Thursday 24 October 2013

Freedom to teach well?

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I note that arguments over free schools miss the importance of reducing in-school differences in the quality of teaching.
The damning Ofsted report on the Al-Madinah free school in Derby has invigorated a lively debate on a flagship policy of the coalition. It should also prompt some soul-searching about the balance between structures and standards in school improvement policy.

Free schools were introduced in 2010 as part of a ramping up of the academy model introduced by Labour. Academies share a number of characteristics: they are funded centrally rather than through local government, which means they receive more of the funds that are otherwise pooled locally; they have freedoms to vary non-core subjects in the national curriculum. They can set their own pay scales; and like foundation and voluntary-aided schools, they have freedom over their land and buildings, though these remain in trust. Under the original model, all academies had to have sponsors: academy chains or trusts, universities, philanthropists or successful schools. An initial expectation that sponsors made a financial contribution was dropped.

Labour’s academies were largely targeted at failing secondary schools in disadvantaged areas. There were some exceptions: a small number of independent schools entered the state sector as academies and a couple of outstanding schools were allowed to convert in return for sponsoring weaker schools in new chains. The academy chain model developed at this time, with organisations like Ark, Harris and United Learning growing significantly.

The coalition extended this sponsor model to primary schools, though its initial focus was on allowing successful schools to convert: half the 3200 secondaries in England are now academies, though fewer than 10 per cent of primaries are. They also created a model for new academies which they called free schools. Legally, they are little different from academies, though opponents have seized on the fact that all their teachers do not have to have qualified teacher status. If they have a faith character, they are also expected to keep 50% of places for those of other or no faiths, though the nature of some faith schools is such that this stricture is unlikely to be invoked.

Sponsored academies have had positive research results, Stephen Machin and James Vernoit at the London School of Economics, in a 2011 report, which looked at the academies that started between 2001 and 2008, concluded:

Our results suggest that moving to a more autonomous school structure through academy conversion generates a significant improvement in the quality of their pupil intake and a significant improvement in pupil performance. We also find significant external effects on the pupil intake and the pupil performance of neighbouring schools. All of these results are strongest for the schools that have been academies for longer and for those who experienced the largest increase in their school autonomy. In essence, the results paint a (relatively) positive picture of the academy schools that were introduced by the Labour government of 1997‐2010. The caveat is that such benefits have, at least for the schools we consider, taken a while to materialise.

However, this research was focused on sponsored academies. The selling point – or problem, depending on your perspective - with free schools is that there is no single model. So just as the experience of the Derby Muslim school cannot be translated to the Bristol Cathedral School’s primary that was celebrated on the Today programme this morning, the success stories of some free schools won’t necessarily translate into successes for others run on very different lines. And that is as true of academy chains, where some models appear more successful than others.

It may be that critics are right to demand greater regulation, and certainly financial controls will be hugely important, but it is surely as likely that the biggest determinants of success and failure will lie in the quality of leadership (including in the sponsors) and the quality of teaching. The successful academy chains have very clear approaches to leadership and teaching. Moreover, international evidence is that variation in teaching standards is greater within schools than between schools.  OECD research highlighted by the National College has shown that as much as 80 per cent of the variation in achievement among UK students lay within schools, four times more than that between schools.

In a separate report for the Sutton Trust, Eric Hanushek from Stanford, with Stephen Machin and Richard Murphy at the LSE, have shown that English schools could improve their low position in international league tables in Reading and Mathematics and become one of the top five education performers in the world within 10 years if the performance of the country’s least effective teachers was brought up to the national average. Richard Murphy’s March report for the Trust highlighted how schools can use appraisal to improve performance, and it is an area where the Sutton Trust will do more research in the coming year.

The truth is, whatever the arguments over school structures, it is in improving the quality of our 430,000-strong teaching workforce that the greatest gains in standards can be made. Those free schools and academies that successfully narrow that gap are the ones that will succeed.