Do free schools raise the performance of nearby schools, as Policy Exchange have claimed, or is this a statistical mirage?
There is a plausible argument that the opening of a free school in an area might spur other schools to improve in the long run: it is a basic tenet of market competition that producers – in this case schools – will respond to such pressure. But many other factors lie behind good management of schools – including working with the community – so it is far from clear how much effect the opening of a new local school would have in practice, and whether the fact that it was a free school would make a difference. (more…)
This post originally appeared in The Conversation
Each year, the Queen’s speech marks the point where the poetry of aspiration gets translated into the hard slog of legislation and implementation. The Conservative manifesto for education was certainly bold and aspirational: firmly targeted at parents (the chapter on education is headed “giving your child the best start in life”), the document promised a “good primary school place for every child”, with “zero tolerance of failure”. It pledged that struggling and failing schools would be taken over, good schools – of whatever type – would be allowed to expand, and 500 new free schools would be established. (more…)
This post originally appeared in The Conversation
Sweden has experienced a dramatic decline in the international ranking of its schools. Swedish 15-year-olds’ performance on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development-led Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has declined from near the average in 2000 to significantly below average in 2012. No other country included in the PISA study has experienced a steeper decline than Sweden during this period. (more…)
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…)
The closure of a third ‘free’ school, this time in Durham, raises some very serious issues for our whole education system and for our democracy. The coalition government invested £900,000 of taxpayers’ money in the Durham free school for only 34 students when it opened in September 2013. Now after five terms it has attracted only 94 pupils, and almost five times as much resource is being spent on these pupils than on (more…)
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.
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.