Standards or structures?

Our guest writer is Kimberley Trewhitt, a Researcher at the Reform think tank

The debate has long raged over “standards or structures” and which is the better option to reform the education system.  The current Government has plans for both, with its structural reform focusing on free schools and academies, and an overhaul of the national curriculum designed to raise standards to come in the education White Paper due later this month.  This approach is not new.  We saw it during the last government with academies on the structural side and National Strategies to raise standards in literacy and numeracy.  And the one before that with grant maintained schools and the introduction of the inspectorate, Ofsted.

The fact is that “standards” do make a difference. When it comes to educational outcomes, the principal factor is quality of teaching.  Academic research has found that having a high quality teacher can add almost half a GCSE grade per subject to a given student.  Michael Gove is therefore right to say he will focus on driving up the quality of teaching.  However, Government initiatives so far, such as plans to expand the Teach First programme, will only make a positive difference for new entrants into the profession.  There are 447,000 existing teachers.

So the subsequent question is how do you get, and maintain, good teachers?  The answer is, through “structures”.  Better structures should create the framework through which standards are lifted and hence better educational outcomes are attained.  They do this by introducing pressures and incentives to improve standards, for example by getting heads to focus on teacher quality.

The crux of the matter is accountability.  Structures deliver accountability.  Under successive governments the drive has been for accountability to the centre.  This has been expensive, through the costs of bodies such as the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), Ofsted and the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services, and has not worked.  For example, the TDA received £743 million in government funding last year.  Yet, as Reform’s recent research found, training and professional development in schools remains of a poor quality.  Teachers need effective continual training and development, and heads need to be equipped with management, legal, HR and financial skills.

Real, effective accountability is to parents.  When the accountability of schools to parents is increased in a meaningful way, in a situation where parents care and have the power to change things, schools and heads will focus on the quality of teaching.  Some good schools already behave like this, although they are in the minority.  They have designed and implemented their own systems of performance management, rather than relying on the Government’s.  They improve their good teachers and effectively manage their poorer teachers.

To talk about “standards not structures” therefore sets up a false opposition.  There is an element of contradiction in this Government’s efforts to reform education, on the one hand talking about greater decentralisation of power and on the other talking about a centrally-prescribed history curriculum. This dichotomy needs to be resolved. The upcoming White Paper needs to acknowledge that structures drive standards and lay out coherent policies in light of this.

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