If knowledge in education is sticky, how do we get it unstuck and flowing?

Chris Husbands

The report of the Pearson/RSA Academies Commission has been published. I was one of the commissioners and – as I have blogged before – the Commission provided a fascinating opportunity to look closely at the English school system changing at phenomenal speed. In May 2010 there were just over 200 academies; at the beginning of 2013 there are over 2000. Every local authority has at least one and in some local authorities, as far apart as North East Lincolnshire and Southwark, all secondary schools are now academies. As initial responses to the report indicated, academies have not lost their power to excite strong views from both advocates and critics. The Commission tried to get beyond the noise of proponents and opponents to ask hard questions about the dynamics of an academised school system,

Over eight months, and taking evidence in writing and orally from across the education system, the Commissioners sifted responses to try to consider the implications of academisation for school improvement, school autonomy, admissions, system development, governance and accountability. The Commissioners were agreed that academisation has enormous, transformative potential – academies have indeed injected vitality into schools. But the Commissioners also agreed that academisation – the extension of school autonomy alone – will not be transformative and those who argue that it will be are wrong.

Months of listening, and weeks of report drafting, of course, lead up to a single publication date, and, at the beginning of 2013, publication lands in the middle of a noisy, crowded landscape of social media, press releases and news briefings. It should be no surprise to anyone that an academic will be disappointed at the way work is reported, but I was taken aback by the ability of twitterers to summarise our 120 pages of report in 140 characters in a matter of hours, or even minutes, of the report’s appearance.

In fact, most of those who commented tended to see the Academies Commission report as a mirror, finding in it more of less what they wanted to find. We do say, and we did find, that we were hugely impressed not only by the energy, commitment and moral purpose of most academy head teachers and academy group chief executives, but also by their success in cutting through deeply entrenched local barriers to improving aspirations and provision. We also heard evidence suggesting real concerns about provision for vulnerable children, local accountability to parents and arrangements for appeals against academy decisions.  We heard evidence, often from school governors themselves, to suggest that academy governing bodies are often ill-equipped for the role which governing an academy – effectively making governors non-executive directors – involves.

Some academy groups and federations impressed us with their vision and their grasp of the reality of school improvement, but others left us apprehensive about their ability to provide a strong co-ordination role over geographically scattered groups. This is a report which is thorough and balanced, posing challenges at every level for schools, academy groups, local authorities, government agencies and central government. It would be a huge pity if its recommendations and challenges were lost in the noise of its publication.

One of the real treats of the launch was that Andreas Schleicher, from the OECD, joined us, both for the public launch and for a subsequent academic seminar. Andreas was able to put the report into an international context. The world’s best school systems are those with high levels of school autonomy. But as Andreas pointed out, some of the world’s worst school systems are those with high levels of school autonomy. Autonomy delivers quality only where independence is accompanied by an incentive system and a culture which embeds collaboration and so engenders school inter-dependence.

In a striking phrase at the launch, Andreas said, “knowledge in education is sticky” – it does not move around the system. The challenge posed by the Academies Commission is how an autonomous school system can build knowledge about success. We will not achieve the vision success for all if academisation simply produced archipelagos of excellence. One of the report’s recommendations is that no school should be eligible for an Ofsted “outstanding” rating for leadership unless it can demonstrate success in helping other schools to improve. This, at least, would incentivise collaboration.

School are working in a rapidly changing context. Academies – and the academisation of the school system – are with us.  The challenge now is to realise the quite proper aspirations for transformation.  Meeting the challenges for schools, for system leaders and for policy makers will involve more than using the report as a mirror and will involve serious engagement with inter-locking recommendations.

 

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Posted in Chris Husbands
4 comments on “If knowledge in education is sticky, how do we get it unstuck and flowing?
  1. behrfacts says:

    I ilke your phrase ‘archipelagos of excellence’. It marries with terms such as ‘physics deserts’ or ‘widening pools of MfL students’ or ‘bubbles of deprived households’. One assumes the new Ofsted Regional Directors will have a duty to monitor such geographical variations in the education landscape, but local strategic education partnerships will also have a role to play in shaping planning and provision, especially if this is linked to local economies and jobs as per Heseltine’s report of last year.

  2. Chris Husbands says:

    “Archipelago” was a deliberate term – we are not looking at “islands” – too many chains and neteorks for that – so the term “archipelago” seemed obvious. I knew my physical geography would come in handy one day

  3. John Mountford says:

    In common with the twits (sorry Twitterrers) who responded within minutes of the release of the report, I have not read it. Notwithstanding this, my point in commenting is, maybe much of the acrimony surrounding the debate is stoked by dubious morality on all fronts across the education community. It is a time of deep unrest. The absence of balanced, intelligent national leadership at this time is something to lament.

    That the “enormous transformative potential” of The Cambridge Primary Review was held in such little regard by the current Secretary of State, illustrates my point. How are teachers, who are having their professional integrity and worth relentlessly hammered, supposed to respond in the face of the clearly devisive Acadenmies Programme? Likewise, how else are the supporters of that programme supposed to react? The prognosis is worrying. The long-running sore that ‘infects’ the reform of education should tax us all in seeking a remedy.

    The tragedy is, that the current dis-ease in the education system has its roots in politiciams of all parrties devaluing professionals working to deliver what we all want, a more forward looking, responsive dynamic education fit for all our children in an uncertain future. Concluding that the system is broken in terms of trust may be a step too far. But it isn’t totally wide of the mark.

    Like any civilised person, I want only what is best for all our children and young people. I urge the present government to enter into genuine dialogue with education professionals to this end. As to the report, assuming that some of the banner headlines were not all media lies, the jury is most certainly still out on the success of the academies movement. It is a work in progress and a very bold gamble. If it works and, in doing so is not to the disadvantage of the young people in non-academies and the long-term success of the education system, it might yet win my support. My greatest reservation is the very principle on which the movement is founded, that being, the generation of financial profit.

  4. The words that most interested me in your article were “autonomy” “culture” “quality” and “incentive”. The phrase “incentive system” suggests that Andreas is recommending the use of external control: rewards and sanctions as though schools cannot come up with their own motivations or incentives for doing the right thing. I am reminded of Dan Pink’s RSA presentation, Drive, which outlines the numerous studies showing the detrimental effect of “incentivisation” on quality in the workplace. If the government really wants schools to develop a culture of collaboration, then they need to remove the current barriers of inter-school competition. If they cannot bring themselves to abandon league tables, then at least these could be regional league tables, providing schools with the “incentive” to collaborate to raise the quality of the region or group.

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