Bringing schools back together

by
10 June 2016

The emphasis on independence for schools comes at a cost, says Estelle Morris

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"Template for decades to come": Baroness Morris

"Template for decades to come": Baroness Morris

THE GOVERNMENT’S education White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, hit the headlines before it was even launched. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced “forced” academies in his Budget speech, and this single policy has come to define the document. It is, however, important to remember that there are seven other chapters, on issues from training teachers, to a national funding formula, and these will also have an impact on what happens in our schools.

The key policies are those that will shape the future structure of our school system. Although the Government has withdrawn its plans to force good and outstanding schools to become academies, the outcome is unlikely to change.

Policies to reduce the power and influence of local authorities, to devolve resources to schools, and to give greater autonomy to head teachers and governing bodies, began 30 years ago — and few of us would want to go back. But, as with all change, as some of the consequences of these policies become clearer they raise important issues.

The main pillars of the current schools system are: autonomous schools, held to account through inspection and assessment; power transferred from local to central government; increased choice for parents from a greater diversity of school providers; and trust placed in the market to shape the pattern of provision. The emphasis is on the individual school – academies are often described as “independent state schools” – and performance measures all operate at the school level.

 

MUCH of this change has led to higher standards. The focus on teaching and leadership, the culture of higher expectations, and the support given to individual children have all helped to improve the system.

But the emphasis on independence and the market has come at a cost of fragmentation and a lack of coherence. The glue that used to hold schools together is missing. The structures that used to mediate between ministers and schools have gone: strong local authorities, specialist schools networks, school sports partnerships, and an independent national leadership college. Schools do need autonomy, but they don’t flourish unless they are part of a network – they need interdependence as well as independence. They need challenge and support, and they need the capacity that comes from being part of a wider group.

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The White Paper is an attempt to re-create this middle layer. The emphasis on multi-academy trusts (MATs), which group academies together within the same governance structure, recognises that a collection of independent autonomous schools is not a workable model for a national system. The problem for the Government is that this understanding has come after the infrastructure for local networks has been dismantled.

It is not difficult to imagine that, within a few years, all schools will be part of an MAT, and 1000 or more of them will stretch from one end of the country to the other.

 

CHURCH schools are at an advantage. Throughout all this change, they have remained part of a wider family, with shared values. They already have the framework to build MATs. The challenge will be how effectively each MAT would deliver the school improvement that would become its prime responsibility – and what consequences there would be if it did not.

Apart from the very real issue of the central control that the new structure gives to ministers, there are huge questions that remain unanswered. How does the Government resolve the conflict between its claim to “trust teachers” and the power given to the regional schools commissioners to force schools to become academies and join MATs? Where is the voice of the local community? Who talks and acts for those communities when many sponsors of MATs are national organisations and parents don’t have a right to be on governing bodies?

Who brings schools in an area together to take collective responsibility for all children and make sure that no school is isolated? How do MATs link with the other services that are essential for education success, and who will rein in the enormous power given to the regional commissioners and their expanding teams?

It isn’t unusual to claim that a government White Paper will change education – that’s its purpose. But it is interesting how few of them are remembered or have lasting impact. I sense that this one is different. It takes such a leap towards a national, rather than a local, school system, that it may be the template for decades to come.

Baroness Morris of Yardley is a former Secretary of State for Education and is a member of the National Society Council

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