A guide to education during party conference season


It is party conference season! Sadly, it is likely that any serious discussion of education is going to be sidelined by our country’s obsession with its relationship with Europe. However, I’ve gathered my thoughts on/a guide to the key policy discussions swirling around at the moment so that you don’t talk about free school policy and academies like you’re stuck in 2010. Across my party conference preview posts I’m going to ‘nerd-score’ these policy concerns from 1 – 10 so you can work out whether or not to read each section.

[nerd score 2] What is Ofsted for? It doesn’t seem to be helping schools improve.

Less than one percent of schools improved to ‘Outstanding’ during the last set of inspections. The proportion of schools that improvement from ‘requires improvement’ has declined. Ofsted’s report says “Some of the schools that did not improve this year have had consistently poor inspection outcomes for an extended period of time.” So… how can we actually change Ofsted to ensure that their newly stated commitment to supporting schools to improve actually happens? This is all the more important because the report also reveals that the schools who are being hammered are those with the most deprived intakes.

[nerd score: 8] How is Ofsted going to approach the growth of multi academy trusts across the system?

This particular policy trend represents a huge distortion of the (professed) original intentions of the academy project- to hand power to the school leaders themselves. In some ways, this was inevitable. Surveys of headteachers have found that their hours have increased massively and their activities have become business/administrative orientated at a time when the research consensus strongly suggests that this is not the best way for leaders to improve learning in schools. Alleviating this pressure is a core function of the MAT. However, increasingly MATs feel they have a role in organising learning at the school level. The implications of this are potentially wide-ranging and there is general agreement that the inspections of these new organisations are not particularly thorough; certainly when compared to the experience of local authorities.

If multi academy trusts are going to replace of local authorities as a significant layer between Secretary of State and school then both parties need to develop ideas on how these organisations are going to be held to account. As Simon Foulkes notes, “the directors of a MAT have an overriding duty not to any individual academy but to the MAT as an overall entity, both as directors and as charity trustees.” This raises important questions about the incentives MATs have, particularly with regard to struggling schools.

What are they doing to help schools? What should they be doing? What is the appropriate role of the trust? Should they contribute to improvement in the system as a whole? Should they be competing or collaborating and how will the government incentivise this? The list goes on. Here’s a great Schools Week editorial on the increasing, and not fully transparent, power of MATs (specifically regarding head teacher’s boards), and here is a great response that suggests they have a crucial role to play in improving the system as a whole.

[nerd score 3] Regional growth.

All eyes will be on whether the 2005-2015 inner-city success stories will be resilient to the changes at curriculum level and to the Ofsted framework over the next year; from anecdotal evidence it seems like they have with regard to the former, but not necessarily the later. However, I’d be grateful for more information on whether there a pattern in the types of schools suffering from the changes. Beyond that look for any ideas about how we gear success away from London. These will be crucial to the future of educational policy landscape for anyone concerned with broad based improvement. Personally, I think they key to this is developing excellent training provision across the system. Research on initial teacher training shows that people tend to stay where they train; if there isn’t a top shelf university/training provider in areas of need then we have a problem. Teach First is great, but you only need to look at the disappointing failure of the government’s National Teaching Service to see that importing teachers from areas like London is incredibly difficult. We need to promote home grown talent- something that Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and Chancellor of Lancaster University, has argued for extensively.

Too many people in education say all this is impossible because the UK is economically structured towards the south and people won’t move until that happens. These people don’t understand how economies grow: it starts with good education. Investing in schools and the people teaching them will be the start of how we rebalance the economy away from London, not the result of it.

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