left us apprehensive about their ability to provide a strong co-ordination role over geographically scattered groups. This is a report which is thorough and balanced, posing challenges at every level for schools, academy groups, local authorities, government agencies and central government. It would be a huge pity if its recommendations and challenges were lost in the noise of its publication.
One of the real treats of the launch was that Andreas Schleicher, from the OECD, joined us, both for the public launch and for a subsequent academic seminar. Andreas was able to put the report into an international context. The world’s best school systems are those with high levels of school autonomy. But as Andreas pointed out, some of the world’s worst school systems are those with high levels of school autonomy. Autonomy delivers quality only where independence is accompanied by an incentive system and a culture which embeds collaboration and so engenders school inter-dependence.
In a striking phrase at the launch, Andreas said, “knowledge in education is sticky” – it does not move around the system. The challenge posed by the Academies Commission is how an autonomous school system can build knowledge about success. We will not achieve the vision success for all if academisation simply produced archipelagos of excellence. One of the report’s recommendations is that no school should be eligible for an Ofsted “outstanding” rating for leadership unless it can demonstrate success in helping other schools to improve. This, at least, would incentivise collaboration.
School are working in a rapidly changing context. Academies – and the academisation of the school system – are with us.  The challenge now is to realise the quite proper aspirations for transformation.  Meeting the challenges for schools, for system leaders and for policy makers will involve more than using the report as a mirror and will involve serious engagement with inter-locking recommendations.
 

The Government was right: as the 2010 White Paper said, the best systems “train their teachers rigorously”

Blog Editor, IOE Digital31 July 2012

Chris Husbands
“The evidence from around the world shows us that the most important factor in determining the effectiveness of a school system is the quality of its teachers. The best education systems draw their teachers from the most academically able, and select them carefully to ensure that they are taking only those people who combine the right personal and intellectual qualities.  These systems train their teachers rigorously at the outset”.
This quotation gets it pretty well right: It is absolutely true that the best education systems in the world attract the brightest and best into teaching and then train them rigorously.  Put differently, in a different quotation: “The most successful countries, from the Far East to Scandinavia, are those where teaching has the highest status as a profession”.
Both quotations are from this government’s 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching: the first quotation is from the body of the text and the second from the introduction, written by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. In 2010, they got it absolutely correct. It makes it all the more difficult to understand why, just eighteen months later, they are getting it wrong. The decision to remove the requirement that those teaching in (publicly-funded) Academy schools should have Qualified Teacher Status flies in the face of evidence nationally and internationally.
Internationally, the evidence is strong: the status of the teaching profession is related to the quality and status of initial teacher education. England has a very, very good story to tell here. Not least as a result of reforms introduced by the last Conservative government in 1992, requiring all universities to work in close partnership with schools, initial teacher education in England is rigorous, relevant and of high quality. The Ofsted evidence is strong: in 2011, Ofsted reported that highest quality teacher education was to be found in university-led partnerships. Moreover, visitors from around the world come to England to find out how to improve the quality of teacher education. This is a great national success story. Close working relationships between schools and universities, a focus on both research and practice and a concern with standards and pedagogy have produced some exceptional teacher education. There is simply no research evidence at all to suppose that lowering the bar and recruiting significant numbers of unqualified teachers will do anything other than lower standards.
The professional skills of teachers matter hugely. The importance of unpacking subject knowledge in ways which support pupil learning; of understanding how young minds develop; of the ability to plan for the learning of all, including the most gifted and the most challenging; of being able to assess and use assessment to improve teaching; of being able to deploy a range of behaviour management strategies. Teaching is a complex, higher order skill and it depends on high quality training.  None of these things matter any less because a school is an academy or free school rather than a community or voluntary aided school. 
One of the reasons cited by the government for the rule change is that it brings academies into line with independent schools, who are not required to hire those with qualified teacher status. But this makes two errors: first, most independent schools do hire teachers who have QTS, and, secondly, independent schools are not publicly funded. A second reason cited by government is that the rule change will allow schools to hire those with specific skills – talented musicians to teach music, scientists with expertise in industry and so on. But this argument too collapses. First, because of the flexible, partnership based approach to teacher education in his country it is possible to hire people and train them through an employment based scheme. Secondly, the approach equates expert subject knowledge with teaching expertise. Teaching is not simply about imparting facts. It is about engaging young minds, about inspiring learning, about being able to plan the next steps in learning.
The government’s decision is at the very least regrettable. It will do nothing to raise standards and nothing to enhance the status of teaching as a profession. Earlier this year, the government withdrew its plans for taxes on pasties, mobile homes and charitable donations. David Cameron said that the time that it showed “strength and grit” for a government to admit a mistake. It should do so on this measure if it wants to realise the ambitions of the 2010 White Paper.

Academy conversions: why money doesn't always talk

Blog Editor, IOE Digital12 July 2012

Rebecca Allen
Thousands of primary and secondary schools have chosen to convert to academy status (the chart below covers secondary education). A survey by the think-tank Reform showed that financial considerations were the most widely cited reason for conversion, as predicted by many, including The Guardian.Pie chart showing share of pupils by school type in May 2012
The financial gains arise because academies can directly claim their share of the Local Authority Central Spend Equivalent Grant (LACSEG) (pdf) in recognition of the fact that as independent schools they no longer receive a number of services from local authorities (LAs), and must make appropriate provision for themselves or do without these services. LACSEG money is spent by local authorities on:

  • Educational disadvantage: pupils with special needs but without statements, behaviour support services, educational welfare services, 14-16 practical programmes, assessing free school meals eligibility
  • Educational enrichment: music services, visual and performing arts, outdoor education, museum and library services
  • Risk sharing across schools: coverage of long-term sick, termination of employment costs, redundancy costs, capital asset management
  • Shared administrative functions: school admissions, statutory and regulatory duties.

If financial considerations have indeed been a primary motivator for conversion, then is it also true that those with the greatest potential gains from conversion have done so in the greatest numbers? If this were true, then I suggest we should be able to identify likely converters using the following four criteria.
1.  Affluent schools within less affluent local authorities have most to gain from conversion
The share of LACSEG given to academies was calculated on a simple per pupil basis, yet a large proportion of LA services are used to support children with challenging educational needs. The smaller the local authority’s share of children from deprived backgrounds you take, the more you can benefit by taking your school’s LACSEG funding out of the central pot of money. Academy converters are indeed far more affluent (at under 9% free school meals eligibility for secondary schools) than the remaining state maintained sector (around 15% free school meals eligibility). It is also true that academy converters take a disproportionately lower share of the LA’s free school meals population.Histogram showing how academy converters take a lower share of poor pupils
2.  Potential benefits of academy conversion are highest in areas with a high LACSEG (as calculated by DfE)
Where a local authority’s LACSEG spending, as estimated by DfE on their website, is very high, local schools have the most to gain on a per pupil basis from academy conversion. But data actually show the local authorities that have lost the greatest numbers of schools to conversion are actually those with low LACSEG spending.
3.  Benefits should be highest in areas where the discrepancy between DfE-calculated LACSEG and ‘true’ LACSEG were highest
Many schools realised that they would receive a significant short-term windfall  from conversion because the DfE had incorrectly calculated the current expenditure on LACSEG services by local authorities. The discrepancy between calculated LACSEG and true LACSEG in an LA is anywhere between zero and almost £500 per pupil.* We might therefore expect that conversions were highest in areas where this discrepancy was particularly high. But the data show this isn’t so. In fact, some of the areas with the highest discrepancy in their calculation have had no secondary school convert to academy status (e.g. Islington, Barking and Dagenham, Hartlepool).
4.  Those in most financial need – with deficits or falling populations – should be most likely to convert
Some schools argued that they felt they had no choice but to convert to academy status to compensate for cuts in funding to their school. It is true that many schools have seen falling income year-on-year, but if this was an important motivator for conversion then those in the most financial need should have been most likely to convert. However, data show that those already in deficit in the 2009/10 financial year (the most recent for which we have all-England data) were no more likely to convert than others. Also, those with falling pupil populations were also no more likely to convert.
So, although those schools that have converted to academy status so far widely cite financial considerations, the characteristics of the converters are not as predicted if this were the sole consideration. What can we conclude from this? It is possible that many heads and governors do not have the right financial data to make the decisions about conversion, and had they done so, even greater numbers would have recognised the short-term windfall and so converted. Or alternatively political considerations for those sitting on governing bodies widely influenced the conversion decision, which is why more Conservative local authorities have seen the greatest rates of conversion. However, we should also not dismiss the idea that, at least in some local authorities, the sense of cohesion across local schools remains very high and that they value the quality of the services the local authority provides to help them provide schooling for children, particularly those in more challenging circumstances.
* Thanks to Chris Cook of the Financial Times for these estimates

The academies commission: a ringside view of a system negotiating seismic change

Blog Editor, IOE Digital6 July 2012

Chris Husbands
There is one thing we can all agree on about “academisation”. What an awful word! Otherwise there are few more controversial aspects of English education policy than academy status. The RSA/Pearson Commission on Academies, of which I am a member, wants to understand the implications of the rapid development of academies and to crystal ball gaze the future of an education system which is substantially academised. Chaired by former Ofsted Chief Inspector Christine Gilbert, the commission is taking evidence from a wide range of people, including head teachers, teachers, teacher unions, policymakers, politicians, academy group executives and parents.
The Commission is not asking whether “academisation” is a good or bad thing in itself, nor to address definitively the complex relationship between academy status and performance; instead, we are trying to understand what the dynamics of a substantially academised sector might be. 
That brings us face to face with challenging issues of educational and social policy. If schools are increasingly operating outside a local governance framework, who should exercise control over school place planning? At an extreme,  if academies are able to decline to grow in the face of local demographic pressure,  then the remaining local authority schools face the prospect of potential over-crowding. There are concerns about accountability and about the governance and management of admissions, particularly the admission and exclusion of vulnerable children.
One of the Commission’s major challenges is to recognise that academies have changed and developed since their introduction:
1. The first City Academy opened in 2002: Business Academy, Bexley was one of a new generation of schools intended to transform performance in areas of profound social and educational challenge. The model was clear:  new schools were established by business sponsors outside the structures of the local authority and in radically transformed buildings. These new academies were strategic investments in change, with freedoms to vary the curriculum, school year and staff conditions of service.
2. Over the next eight years, New Labour rolled academies out across the country. In the process, the original model (Academies Mark I), in which the vision of a single (often self-made) business partner drove the school, gave way to Academies Mark II, in which corporations, universities, charities, and, in some cases, local authorities themselves acted as sponsors. By May 2010 there were 203 academies, including every secondary in the London Borough of Southwark. These schools were self-governing under a funding agreement directly with the Secretary of State. Some – including the widely cited Mossbourne Academy in Hackney – demonstrated stunning success
3. After the 2010 election came  Academies Mark III. The 2010 Academies Act opened the status to all schools rated outstanding and good by Ofsted on a single vote of the governing body. Some 40% of all secondary schools are now academies, though as Machin and Vernoitt observed, schools applying to convert following the 2010 Act were “significantly more advantaged than the average secondary schools”.
This is the context against which the Academies Commission is working:  a substantially “academised” secondary sector and developments towards academy status in primary schools The idea of an academy is now complex.
4. To the first three types there has now been added Mark IV — “enforced converters” who have repeatedly failed to meet floor targets or have had weak inspection reports. There are, in addition, “free schools”, newly established by parent or sponsor groups but with the formal status of academies. 
 It’s not clear that the single term “academy” captures much about this complexity. The questions asked by the Commission will touch on profoundly held views about what schools are for and who should govern them. Such debates go to the heart of the way schools, and indeed communities, work, and the critical factors influencing the success of a school and the educational achievements of young people. Until we report in November, the Commission offers a ring-side view of an education system negotiating seismic change.

A school system ready for business

Blog Editor, IOE Digital14 May 2012

Stephen Ball
The House of Commons Education Select Committee recommendation for the introduction of performance–related pay (PRP) for teachers has sparked appropriate controversy and some unusual support and dissent. But of course this is not the first time we have been here. The existing “threshold” arrangements for teachers’ pay are the outcome of Labour’s failure to get PRP accepted by the teacher unions.
From the point of view of education policy the important thing is not to see PRP in isolation. Its reappearance has to be related to other policy trends and initiatives as part of a policy ensemble. That is, an interacting set of policies that have effects together. I am thinking of the introduction of new providers of free schools and academies, the creation of school chains, the awarding of contracts to run state schools to private providers, the possibility that free schools can employ untrained teachers, the refusal of some academies to recognise teacher unions and participate in national agreements on teachers’ pay and conditions, and the use of school examination pass percentages to construct league tables, set benchmarks for performance and identify “failing” schools.
Much depends on the fine detail but PRP looks like a further move toward a flexible workforce employed on short term, outcomes-based contracts, and a further diminution of the influence of teacher unions. Both of which are very attractive to existing school chains and private providers interested in taking on the running of state schools. By far the largest component of school budgets is staff salaries, if salaries can be tied more closely to contract requirements, and overall salary costs driven down by employing cheaper and unqualified teachers, then overheads and profits can be derived.
PRP is a further step towards an education system modelled directly on business methods and that is “ready” for commercial exploitation. And yet it is odd perhaps that schools are being encouraged to move to a system of remuneration that has served investment banks and the world’s financial systems so badly in recent times.