This article is from the May issue of Total Politics
Academies are everywhere. These ‘independent’ state schools – funded by government but free from local authority control, the national curriculum and national agreements on teachers’ pay and conditions – have increased in number eight-fold since the coalition came to power and allowed any state school to become an academy. Last year’s Education Act changed the default for new provision in the school system, so all new schools – even those originated by local authorities – will be academies.
Of course, only a tiny minority of England’s 22,000 state schools – around seven per cent – are academies, but a recent survey of academy leaders by Reform and The Schools Network shows that this minority is doing some interesting things with its freedoms. Two thirds of academies are changing their curriculums. Many are changing the arrangement of the school year to shorten holiday. Almost all are working strongly with other local schools, while seven in ten say that one of their reasons for conversion was to gain a sense of educational autonomy.
There is, however, a gap between the government’s rhetoric of autonomy – which is held up as being essential to improve standards – and the reality of the central prescription that continues to govern the schools system. The 20,000-odd schools that aren’t academies are still bound by their local authority’s decisions over funding, the government’s view of the ‘right’ national curriculum, and the pay settlement agreed on with the teaching unions. There seems to be a fundamental inconsistency: is school autonomy important or not?
The reality is that even academies aren’t as free in practice as they are on paper. Two-thirds of academies may be changing their curriculums, but our survey revealed that in most cases these are minor tweaks rather than radical innovation. Fully 60 per cent of academies say that the existence of national pay and conditions makes it culturally difficult for them to vary pay and conditions in their schools, hampering their freedom to reward teachers for excellence, making it more difficult to hold them to account for their performance. Many teachers feel there is a cultural entitlement to an annual increase in salary, irrespective of how well they do their job.
The evidence shows that real school autonomy can drive up academic standards by freeing schools to innovate. Professor Simon Burgess of Bristol University and Dr Rebecca Allen of London’s Institute of Education argue that giving schools greater control in the aforementioned areas would allow them to respond to local conditions, innovating where they think change can work, and experimenting to improve results. “Radical deregulatory reforms,” they conclude, “may produce important long-term benefits that increase levels of parental satisfaction with the schooling system.”
Imposing rigidities that inhibit schools from responding to their pupils’ needs and parents’ wishes is counterproductive, but the bigger problem is that the existence of centrally-set rules, regulations and guidance strips schools of any responsibility for the quality of what they do and gives it to the state. If pupils are ill-equipped for work or university when they leave, it’s the fault of the exam system or the national curriculum. If teachers under-perform, blame the Department for Education’s training plan and teacher standards. If a school is failing, it’s Ofsted’s job to step in and sort it out.
Successful schools take responsibility for these things. They own their curriculums, and their headteachers are responsible for ensuring staff are up to scratch. Endless central prescription hasn’t fixed the bad schools. In fact, arguably the most successful intervention of recent years – Labour’s academies – wasn’t a government ‘intervention’ in the traditional sense at all, but rather it put failing schools in the hands of outstanding leaders with strong governance and then let them get on with it.
One of this first generation of academies, David Young Community Academy in Leeds, shows what can be done. Pupils follow a seven-term academic year, starting in June and finishing in May, with a four-week summer holiday. Principal Ros McMullen says this gives them the head-start they need: “By the time everybody else starts Year 7, they have already had a good 10 weeks of secondary education.” The school day comprises just two lessons and runs from 8.25am to 4.35pm, allowing more work to be done in lessons and reducing time lost in between classes. The academy focuses on the curriculum rather than exams, meaning that pupils are not taught to the test. The result, counter-intuitively, is that achievement in qualifications has soared. Half the students now get five decent GCSEs including maths and English. At the predecessor schools, just four per cent did.
The current school system in England does ensure that every school meets a minimum standard, but that standard is lower than it needs to be, and incentives are all aimed at encouraging pupils to reach it rather than aim higher. To break this barrier, the government needs to let all schools follow the example of the David Young Community Academy, and take responsibility for the quality of what they do.
Extending academy freedoms to all schools, liberating them from local authority control, scrapping the national curriculum and national terms and conditions, would truly let them take ownership of the education process. It won’t work on its own, however – schools need to collaborate, and parents need the power to hold them properly to account. But changing the system to give schools real autonomy to live up to their responsibilities could start a revolution that would improve every seat of education, and every child’s education.
Dale Bassett is research director at the think tank Reform