Back in 2006-07 I acted as special advisor to the House of Commons Education Select Committee for an enquiry on Building Schools for the Future. Labour’s Barry Sheerman MP was the committee’s longstanding chair back then and it was fascinating to watch him work with a disparate group of MPs to achieve consensus on the findings and recommendations after a year or more of evidence-gathering.
Barry used to say that the Committee became more dangerous as an enquiry progressed. His point was that the MPs may be generalists, but they quickly become sufficiently expert in any given area to be able to home in on the fundamental issues. Yet, re-reading the report now, it seems remarkably quiet on the problems of bureaucracy and waste that Michael Gove MP used as his justification for closing the BSF programme when he became Secretary of State three years later.
Is that because the Committee missed the critical issues on BSF? Or was the report toned down by a Labour controlled Select Committee to avoid embarrassment to the government of the day? Or did Michael Gove over-amplify the issues as an excuse to save money and break with the past?
I don’t know the answer, but my point is that Select Committee reports are tremendously tricky things to write: they must comment on a fast moving policy area, where the evidence is inevitably still emerging, and where political sensitivities can be acute.
Given which, I think the most recent Select Committee report on Academies and free schools is a remarkably clear-headed document and a testament to the chairing skills of Graham Stuart MP. The report includes a strong analysis of the changes that have happened since 2010 and the evidence-base that underpins them. Importantly, it recognises that this evidence reflects variable performance, is still emerging and is, as yet, far from conclusive.
The message is that policy makers must focus on evaluating change and learning as they go, rather than assuming they have all the answers. The Department for Education comes in for remarkably forthright and sustained criticism here for appearing to lose its objectivity: for example its evidence submission to the inquiry is described as “a sustained paean of praise to the success of the initiative”!
In making its analysis the committee recognises “the complex relationship (that exists) between attainment, autonomy, collaboration and accountability” and rightly avoids trying to unpick this relationship. What it does acknowledge is that academy freedoms are not a simple panacea and that most of these supposed freedoms are available to maintained schools anyway.
Instead the report homes in on many of the issues in the system that can and should be addressed whoever wins the election. How should academy chains be overseen and held accountable? How should the middle tier roles of local authorities, regional commissioners and other bodies be configured to ensure appropriate oversight? Are the incentives and brokerage systems right for school to school support and collaboration? What are the implications of the self-improving system for primary schools, where academisation has not taken hold? What should drive policy on free schools at a time when we face a massive rise in pupil numbers?
Will we look back at this report in years to come and ask if it missed the key issues? I suspect not. Academies are not a neatly defined policy like BSF that a new Secretary of State could choose to close down on day one. Whoever gets the job in May will need to grapple with a complex web of issues if they are to avoid an increasingly fractured two-tier, and potentially two-speed, school system. Particularly when put alongside the forthcoming ASCL Blueprint for a self-improving school system, which sets out a future vision, this report provides as good a road map as any to the issues they will face.
Also read: Toby Greany’s blog about the research he and Jean Scott did for the inquiry on conflicts of interest.