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Education: Gove’s education rollercoaster

21 September 2012

Margaret Holness considers the changing educational landscape


Is that how you spell "innovation"?  Michael Gove with a pupil at the Pimlico Academy, London

Is that how you spell "innovation"?  Michael Gove with a pupil at the Pimlico Academy, London

MICHAEL GOVE - is he a closet Trot? I ask only because of his apparent devotion to rolling revolution.

Since the accession of the present Government in 2010, and his rule at the Department for Education, the educational landscape has experienced an earthquake, and the aftershocks seem never-ending.

Interpreting education now means acquiring a whole new language, one that develops by the month.

In 1973, when I started reporting education, it was straightforward, once you had mastered the system. The 25,000 or so schools in England at the time fell into two basic groups: primary and secondary.

The majority, known as "county" schools, were provided by local education authorities (LEAs), supplemented by a substantial minority of church schools, most of which were Church of England or Roman Catholic.

Local-authority education committees had oversight of all schools. In the case of church schools they worked with the relevant diocesan authorities in the dual system established by the seminal Butler Education Act of 1944.

There were exceptions to the rule. Although most secondary schools had become comprehensives, a handful of LEAs, notably Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Kent, retained selection at 11 or 13.

Under Mrs Thatcher, and after 1987, some comprehensives shed LEA control and became grant-maintained - a foretaste of things to come. A few authorities had tried out the three-tier system with first, middle, and upper schools. But all these were geographic peculiars, atypical of the national writ.

The next noticeable crack in the system appeared with the introduction, under Labour, of city academies, sponsored by businesses, charities, or churches. They were intended to raise educational standards in deprived (the approved word was "challenging") urban areas. They were free to innovate, and were centrally funded, bypass-ing LEAs, which largely opposed them.

Within months of taking power, Mr Gove had elevated the academy idea into the ideal. His dearest wish is for all schools to be independent of town halls, and that status is on offer to all that want it - and some that do not.

First, all schools with outstanding OFSTED ratings were allowed - nay, bribed, with large amounts of cash - to become academies. Then, schools judged by OFSTED to be failing were required to become academies, whether they liked it or not.

These days, academy brokers, on behalf of the DfE, approach promising schools and diocesan officials. It is even rumoured that bishops have been leant on to fly the academy flag in sceptical dioceses.

Then there are a plethora of other types of school, including Mr Gove's favourite: free schools. These are a variation of the academy principle, but they are started from scratch, and set up by groups of parents or teachers and organisations such as the Methodist Church, which has publicly acclaimed free schools as a route back into running schools.

Other newcomers on the scene are studio schools - only a handful so far - that specialise in a particular craft; and university technical schools for 14-to-19-year-olds.

In August, during parliamentary recess, Mr Gove announced that the teaching profession is to be augmented - so far, in academies and free schools only - by those without a teaching qualification, and is thus without guaranteed standards in English and maths. It is a curious decision for a Secretary of State who has already raised the bar for entry to teacher training.

Margaret Holness is the Church Times education correspondent.


This provides new opportunities for the C of E, says Nigel Genders

AMID all this flux, what is the position of the Church?

We still have 1972 voluntary aided schools, with a majority of church-appointed governors responsible for the maintenance of buildings, the employment of staff, and the implementation of the school's admissions policy.

We still have 2335 voluntary controlled schools which, in terms of governance, mirror community schools, but with a minority of church-appointed foundation governors ensuring that the education and worship are still in accordance with the founding trust deed.

We still have 42 former grant-maintained schools (GMS), which opted to become foundation schools when GMS were abolished in 1998. Like voluntary controlled schools, they have only a minority of church-appointed governors, but like voluntary aided schools, their governing bodies are responsible for the admissions policy and the employment of staff.

We still have 45 "Labour" academies, opened since 2001, in areas of significant deprivation, where a new approach was needed to turn previous community or church schools around. When sponsors were sought to run these new academies, many dioceses in the Church of England took up the challenge, either on their own or in partnership with others. Sometimes, this was at the request of local authorities that recognised the C of E approach would, in itself, raise standards. This initiative increased the number of C of E secondary schools.

The Government's acceleration of the academies programme, through the Academies Act 2010, opened the door for many more schools to convert to academy status.

Currently, the C of E oversees a total of 127 academies (46 of which are primary), making the C of E the largest provider of academies in the country. Nationally, more secondary schools than primaries have welcomed the opportunity to take academy status; often because smaller schools find that the incentives of independence are outweighed by the burden of extra responsibility.

For church schools that are used to a strong relationship with their diocese, and the wider family of church schools - and particularly for voluntary aided schools, with their strong governance, local accountability, and freedom to express their values - the supposed extra benefits of academy conversion are unclear.

What schools and dioceses really want is to be able to develop mechanisms that enable groups of primary schools to form collaborative partnerships, enabling mutual support and economies of scale.

Whether it is academies, free schools, studio schools, technical academies, or university technical schools that are in the headlines, the direction of travel is clear: state-funded independent schools outside local authority control are regarded by the Government as the best way forward.

So how should the C of E safeguard the provision it already has, and ensure that it develops effective policies?

Even with the strong political drive behind it, academies account for less than three per cent of Church of England schools, and the focus on this small group of schools should not divert attention from the 97 per cent who, more than ever, need the support of their diocese as they navigate the often turbulent waters of education.

An important area in which the National Society (which promotes and resources C of E and Church in Wales schools) has taken decisive action is in promoting the understanding that it is impossible to take the Church out of church schools.

The Department for Education was keen to line up potential sponsors to take over consistently under-performing schools, so the C of E had to make it clear that any such sponsor must be thoroughly rooted in a Christian perspective if they were to be suitable partners for Church schools.

Consequently, the C of E agreed a memorandum of understanding that set out how a diocese would always be assumed to be the most suitable sponsor for any Church of England school. This put the onus on dioceses to develop their capacity for effective school improvement.

WITH the relentless drive towards a system of state-funded independ-ent schools, directly accountable to, and ultimately controlled by, the Secretary of State, there is a serious question about what part the diocese should play, both now and in the future.

The free-market ideology which says that good and outstanding schools should get better, while under-performing schools should close, or be taken over by a good sponsor, is one way of looking at the world.

The danger is, however, that if we are not careful, the result could be a fragmented system where those parents who are mobile, or mobilised enough, to gain access to or promote the "good schools" do well for their children, while the remaining children are left in under-resourced schools that local authorities no longer have the capacity to support.

The Church of England is determined to ensure that every C of E school is either good or outstanding, and to this end dioceses need to build capacity and strengthen their schools family.

If the academies programme is a means of achieving this aspiration, it should be embraced, and models developed that enable groups to work together, sometimes sharing governors and, in some cases, sharing a single head-teacher.

Such an approach does not depend on the academy route. With the de-creasing influence of local authorities (due, in part, to the reduction in their funding), schools are recognising the need to formalise the collabora- tion and partnerships they already enjoy.

A steady stream of community schools now want their diocese to take a lead in developing local collaborative trusts to ensure a level of co-operation and mutual support that serves the whole community, not just the C of E schools within it.

Now is the moment for dioceses to offer the strength of their schools family to the wider system. Relationships with community schools should be welcomed, and the number of affiliated schools increased; so that no one who wants to be part of the family of Church of England schools is excluded.

Church of England schools continue to be popular with parents who recognise that their distinctive and inclusive character, with high expectations and a clear focus on Christian values, give their children excellent life-chances.

Given the pressing need to provide more school places to meet the demands of an expanding school population, the Church of England can help to meet that demand by expanding places in popular schools, and opening more schools where demand requires it. Free schools provide a ready mechanism to do this, and a number of dioceses are exploring how best to promote such schools.

Two hundred years ago, the founders of the National Society sought to provide education for whole communities, particularly for the disadvantaged. That is still the Church of England focus, whatever the category of school, and whatever the structures, trusts, or academy status. The changing educational landscape is an opportunity to respond for the good of the children the Church of England serves.

The Revd Nigel Genders is Head of School Policy for the Church of England's Board of Education.

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