Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Meanwhile in LA Land

No, I haven't only just watched the blockbuster Hollywood musical. Saw that ages ago. Got to keep the wife happy with an occasional chick-flick. This is about education policy. You'll get no singing and dancing here. Anyway, that's La La Land. 

'You know what's wrong with schools?' asked Michael Gove, when he was Education Secretary, 'Local Authorities that's what. Schools need to be set free from the dead hand of council bureaucrats. Give 'em autonomy.' Yes, autonomy. Good schools could opt for it. Not so good schools would have it imposed on them by being taken over. Academisation was seen as a panacea for all educational ills. 

But, somewhat inconveniently, there is little evidence that already good schools were made any better by becoming academies. Even less that forced academisation was a force for good. For a panicky moment a couple of years back, it seemed like we were all going to have to embrace academised autonomy. Not singly, but in Multi Academy Trusts. Thankfully the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper died the death, and the moment passed. Tidy, that, as while some MATs have done well, more than a few have failed, only to be taken over by other, er, MATs. 

Such has been the impact of the National and Regional School Commissioners who oversee the academy sector, that the DfE has deprived them of some key  powers. Not exactly a vote of confidence. Forced academisation has been dropped. NSC Sir David Carter announced his retirement a couple of weeks before Damian Hinds revealed these measures in a speech to the ASCL Conference. 

Many schools didn't see the advantage in becoming a stand-alone academy when that option was flavour of the month.. Maintained Foundation Schools enjoy a good deal of autonomy in relation to the LA, anyway. Why opt to join a big academy chain, and risk losing what makes your school distinctive? There is often little enthusiasm for forming local Community MATs, either. 

I doubt many LA schools have had to fend off any zombie-fingered interfering jobsworths from the council for a while. If at all. LAs monitor and support their schools, but don't try to run them. It's a myth to say that they do. But why shouldn't schools be held accountable to locally elected representatives?

Not so long ago it was in doubt whether LAs had a future at all in the world of education. But the DfE has signaled that statutory responsibility for improving outcomes in all schools and academies continues to rest with Local Authorities. LAs also remain responsible for safeguarding and provide valuable services such as payroll, HR and governor services.

In the maintained sector, governors are still governing their schools, not simply doing a bit of stakeholder engagement on behalf of a MAT board. Their Headteachers are busy making the board's vision for the school a reality, not having to look over his or her shoulder to see what a richly enumerated CEO wants them to do. 

The point about governors still governing in maintained schools (and stand alone academies) is worth reiterating. In MATs all powers of governance rest with the overarching board of trustees. Individual schools may have what is sometimes called 'Local Governing Boards', but they don't actually have any powers of governance. Whatever low level decision-making is delegated to LGBs by the MAT board may also be unilaterally withdrawn. As may their right to exist at all. Remember that, if your school is currently being courted by a MAT. Joining could be the last big strategic decision you make. 

A recent report by the London School of Economics revealed that LA schools have more freedom than academies. So much for autonomy. With apologies to Rousseau, "Schools were born free, but in MATs they are in chains". 

I'll admit that one advantage of MATs is collaboration across schools, but a joint effort to raise standards is not the preserve of Multi Academy Trusts. Collaboration in local clusters could be better, but it is happening and outcomes are improving. Around here, anyway. In the LA secondary school where I serve as a governor, our Progress 8 score is in the top 5% when 'contextual value added' factors are taken into account. 

We now have what is called a 'mixed educational ecosystem'. Around 70% of secondaries are academies, with 30% LA maintained, and the other way around for the primary sector. Academy oversight isn't going too well and the LAs ability to support their schools is hampered by budget cuts. 
The big idea now is developing school-led systems in which schools in the maintained and academy sectors support each other to ensure all pupils achieve well. New county-wide bodies are being set up to oversee the system. The Wiltshire Education Standards Board is due to be launched soon, with a view to starting work in September. Let's hope these boards can help bring some coherence to a badly fragmented educational system. 
I shudder to think how much taxpayers' money has been spent on removing schools from LAs and making them into academies. Or the funds used on new Free Schools, some which have failed miserably. Look at this example of £9m down the drain. Countless millions of pounds could have been better spent on increasing teacher pay, maintaining a broad curriculum, improving crumbling school buildings, etc.  Thankfully, the emphasis these days is on raising standards, not changing the status of schools, or fiddling around with the structures in which they sit.
Meanwhile in LA Land... 

Let's just say, some of us are in no great rush to leave. We have nothing to lose but our freedom. 

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