The Conservatives show no sign of slowing down the pace of education reform in England and made a flurry of new announcements on changes to the school system. After the headlines about George Osborne’s budget announcement that all schools must be on track to becoming an academy by 2022, more detail on this and a raft of other reforms have been published by Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, in a new white paper.
The key principles of these changes is to increase schools' autonomy to make their own decisions, and focus on the quality of education by monitoring the outcomes of pupils.
By transforming all schools in England into academies, the Conservatives aim to totally transform schools by the time the next election comes along – finally taking local authorities out of running schools altogether. The majority (61%) of secondary schools are already academies – 2,075 out of 3,381. But the picture in primary is quite different – only around 15% of primary schools are currently academies. Converting all of them will be a huge task, not least for the Department for Education in managing the process.
The academies policy also creates a big challenge of governance. It’s unclear whether we can find enough high quality governors to run all our schools well. One way of solving this problem might be to get schools to join together in multi-academy trusts (MATs), otherwise known as academy chains. The white paper suggests that “most schools will join or form MATs”.
But this will only partially solve the problem. While some academy chains such as Harris or ARK have been highly effective, others have had major issues in terms of quality of performance.
The white paper suggests a strong role for the eight existing Regional Schools Commissioners in monitoring the quality of academy chains and intervening where necessary. In addition, measures have been proposed to increase the role of parents, who will be allowed to petition to have a school moved to another chain.
There will also finally be the publication of accountability and performance measures for MATs, something that was overdue in a system in which they play such a central role.
Too much, too soon?
All this is happening at a time when the overall evidence on whether academies have an overall positive effect on standards is mixed. The first generation of academies, the so-called “sponsored” academies set up in disadvantaged, primarily inner-city areas to take over from struggling schools, have shown positive effects on attainment. The picture is less clear for the more recent “converter” academies, successful schools that could convert to academy status.
Full academisation of English schools also marks the end of the National Curriculum, a flagship policy of a previous Conservative government, as academies can set their own. In practise, however, the exam and accountability system – including performance measures such as the English Baccalaureate – leaves government with a strong lever to direct what schools teach.
Osborne also announced additional funding for a quarter of secondary schools to extend their school day. This can be a useful strategy to improve attainment in particular for disadvantaged students. But as with academisation, the evidence is mixed: it is what schools do with the extra time that really counts. In particular, activities need to be academically focused, but sufficiently attractive to make sure students actually attend them.
Closing the gap
The schools inspectorate Ofsted recently identified a gap in school standards between the north and south of England, with the former under-performing. In response to this, the government announced a strategy, partly copied from the successful London Challenge, to improve them. The model is based on outstanding schools and leaders supporting their less successful neighbours.
There is evidence that this strategy can be successful, but it doesn’t work in all cases. Some critics have claimed that the success of the London Challenge was not down to the strategy at all, but to changes in demographics, such as the growing number of non-white British working class pupils. Others have pointed to the additional funding received for each pupil by London schools.
Teacher training revamp
The white paper proposes to further increase the proportion of teacher training offered by schools rather than universities. The “best” universities will still offer teacher training, often in “centres of excellence” based on their “world-leading research and subject expertise”. This suggests that difficult times may be coming for those universities that provide teacher training that does not fit the criteria.
Schools are also to be given an increased role in accrediting new teachers. The current system will be scrapped and replaced by “accreditation based on a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom, as judged by great schools”. Headteachers will play a key role.
The existing school-led teacher training system has come in for a lot of criticism, but in reality there is no real evidence of its effectiveness or otherwise. In part, this is because the impact of teacher training on student outcomes is hard to measure. Still, the government’s emphasis on improving teachers' subject knowledge and ensuring the content of their initial training is based on evidence is welcome, and will hopefully debunk some of the myths and poor practices that still crop up in education.
The final major reform that will have a large impact in many schools is the change to the school funding formula. The government has set aside £500m to ensure that 90% of schools are funded under the new “fair funding” formula by 2020 to eliminate current discrepancies in per pupil funding around the country.
The new formula simplifies funding by using four levers: a basic amount per pupil, a payment based on additional needs such as low prior attainment, school costs (the extra costs for serving rural communities), and area costs (more funding will go to areas with higher costs).
This is likely to decrease some of the differences in funding between schools in different areas. What is fair is of course in the eye of the beholder and those schools and areas losing out under the new formula will no doubt quickly point out any inequities the new system may contain.