Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Change at the chalkface

I've written this feature on the Gove legacy for the October edition of Public Finance.

David Cameron's replacement of Michael Gove with Nicky Morgan as education secretary caused consternation among reformers whilst exciting enthusiasm in many staffrooms. Reformers fear his changes will be watered down by his successor; many teachers hope the relentless pressure of change will ease.

But Gove’s legacy may lie less in academies and free schools than in the changes to the curriculum, teaching and accountability. And a focus on classroom teaching by Morgan, with her more conciliatory tone to teachers, could reap real dividends.

Academies are funded directly by the government rather than local authorities, and have had greater freedoms over the curriculum, teachers’ pay and admissions, subject to regulation and funding agreements. By May 2010, the growing programme was targeted on underachieving secondary schools, with 203 such ‘sponsored academies’ already open and 60 more due that autumn.

Gove allowed successful schools to become academies and brought primaries into the programme. Many signed up for extra cash – typically £250,000 per secondary school – as they gained control of their local authority budgets. At a time of austerity, it was a no-brainer. In return, these ‘converter academies’ would work with weaker schools. Most say they do, though the extent to which they do so varies, and academy take-up has been much slower in primary schools.

Meanwhile, Gove also introduced ‘free schools’, essentially new academies set up in response to parental demand or innovative ideas from teachers, educational and faith-based charities. The government barred local authorities from establishing any traditional community schools.

Since 2010, the number of academies has grown rapidly. There are now over 4,000 academies, including nearly two-thirds of secondary and about one in eight primary schools, as well as dozens of technical academies – 30 university technical colleges and 37 studio schools with practical curriculums and close industry links for 14- to 19-year-olds.

Sponsored academies – of which there are now 1,100 – were intended to improve standards, particularly for the poorest students, which is why Gove required many failing primaries to change status, sometimes in the teeth of strong local opposition. Downhills primary school in Tottenham, north London – now the Harris Primary Academy Philip Lane – was a particular flashpoint and the scene of strong protests. The proportion of its pupils getting the expected level 4 in reading, writing and maths rose from 69% to 77% this summer – twice the national average improvement.

And, sponsored academies generally have improved faster than other schools, albeit from a lower base. Many belong to chains – groups led by an educational charity, a university or a successful school. Sutton Trust analysis in July found that disadvantaged pupils in nine of 31 chains studied had better results than the average for all schools, while improvements in 18 chains were faster than average. Some well-known chains, like Harris and Ark, each with 27 academies, do particularly well. But the study confirmed Department for Education concerns that other chains that had grown very rapidly since 2010 were underperforming.

The DfE capped 14 academy chains in March, including the 77-school Academies Enterprise Trust. They must focus on improving their existing schools before being allowed further expansion. Ministers also forced another academy chain, E-Act, to transfer 10 of its 34 schools to other sponsors. Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has inspected weaker academies in co-ordinated swoops across chains, including AET, where half the 12 academies inspected were deemed inadequate. He has yet to be given the power by ministers to inspect chains as separate entities.

This mixed picture also extends to the 250 free schools now open, though few have been open long enough for a full judgment. Seventy-nine free schools opened this term and 76 more have been approved, but the programme still feels incoherent. It may be the default mechanism for new schools with rising demand for new places, but relatively few free schools result from parental action.

Instead, there is an eclectic mix of genuine teacher innovation and rebranding of existing options, including faith schools, former independent schools or new academies established by chains.
One celebrated success has been the London Academy of Excellence, a free school for sixth formers in Stratford, east London, supported by Eton and the independent Brighton College, which sent four of its 160 students to Oxbridge and 68 to Russell Group universities this year. However, the local college says it does well too: of the 75 students it admitted with the 5A* or A grades at GCSE required by LAE, 60 went to Russell Group universities and two to Oxbridge.

Other free schools have faced real difficulties. The Montessori Discovery free school in Crawley, Sussex, had to close in January after a damning Ofsted report. Anal ysis by independent factchecking organisation Full Fact of Ofsted data suggests a similar proportion of free schools were rated outstanding as other schools, but a higher proportion rated inadequate or failing, based on 40 free school inspections.

For all the arguments about academies and free schools, their impact may be more prosaic than their supporters or critics allow. Good chains have an effective model absent in weaker chains. But their success still reflects quality of leadership and teaching, and their consistent application, which may not simply be an academy effect when many schools are forming collective trusts and federations.

This is why other reforms may matter more. There is growing interest in using research evidence to inform school improvement. Since 2011, the Education Endowment Foundation, a sister charity of the Sutton Trust established with £135m of government money to help improve results for disadvantaged pupils, has used 75 randomised trials to test approaches to school improvement. Nearly half of school leaders now consult its research evidence.

Tougher accountability is making its mark too. Ofsted has put many coasting schools into special measures and placed more emphasis on good teaching, downgrading some previously top-rated schools. Gove toughened Labour’s floor targets, requiring weaker schools to achieve ever-rising minimum standards. Failure often prompts a requirement to become an academy.

However, the biggest upheaval has been to the curriculum and exams. This term, primary pupils face tougher spelling, grammar, punctuation and mental arithmetic lessons, in addition to phonics checks introduced in 2012, while secondary schools are introducing computer science, harder maths and more historical chronology. GCSE coursework, modularity and resits have been dropped, leading to a dip in English performance this year. Many vocational qualifications have been devalued or removed from the league tables.

From 2016, secondary schools will be judged on their best eight GCSE subjects, using average points, rather than the five best graded C or above as now. This builds on the English Baccalaureate, a league table measure of English, maths, science, languages and humanities results. The combined impact is intended to make exams harder and ensure that schools don’t game the league tables to conceal underlying weaknesses. However, they also make it much harder to make a fair judgment on the success of Gove’s reforms, and could force down results at once struggling schools and academies that were starting to improve.

Yet behind the flurry of change, there remains an underlying truth. The two things that make the most difference to a school’s success, particularly for poorer pupils, are the quality of its teaching and the calibre of its leaders.

Gove has introduced teaching schools, with a remit to improve teaching quality among groups of local schools, and expanded school-based teacher training. But for all the emphasis on new teachers – 35,000 are recruited each year, and their quality has been improving alongside that of school leaders – there is far too little done to improve the skills of the 450,000 serving teachers in England’s classrooms. In fact, there is much more variation in the quality of teaching within schools than there is between schools.

Improved professional development and teacher appraisal may not set reformers’ pulses racing, but they could make most difference at the chalkface. Sutton Trust research has shown that raising the quality of the weakest tenth of teachers to the average would lift England from a middling position in the OECD international league tables to the top five, and the trust is now working with the Gates Foundation to capture international best practice. That could deliver the revolution in standards that politicians want to see – in academies and community schools alike.

1 comment:

Tom Burkard said...

Recent changes to the Free School application process virtually rule out projects that are not sponsored by an existing academies provider or independent school. This is the 'safe' option--such applicants have a track record playing the Ofsted game. A recent teacher-led application I was involved with was withdrawn after an interview with the New Schools Network because the proposers were told that they stood virtually no chance as they had not yet recruited a suitable principal. Now it has got even worse--much of what was previously accomplished in the pre-opening phase must now be done (at the proposers' expense) before the application is even considered.

In effect, we have what could have been a very good idea completely scotched by the DfE and Ofsted. In 2011 I had an interview with policy advisers at No 10, and I suggested that Free Schools should be allowed to start up with a handful of pupils and sink or swim by their merits. This is the way it works with Charter Schools in some American states. I was told that this was already under consideration; obviously the idea went nowhere.

A good example of how this could work can be found closer to home with the New Model School started by Civitas. It was conceived as a low-cost independent school; when it first opened enrolment was in low single figures and required considerable subsidy, but now it is fully viable.