For Discussion

Disclaimer: This paper is written as a contribution to the debate on what we seek to achieve for the education system as a whole. The paper is not necessarily an expression of Group policy.


Authors: Robert Wolfson, Ron Glatter

The Schools White Paper 2010 The Importance of Teaching (Cm 7980, November 2010) – the White Paper – and the implementation of the Academies Act and forthcoming legislation raise significant questions to which the Government needs to give answers.

The White Paper makes much of being ‘evidence based’ and is accompanied by a volume of supporting evidence The Case for Change. But the evidence has been chosen to support the political arguments the government wants to propound, and has selectively ignored counter evidence.

A few pertinent examples:

1.1. There is an implicit assumption that competition between schools raises standards. There is little evidence to support this, and much evidence to disprove this assumption. See the recent OECD review of international research Markets in Education: An Analytical Review of Empirical Research on Market Mechanisms in Education (October 2010) by Sietske Waslander, Cissy Pater, and Maartje van der Weide.

1.2. There is praise for Finland as an exemplar of a successful school system. This ignores elements of the Finnish system which do not support the government’s narrative such as the later age to start school, the absence of ‘free schools’, and the comprehensive intake of Finnish schools. Generally, the most high-performing school systems are unified and integrated, not fragmented. International comparisons are also potentially misleading, unless scale (the size of the population), relative cultural homogeneity and underlying social and cultural factors, including a high level of consensus across the education system on core goals, are taken into account.

1.3. The White Paper makes much of the success of Charter Schools in the United States, and cites a number of sources to support the view that they have been ‘engines of progress’ (paragraph 5.2). However, there is other evidence to suggest that Charter Schools are not necessarily or universally successful. Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary for education under President George Bush senior, reviewed the film ‘Waiting for Superman’ in The Myth of Charter Schools in the New York Review of Books (11 November 2010). In so doing, she draws attention to ‘the film’s quiet acknowledgment that only one in five charter schools is able to get the “amazing results” that it celebrates. Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic’.

1.4. Another key difference with Charter, and particularly Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), schools is that the US does not have compulsory education: anyone can ‘drop out’ at any time and many do. The ‘success’ of the KIPP schools is based on rigorous discipline imposed on both pupils and their parents. Failure to cooperate results in exclusion. The claimed 100% success rate does not take into account the 30% to 40% who don’t make it to the end of the course, or the high levels of per pupil resource – $35,000 per student in the case of the Harlem project.

1.5. High outcomes of Ofsted Inspections of academies: the White Paper states that 26% of Academies inspected in 2009-10 were judged to be
outstanding, compared with 18% of all schools. It ignores the evidence that 54% of academies were judged to be satisfactory or inadequate, compared with 45% of all schools. Put another way, 46% of academies were judged to be good or outstanding, compared with 56% of all schools.

1.6. There are alternative lines of argument. The original academies were established to raise attainment in the most deprived areas, and included significant investment in buildings, staffing etc. The improvements cannot be attributed to ‘freedoms’ alone, but also to resources. Generally, the schools converting so far under the Academies Act 2010 do not serve the most deprived areas but in many cases serve favoured areas and/or are grammar schools; they need neither the resources nor the freedoms, and the promised ‘obligation’ to support less successful schools is not being enforced beyond the minimal. For example, a grammar school continuing with a programme for gifted and talented children in local primary schools is seen as sufficient. See Stephen Machin and James Vernoit: Academy schools: who benefits? in CentrePiece (Autumn 2010) published by the LSE Centre for Economic Performance)

1.7. The White Paper states that ‘we will provide more opportunities for a larger proportion of trainees to learn on the job by improving and expanding the best of the current school-based routes into teaching – school-centred initial teacher training and the graduate teaching programme’ (paragraph 2.21). The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2009/10 (November 2009) finds (figure 35, page 60) that almost half of higher education based training was judged to be outstanding, compared with less than a quarter of school-centred initial teacher training.

2.1. There is rightly strong support for better qualified and trained teachers, including the proposal that only graduates with a 2:2 or better will be funded for training …
for those who are going to work in a free school, teaching qualifications are reportedly not necessary, although this is not confirmed by the White Paper.

2.2. The Local Authority (LA) is expected, inter alia, to ensure a fair admissions system across all schools, to promote the needs of those with special educational needs and of other vulnerable children …
the proposals in the White Paper do not suggest what powers and resources the LA will have to exercise these responsibilities, but rather makes both explicit and implicit assumptions about reducing the power of the Local Authorities

2.3. The White Paper suggests there will be a prescribed, slimmed down, National Curriculum …
one that academies, which the White Paper suggests will be the majority of schools, are allowed to opt out of. (For example, much has been made in the media recently that academies have not taught traditional subjects, such as history: the White Paper proposals do nothing to address this.)

2.4. The Pupil Premium is intended to support deprived children …
in the short term it will not compensate for the loss of other funding streams e.g. EMA, early years and other programmes focussed on deprived communities; and, in the medium term, the creation of a National Funding Formula is likely to shift resources away from schools in the most deprived to less deprived areas.

2.5. The White Paper says discipline will be enhanced by making exclusion easier and removing the right of appeal panels to reinstate …
leaving the excluding school with continuing financial responsibility and accountability for the subsequent performance of excluded pupils will create perverse incentives (e.g. to engineer covert ‘exclusion’ or make inappropriate alternative provision) which will not be in the interests of children.

3.1. There are numerous references to the expectation that all schools will become Academies (paragraph 5.6 especially) which will enjoy (sic) ‘direct funding and full independence from central and local bureaucracy’. There is also the proposal (paragraph 5.7) that local authorities will have a key role as ‘strengthened champions of choice, securing a wide range of education options for parents and families, ensuring there are sufficient high-quality school places, coordinating fair admissions, promoting social justice by supporting vulnerable children and challenging schools which fail to improve.’
What powers will be retained by local authorities to exercise these responsibilities, given the resources that they are likely to have at their disposal, following the reductions proposed in the Comprehensive Spending Review combined with the flow of funding to Academies (see below)? And how will government square the circle of keeping schools ‘fully independent…. from local bureaucracy’ while giving that local bureaucracy the responsibilities suggested?
In addition, how will LAs perform a ‘coordination’ role in ensuring a ‘simplified’ code and ‘fair access’? This is an issue which causes great upset to thousands of parents and local authorities will need a significant increase in powers if they are to fulfil this White Paper objective. And what body/ies will take on the responsibilities that require a larger area-based role – as well as admissions, high level special educational needs, music and sports provision and home-to-school transport?

3.2. Particularly in the supply of places and the creation of free schools, local democracy is by-passed (cross reference to the papers on Governance from Peter Newsam and Margaret Maden et al) and the LAs’ ability to exercise its continuing strategic responsibilities, often related to highly charged policies, including the opening and closing of schools is severely constrained. The White Paper refers to a preference for ‘a focus on supplying enough good places rather than removing surplus places’ (5.31). This risks the proliferation of small scale provision which is inherently expensive and will draw resources – most obviously for curriculum protection – from other local schools. At a time of restrained public spending this is amazingly profligate. In addition, any future attempt by an LA to reorganise will have DfE as a constituent element from the start, assuming any proposals include academies and/or `free` schools. This will give the Department a stranglehold on local reorganisation, and remove decision making powers from local elected representatives.
In developing the policies on the establishment of free schools, what account will the government take of existing local democratic processes? For example, will it permit the establishment of a free school promoted by a dissatisfied party where a local authority plans to reorganise schools following local consultation and decision making?

3.3. The funding proposals regarding academies are currently surrounded by obfuscation. Paragraph 8.11 simply refers to ‘more money being pushed to schools’. At present, top-ups of previous ‘LA funding’ are going to the converted academies as well as academies created before September 2010. They are therefore receiving well in excess of what they would have received as an LA school, despite statements about receiving ‘the same as they would as a Local Authority school’ (FAQ section of DfE website). Therefore, schools are being attracted into academy status with significant enhanced funding, even though many such schools have been very successful with the existing funding: arguably, they are often the schools that need it least. From enquiries with local authorities, it appears that these additional funds are being paid by excessive deductions to the Dedicated Schools Grant to the detriment of the remaining maintained schools and provision for children with special educational needs, as the ‘ready reckoner’ of LA funding has been widely seen as exaggerating the LA contribution. At a time of national belt tightening, it seems extraordinary that this is not being widely publicised. We also know that this cannot continue – as do schools, who are therefore tempted to become early adopters in the hope of getting a big cash injection before it all tightens down.
Anecdotally, there is evidence that many converted Academies are considering the move for reasons of funding rather than ideology and seeking ‘more freedoms’. Some are calculating that if they are minimal users of LA services, the financial advantages are considerable, but if they are a major users, for example, through having significant numbers of vulnerable children, they could become financial losers by taking on academy status. There is therefore the increasing risk of a ‘two-tier’ system, with the division being a socio-economic as well as educational one.
How therefore will academies be funded in future, and how will it be shown that their funding is equivalent to that which they would have received if they had remained with the LA? Does the extra funding provided to high performing schools, mostly in advantaged areas, more than counter-balance the effect of the pupil premium? At a little over £400 per child, it is unlikely that the pupil premium will alter a school’s admission preferences even though there is no accountability attached to the school’s allocation of the premium.

3.4. The Coalition Government’s new academies programme risks the collateral and unplanned degradation of central services. The removal of a share of funding for a range of services that provide for vulnerable groups (children in care, those excluded from school, those with sensory impairments etc) to academies’ budgets seems to be happening whatever assurances were and are given to the contrary. There is an argument that these services could effectively be provided by others – the White Paper makes a lot of new providers for excluded pupils – but there appears to have been no examination of the higher cost effectiveness of LA provided services most of which are inherently ‘lumpy’ in their usage across and between schools. There is therefore a significant risk of LAs having to reduce or even eliminate the provision of such services through redundancies and other savings, without considering how such services might best be reconstructed if necessary in future. It is hard to see how all of the alternatives to LA providers will enter the market in time to avoid some significant gaps appearing, and some of those who might come forward have a different agenda to LA providers, and different accountabilities. For example, if RNIB or NDCS (National Deaf Children’s Society) were to provide for sensory impaired pupils, then their Trustees become responsible for the service/s, and their missions are often more about campaigning than provision. In addition, what quality assurance and cost effectiveness measures would be provided for such services? There is significant risk of this all happening quickly and haphazardly.

3.5. The proposals for the English Baccalaureate give priority to particular subjects or groups of subjects.
What will be included in this, and what won’t? The ‘Statement of Intent’ has now been published, and includes a wide range of modern and ancient languages, although the full list of what does and does not constitute a ‘qualifying’ modern foreign language has yet to be clarified. Conversely, the list of ‘humanities’ subjects is remarkably limited – geography, history and ancient history alone. What are the philosophical and educational bases for their inclusion, and the exclusion of religious studies, philosophy, sociology and others?
How do the proposals square with the White Paper’s critique of the perverse incentives arising from central dictation of what should be taught and how success is measured? As it stands, there is the risk that one target based set of perverse incentives is replaced with another.

3.6. There is no indication of what the knowledge highlighted is supposed to be for. There is nothing on its application to matters outside the specialist disciplines. This reflects a more general defect, that this curriculum lacks wider aims. Acquiring knowledge is only one aspect of these; developing personal qualities and skills is another, and arguably one with higher priority.
Is there to be any emphasis on the ability to synthesise, transfer and apply as well as simply reproduce such knowledge – these are the skills employers generally demand?

3.7. Relatedly, paragraph 4.51 makes much of the now well-worn need to ‘provide young people with a proper technical and practical education of a kind that we see in other nations.’ The same paragraph then draws attention to the huge increase in young people studying for vocational qualifications, but dismisses this on the grounds that ‘they are easy ….to deliver’ or ‘confer advantages … in the accountability system’. If there is to be a significant increase in the number of young people receiving ‘technical and practical education’ and there is to be no change to the ‘gold standard’ of G.C.S.E. and A Level (itself a questionable position), then equivalent credit must be given to ‘technical and practical’ qualifications. Their exclusion from the English Baccalaureate is itself a signal that such an education is second rate, and there can be little cause for optimism that there will be a growth in vocational education.
How will government ensure that qualifications in technical and practical education have status and encourage young people to pursue them, and avoid a division for 14-16 year olds so that some are studying subjects that carry prestige while the achievements of others are judged to be of less worth?

3.8. The White Paper is remarkably silent on the related issues of Headteacher competence and governance. Rightly, much is made of the need for Headteachers to lead their teams, provide excellent professional development for them, and promises to make it easier for them to tackle limited competence (paragraph 2.32). There is much on attracting more people to Headship, training them effectively and using the best to support the rest (paragraphs 2.37 to 2.45). But there is nothing on how the performance of the Headteacher will be monitored or on the steps that the Governing Body can take to improve Headteacher performance or remove the Headteacher who is not effective. On governance, there are references to increased training for chairs, to freedoms to make decisions (on the school day) and to the potential for different sizes of Governing Bodies. Those who have worked regularly with issues around Headteacher competence know that it is at least as hard an issue to resolve as teacher competence.

Does the government plan to consider the powers and responsibilities of Governing Bodies in relation to the performance of Headteachers?