The future for unwilling converts

by
10 June 2016

New overlapping networks are welcome in education, Russell Hobby says, but local ties might be lost in the switch to academy chains

Leading voice: Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

Leading voice: Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

ALTHOUGH the education White Paper contained many ideas, attention inevitably focused on its proposals for academies. These proposals were then altered following consultation (a fact we should welcome), but it is still the case that the Government intends to take powers to compel high performing schools to convert against their own professional judgement. There are two criteria for this: where a local authority is deemed to be under-performing and where a local authority is deemed to be unviable. Neither performance nor viability have been defined. Indeed, both these concepts create some difficulties.

In terms of performance, at the primary level, very few academy chains perform above the national average for maintained schools. It would be difficult if the Government set a benchmark that had many academy chains below it. In terms of viability, the government must contend with both the wide variation in scale of local authorities and the fact that many academy chains are themselves considerably smaller than any local authority.

If you set a percentage threshold for viability, you are left with the fact that even, say, 25 per cent of the schools in a county such as Lancashire would be larger than many local authorities and most chains. Setting a clear viability threshold may incentivise schools to persuade each other not to convert – a perverse outcome from the Government’s perspective.

 

WE AWAIT further details on these issues. An additional concern about mass forced academisation is the fragmentation of local clusters and collaborations. There is a risk that participants in existing informal groups may be drawn away into chains that do not overlap with local geographical needs. We would hope that the future of collaboration is one of multiple overlapping networks for different purposes rather than a balkanised system of chains with impenetrable walls around them. This risk is pertinent to church schools where the diocese is the favoured unit for the chain, because diocesan boundaries may not coincide with other boundaries.

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Regardless of the fluctuations in the Government’s strategy on compulsory academisation, it is clear that local authorities’ powers and resources in the school-improvement domain will decline further. Schools may or may not want to convert to academy status, but they should absolutely be exploring alternative structures of mutual support and accountability. There is much that is positive in these voluntarily chosen collaborations: they can make leadership more manageable and help share good practice and resources. Many people working within them praise them highly.

There are many different approaches to this, and many different legal structures that make it possible, including, but not limited to, the multi-academy trust (MAT). We would call on all schools to explore these options regardless of the academy agenda: building support networks is always going to be a good strategy in an uncertain future.

 

WE SHOULDN’T neglect other vital topics in the White Paper. The Government has confirmed its commitment to a national funding formula, although the purdah relating to the European referendum has introduced unhelpful delays to the consultation on the formula. The proposed formula contains a school level subsidy, which may be of interest, and relief, to small schools. The funding formula may also result in a redistribution of money between urban and rural areas, but this is not likely to be as large as the former fear or the latter hope.

The White Paper also contains proposals for reform to initial teacher training and the process of qualifying teachers. This has been reported as an attempt to end qualified teacher status but the National Association of Head Teachers does not read it that way — it may actually result in a tougher and longer qualification period. The most controversial aspect is that it will be awarded by the employing school.

In this, and other proposals such as the “achieving excellence areas”, the White Paper seems to be making a return to looking at issues of capacity and capability. For too long now, education reform has focused myopically on increasing accountability and autonomy. These are important but, without a comparable investment in capacity, they risk a deeply unbalanced education system. This new focus is to be welcomed but it remains to be seen whether we have the resources to back it. The trouble with capacity-building is that it is expensive; accountability and autonomy are cheap in cash terms, although very expensive in terms of morale if pushed too far.

 

Russell Hobby is the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

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