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28

March

By Mark Lehain, Director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence and founder of the Bedford Free School

A distinctive feature of the English school system is the particularly diverse range of school entities found within it over time. Public, private, grant-maintained, voluntary-aided, voluntary-controlled, foundation, academy, UTC, CTC – we’ve had them all, each with their own legal status and governance structure. 

Since 2010 we have seen the explosion of academies in the state sector, with over one-third of schools now having converted to the status. When a maintained school academises, their staff, sites, buildings and other assets are transferred to independent charitable trusts, who have greater operational freedoms and receive their funding direct from central government instead of local councils.

Just over half of pupils are now in such schools and on the current trend this will be two-thirds within three years. Aside from the impact on how schools operate, because funding follows pupils every time a school academises, the money councils have to run their education department declines, alongside their direct ability to influence provision in the local area. 

This is not coincidental but a deliberate part of the policy, and it raises some interesting questions for those interested in reaching a more settled state of affairs in our school system that delivers educational excellence for every child. 

And whilst there are those on the Left who call for schools to be returned to “local democratic control”, the legal and contractual basis of academy trusts is such that only a masochistic Education Secretary with a lust for judicial reviews would actually try to unpick things. What then can be done to achieve a level playing field for all schools? 

For me, the obvious – indeed the only – feasible solution is to finish the job and academise all state schools. I say this not for ideological reasons but because it is the simplest and most pragmatic way to ensure fairnessaddress key challenges, and then allow the sector to get on with the main job of changing kids’ lives. 

Right now we have academies operating under one set of rules and maintained schools under a variety of others depending on historical precedent. These differences cover the freedoms schools have to make decisions on  their curriculum, staffing, how they spend their money; their governance; and their relationship with different tiers of government. Full academisation would mean the same rules applied to all schools, and greater transparency across the board. A “common rulebook” is Labour policy too – they just haven’t spelled out how they’d do this. 

In terms of challenges – barely a day goes by without school funding making the news. There is growing evidence that multi-academy trusts (MATs) are more financially efficient than maintained schools. Research shows that they tend to get more of their cash into the classroom than council-controlled schools, and spend less on management and other overheads (contrary to popular belief.) 

The issue of teacher recruitment and retention is one causing a headache for many Heads. It’s increasingly acute at secondary level, especially for schools in challenging communities. There is an interesting situation emerging though where good MATs are bucking the trend in the rest of the system and getting the strongest teachers where they are most needed, in the more challenging contexts. (You can read more about MAT spending and staffing in Karen Wespeiser’s NFER blog here.) 

Most importantly though, full academisation would enable a once-and-for clarification of the roles and responsibilities of all the various players in the school system. Given the massive changes in the last 30 years, it is completely unsurprising that the lines have become blurred between local and national government, their various agencies, Ofsted, dioceses, foundations, academy trusts, and so on. This has led to schools being dragged in different directions due to differing priorities by different people. It’s also created conflicts of interest & confusion. Who is responsible for school improvement? Who should take the hit when things go wrong in this regard? Who should run our schools to ensure the highest quality of education? 

There has been some tidying around the edges in the past year: Ofsted has been told to stick to judging quality, and Regional Schools Commissioners to stay out of school improvement, but more needs to happen. Fortunately models such as those proposed by Laura McInerney and Matt Hood are out there for consideration – it just needs political will to finish the job. 

To be clear – I don’t believe that this shift would be pain-free or a panacea. No system can be better than its quality of governance, and we need to seriously consider how we get this right along the way. As seen already in the media, greater transparency will likely show up dodgy practices that have been hidden for too long. Things will probably seem worse before they get better. 

However, with even cautious institutions like the Catholic Church getting behind this changeI think we can be reasonably confident that transitional pains will be seen through and the job completed. This will finally put us in the position where standards, not structures, can be the entire focus of the sector. That’s something sustainable we can all get behind.