The PM speech today promised “new powers to force up to 3,500 coasting schools to accept new leadership” as part of a speech in which he also ring-fenced (in cash terms) the schools budgets for the next five years if the Conservatives win. Policy Exchange is cited in the Telegraph front page this morning as being the inspiration for the academies drive in particular.
This announcement – and yesterday’s announcement from Nicky Morgan about a new focus on times tables at primary – has got everyone very excitable. So the first thing is to calm down and remember the context. We are in the middle of what will be the tightest fought general election campaign for a generation. As Taylor Swift almost sang, politicians gonna politick.
The second thing is to recognise that a lot of complex issues are being raised and discussed very swiftly as part of a natural process of internal policy making. The announcements have so far understandably been big on headlines and short on detail. A lot would need to be worked through before anything became real and I’d fully expect would be done so by DfE in the event of a Conservative victory.
So to help, here are three questions that I’d expect DfE and No10 to be thinking through if the Conservatives win in May:
- What is the right category and definition of schools to intervene in? The PM’s speech referred to “coasting” schools but used the figure of the 3,500 schools currently in Requires Improvement status. The Conservatives will be thinking about two issues. Firstly, we know the Ofsted grading system itself isn’t that accurate. Around 50% of RI schools move up to Good in their next inspection, and anecdotally a fair number of them could have been graded Good in the first place with a different inspection team on a different day. And secondly, the whole purpose of the Requires Improvement grade (as opposed to the Inadequate schools, who are already targeted for Academy status) is to identify schools who aren’t yet Good but do have the capacity to turn themselves around without external support. These might not therefore be the best candidates for allocating scarce sponsor resources to. As they begin to identify schools which are coasting, that could be done quite straightforwardly but would probably encompass a much smaller group (which could be defined, for example, as secondary schools who are above the floor standards for performance at 16, but whose pupils’ progress scores via the new Progress 8 scores has been below expected levels for say two or three years in a row).
- How do you build capacity in the system? There are currently just over 1300 sponsored Academies, being supported by 470 sponsors. There are a further 200 or so approved sponsors who haven’t yet taken on any schools. Greater academisation is a good thing, and the pace of chance in the last Parliament was rapid, but, inevitably, any significant increase in sponsored Academy numbers would place additional capacity pressures on the system – onto sponsors themselves who might not want to expand too quickly; onto DfE who might need to swiftly approve a large number of new sponsors, and onto the fledgling Regional Schools Commissioners who would need to make decisions as to whether each of the schools in question required a sponsor or had capacity to improve on its own. DfE will be thinking hard about ways of growing sponsors swiftly but sustainably. Obviously, the smaller the group in question needing support (see point 1 above), the easier it is to put high quality plans in place.
- What is the theory of improvement? The Prime Minister rightly focussed on the potential and track record of sponsored Academies in improving standards. But as we argued in our report, the next stage of Academies should also be about more than that, and should be described as such – they should be about building capacity and capability in the system. Groups of Academies would tackle coasting performance and underperformance, but they would also crucially future proof the system by building capacity and leadership so that there should be no need for future targeted interventions from Whitehall into groups of schools, but rather that the system improves on its own (with reserve powers for limited cases of truly poor performance). We think the best way to do that is to move towards Academy status in one coordinated way – letting schools choose their sponsor, evening out the legal quirks in the current system between different types of schools and strengthening the role of system leaders.
All of these questions are very possible to address whilst meeting the PM’s commitment in the event of a Conservative victory, and would strengthen what is clearly an ambitious plan to continue to raise school standards.