Free schools are currently operating as an expensive ‘unguided missile’ in the school system with little rhyme or reason as to where they are permitted.
By Robert Hill of the RSA
Michael Gove is fond of highlighting how the English education system can learn from other countries.
Singapore’s curriculum and exams, New Orleans’ charter schools, Finland’s high quality teacher qualifications and Shanghai’s excellence in PISA rankings are among the overseas exemplars the education secretary has highlighted.
But as he seeks to develop a system of great schools across England there is one international lesson that Michael Gove seems to be less keen on following.
Evidence from New York, Boston, Ontario, Singapore – as well as nearer to home in London – shows that schools make faster progress as a whole when school improvements efforts are co-ordinated and steered at a city or sub-regional level.
This does not mean turning the clock back on freedom for schools – academies and school autonomy are here to stay. School-to-school support should continue to drive school improvement. Free schools have the potential to bring innovation and greater diversity to the school system.
The argument is not so much with the government’s individual policies but with the fact that they do not add up to a coherent whole. For example, free schools are currently operating as an expensive ‘unguided missile’ in the school system with little rhyme or reason as to where they are being permitted.
It would make much more sense to promote and open new schools in areas where there is most demand for school places or where existing schools are failing.
The strategy for school improvement is also incoherent. The government does not trust local authorities to identify and arrange support for struggling schools. In part the suspicion is justified and in part it is not: local authority performance is inconsistent and councils are paring back their education services as budget cuts bite.
Instead the government is increasingly relying on school chains, teaching schools and other groupings. While this is a welcome strategy the reality is that many schools are not covered by such arrangements – and not all school chains and partnerships are effective.
And for the schools with the worst track record the government is, in effect, itself becoming the local authority. The Department for Education is seeking to mastermind from Whitehall the process of matching sponsors with hundreds of seriously underperforming schools at a point when it is also struggling to monitor the performance of the burgeoning number of academies.
Ironically for an allegedly ‘small state’ Conservative-led government, Michael Gove is building a command and control machine that is much more extensive than anything New Labour ever attempted. This approach is neither sensible nor sustainable.
As cities and economic sub regions come to play more of a role in growing our economy, renewing our infrastructure and developing skills, schools and local authorities should become part of a more devolved way of working.
A directly elected mayor or the political leadership for a sub-region could appoint a commissioner or, in the first instance, jointly appoint with the education secretary, an education commissioner. Commissioners would be high-calibre individuals who would command the confidence and respect of school leaders and have strong influencing and inter-personal skills.
Their role would be as much about the exercise of influence and soft power as executive responsibilities and would encompass:
• Developing a shared strategy for improving all schools and raising the quality of teaching and learning;
• Co-ordinating schools place planning and competitions for new schools across local authorities and commissioning specialist services for vulnerable children;
• Challenging local authorities that were either too lax in understanding the performance of local schools, or too overbearing in their dealings with school leaders;
• Working with teaching schools and chains to co-ordinate city/county-wide improvement efforts and ensure no school is left behind;
• Determining when alternative providers should be brought in to take over failing schools; and
• Linking the curriculum to the culture and needs of the area and mobilising third sector and employer support to broaden experiences and resources for young people.
A commissioner’s ability to steer the system would come from holding funding agreements for all academies – itself a major act of decentralisation. The commissioner would allocate capital funding for major school building projects and distribute a school improvement fund (devolved from the DfE) to help weave school improvement initiatives across the sub-region into a coherent whole.
Arrangements might take a different form in different places but without the knitting together that a commissioner could provide the risk is that we end up with a patchwork quilt education system: a growing number of outstanding schools sitting alongside schools that struggle or are left behind.
The learning from other countries is clear: if you want all schools and all pupils to progress then develop strong political and professional leadership that aligns your strategy, resources and key people in each city and sub-region.