The self-improving school system: competing policies undermine the coalition’s admirable aims

Toby Greany

On 18 March I will be giving my inaugural lecture on the ‘self-improving’ school system (there are still some places left, book here!) In this blog I want to set out some of the ideas I will explore in the lecture, focussing on the state of current policy. In a later blog I will identify some of things I think could be done to move us forwards.

In his speech at the North of England conference this January Charlie Taylor, CEO of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, talked about his aim of an ‘irrevocable shift’ towards a school-led, self-improving system by September 2016.

So what does the Government mean by a self-improving system? When you read The Importance of Teaching white paper, I think you can boil it down to four criteria:

  • teachers and schools are responsible for their own improvement;
  • teachers and schools learn from each other and from research so that effective practice spreads;
  • the best schools and leaders extend their reach across other schools so that all schools improve; and (by implication)
  • government intervention and support is minimised.

I am not convinced that either the system capacity or the policy conditions are yet right for an ‘irrevocable shift’ to be achieved, even by 2016.  My worry is that if the self-improving system becomes no more than a narrative device to justify the removal of central and local government support as quickly as possible, then a two-tier system could rapidly emerge in which strong schools thrive but large swathes are left behind.

In saying this I am by no means entirely negative, nor am I harking back to a centralised model of top down improvement.  There are a number of policies in train that do appear to be giving schools greater ownership of their own improvement, and many schools and teachers are responding energetically. These policies include the sponsorship of struggling schools by school-led multi-academy trusts, the concept of School Direct (although in practice its development has been problematic) and the work of many teaching schools.

So what am I worrying about? One key challenge for me is that the coalition government does not have a clear or coherent strategy for supporting a self-improving system to emerge. Instead ministers are following at least four different reform approaches at the same time (see table below). These compete with each other in the minds of school leaders, creating confusion at best and unresolvable tensions at worst.

Four narratives for the coalition’s approach for system improvement

The world class (no excuses) approach:We are raising the bar in every area and benchmarking ourselves against the best in the world – a new curriculum, more rigorous exams, less teacher assessment.  Ofsted’s new inspection framework and area based inspections are shining a spotlight on schools and authorities that require improvement, while its new regional structure means it can follow up to check that schools take action in response. Where a school is found to be failing we will broker a new academy sponsor.

Key quote:  “High-performing jurisdictions set materially higher expectations in terms of what they believe children can and should master at different ages…If our schools, and young people, are to become internationally competitive again we must learn from the best in the world”.

Michael Gove MP, December 2011

Key message for school leaders: Raise your game or accept the consequences.

The freedom to teach approach:Teachers should be free to get on and teach. We have given schools autonomy and freedom and we have focussed accountability on what matters: the quality of teaching. We have given schools greater powers on classroom discipline.  We have stripped away bureaucratic guidance and removed the requirement for teachers in academies to have Qualified Teacher Status. We have made it easier to sack poor teachers and pay good teachers more. We have raised the bar for new entrants to teaching and given schools a greater role in training new recruits.

Key quote: academies “will be free of any government interference, free to hire whoever they want, pay them whatever they want, teach whatever they want, and as a result we can demand higher standards”.

Michael Gove MP, November 2011

Key message for school leaders: We trust you – it’s all down to you.

The market based approach:It’s not the job of civil servants to tell teachers how to teach, so we have closed the quangos and are cutting one in four DfE jobs. We are reforming the funding model so it is fair and transparent and we have introduced the Pupil Premium to ensure equity. Our academies policy has freed schools from the grip of local bureaucracies. We are supporting new free schools, University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools so that weak schools are challenged to improve and parents and employers have real choice.

Key quote: “Hopefully, recent reforms will push the English system towards one in which the state provides a generous amount of funding per pupil which parents can spend in any school they wish…while the DfE does little more than some regulatory, accountancy, and due diligence functions.”

Dominic Cummings, Special Advisor to Michael Gove, 2013

Key message for school leaders: Choice and competition rule.

The system leadership approach:We want the best schools and heads to drive improvement. We have over 400 school-led academy sponsors taking on the most challenging schools. We are designating 500 teaching schools and giving them a key role in professional development and school to school support. We are designating 1000 National Leaders of Education and introducing payment by results so they focus on supporting struggling schools. We want to develop a champions league of outstanding leaders who can travel to the most challenging schools and regions to secure improvement.

Key quote: “At the heart of this Government’s vision is a determination to give school leaders more power and control. Not just to drive improvement in their own schools – but to drive improvement across our whole system.”

Michael Gove MP, June 2010

Key message for school leaders: The strong will inherit the earth (and make it better)

The first three approaches might enable an improving system, but not a self-improving system. Applying the government’s four criteria, they might make schools responsible for their own improvement, but they will not foster the sharing of expertise, capacity and learning or the better use of evidence. Partly in response to these flaws, the role of accountability in these models becomes over-dominant and punitive, setting up unrealistic expectations for what Ofsted can achieve and an unhealthy us-and-them dynamic between school leaders and the centre.

The fourth approach – system leadership – reflects the beginnings of a sea change in attitudes and practice in England over the past ten years.  Many of the best schools do now provide hard edged support to their peers, whether as an academy sponsor, teaching school or National or Local Leader of Education. These approaches do meet the criteria for a self-improving system and there is evidence that they can be effective.

But their potential is being undermined by policies enacted to foster the first three approaches.  Furthermore, in the rush for an ‘irrevocable shift’, the pace of devolution to system leaders is arguably too rapid, with too little attention being paid to building capacity.

One illustration of all this can be seen in the tensions at the heart of the Teaching Schools model:

  • how to marry individual school accountability with system leadership? The fear of losing their Teaching School status if Ofsted downgrades them from ‘Outstanding’ is preventing many school leaders from investing real energy in this model.
  • Are Teaching Schools a publicly funded good, or a solution for a broken school improvement marketplace? Teaching Schools are told to earn their income by meeting the needs of other schools, but are also heavily incentivised to deliver on policy priorities such as School Direct.
  • how to manage supply and demand for system leadership on a geographical and phase basis? As Ofsted noted in its 2013 annual report, there are large parts of thecountry with too few system leaders and no established culture of school to school support.

These tensions are all symptoms of the wider fault lines caused by incoherent policy on school system reform. In my next blog I will outline some of ways in which they could be resolved. Do come to my inaugural lecture if you would like to hear and discuss these issues in more depth!

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8 comments on “The self-improving school system: competing policies undermine the coalition’s admirable aims
  1. Sandy Brown says:

    Being a NLE and a Teaching School in the very isolated spartan area of England……I do so agree with your article. The joy of making a difference in the lives of the children and those of our colleagues is the driver for sustainability – not the system.

  2. Graham Holley says:

    A very interesting analysis of why government policies do not provide the whole answer, and may indeed conflict and compete.

    I look forward to seeing the solutions in the next blog!

  3. DanielJAyres says:

    Reblogged this on Educational Gems.

  4. […] universities are in a state of flux. Historical relationships are being reshaped by the push for a self-improving school-led system in England in particular, with the rapid expansion of School Direct giving schools a stronger role […]

  5. […] builds on a set of blogs that he wrote last year in which he outlined several of the challenges to developing a self-improving system and laid out two possible scenarios for the future. One scenario is unbridled competition in which […]

  6. […] on local authorities who retain critical statutory responsibilities. (See his blogs on the subject here and […]

  7. […] Funding Formula by 2019-20 – but is broadly consistent with the direction of travel towards a ‘self-improving’ system since […]

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