Conservative education plans are poetic - but are they practical?

She’s got skills. cybrarian77/Flickr, CC BY-NC

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.

Now, the government plans to introduce an Education Bill which will tackle schools that are “failing and coasting” by forcing institutions deemed by Ofsted to be “requiring improvement” to accept new headteachers, unless they can demonstrate a plan for rapid improvement.

The new school leadership would be backed by expert sponsors, or high-performing neighbouring schools. The best headteachers would also take control of failing primary schools, through the expansion of the National Leaders of Education programme. All secondary schools that fall into this category would be converted into academies.

Right tools for the job?

The challenge here is that the manifesto promises two fundamentally different sets of tools to achieve its goals. On one hand, it is held that the market will deliver: good schools will expand, or good headteachers and leadership teams will take over the leadership of weaker schools. New schools – new free schools – will develop where they are needed. On the other hand, it is regulation and intervention that will deliver: Ofsted inspection will become even more important, and someone – presumably regional schools commissioners – will intervene to academise schools and to replace leadership teams.

These tensions between the market and intervention make for uneasy policy, and have sharp practical implications. There’s no necessary connection between the areas where additional school places are needed and where good schools are located. And there’s evidence to suggest that free schools have the biggest impact on standards, not in areas where they were “needed” for the supply of school places, but in areas where they introduced surplus provision, generating competition and choice.

Equally, not all good schools want to expand – and there are few market incentives for them to do so. If a good school puts its own quality in jeopardy by expanding, it now runs the risk of being categorised as “requiring improvement”, which would trigger intervention and potential takeover.

Prosaic, not poetic

The challenges of the education marketplace are not confined to school supply. It is likely that the new legislation will require schools in an intervention category to accept new headteachers, unless they can demonstrate a plan for rapid improvement. In practice, of course, all schools in a category are required to produce a plan for rapid improvement. But setting this aside, the problem is likely to be that there are simply not enough good school leaders (who are prepared to risk their career), or, indeed, enough good academy chains to meet these requirements.

‘Requiring improvement’? dullhunk/Flickr, CC BY

There are outstanding school leaders and there are outstanding academy chains – just as there are outstanding local authorities. In the early years of academisation – under both Labour and coalition governments – the academy chains that ran into trouble were those that expanded too fast, taking on too many schools. Managing that marketplace will be a real challenge for the government, and will need a legislative underpinning.

There’s one more issue. Running through the proposed legislation is a concern with schools – good ones, struggling ones, failing ones, new ones. But research consistently finds that variation within schools is much greater than between schools. The Ofsted report on “unseen children” – for which I was on the advisory panel – understood this well, and examined the performance of poor children in otherwise good schools.

The key drivers here are neither the structure of the school system, nor academisation, but a consistent focus on the quality of teaching. As the Conservative Party manifesto puts it; “teaching is a highly skilled profession”. The key focus needs to be on how we recruit, develop and deploy teachers: the English labour market for teachers is one of the most devolved in the world, meaning there are few levers we can pull to get the best teachers into the schools where they are needed most.

Over the past five years, the landscape of education governance has been transformed. Academy chains and regional schools commissioners have forged strong links back to the Department for Education. The 1944 settlement – which deliberately restricted the power of central government, and vested control over education in a complex mix of local education authorities, foundations and churches – has been unwound.

The relationships between central government and individual schools, between the market and intervention, will govern the implementation of the Conservative manifesto. Yet all education politics is ultimately local – about this school in this place: very prosaic, and not at all poetic.

This article was co-published with UCL IoE London.