There is something of a perfect storm ahead for primary schools. Pupils’ performance has steadily increased over the years, but a combination of capacity challenges and higher expectations from government runs the risk of stalling – or reversing – this trajectory.
Alongside introducing a new curriculum, and living without levels, primaries are facing an on-going headteacher succession crisis and looking to Local Authorities who are themselves finding it increasingly financially difficult to deliver services. The end result could be that a fifth of all primaries find themselves below the new higher floor targets from 2016. In our new report, ‘Primary Focus: the next stage of improvement for primary schools in England,’ we set out a series of proposals aimed at avoiding this scenario.
We conclude that the solution to continued improvements is the ability of primary schools to quickly build the capacity and capability that they need to improve teaching and learning. The question for government is how best can the expertise of the best schools, leaders and teachers be harnessed and magnified in order to deliver benefits across the wider system? Our answer is through groups of schools coming together into formal Academy chains – bound by shared accountability, and with the freedom to make the changes that reflect their needs. We recommend that over the course of the next Parliament, Government commits to a transformation programme whereby every primary school spins out from the Local Authority and choses a chain to join. To involve as wide a group as possible, we propose that any Local Authority that wishes to can set up its own chain, called a ‘Learning Trust’.
Let’s deal with one issue straight away – is Academy status a panacea? No, it isn’t. The move to Academy status is not, in our view, what will necessarily deliver improvements (though the evidence surveyed in the report suggests that effective Academies can deliver significant benefits for pupils). The rationale for Academy chains is that these structures represent the best chance of building capacity and capability through combining the advantages of autonomy with the advantage of sharing effective practice– what is sometimes called system leadership. As various academics including David Hargreaves, Toby Greany and Robert Hill have argued, system leadership has the potential to establish collaborative practices; to support teachers and individual leaders to focus on effective teaching and learning; and to promote a culture of continuous improvement and development. This, in turn, is what improves outcomes. Whilst some Local Authorities can offer elements of this, the specific pedagogical elements of system leadership from Academy chains are unique.
Yet Academies have always been seen by primaries far more as a secondary policy. To date only 11% of primaries have taken up Academy status, compared to 56% of secondaries. In the absence of any shift of policy, far too few primaries will be in a position to benefit from the advantages of scale.
Our proposed programme – ‘Wave 3 Academies’ – is unlike forced conversion because schools themselves choose their chain. Schools could join a primary-only chain, create their own or partner with a local secondary – all of which will also need to come out from Local Authority oversight over the same timescale. Alternatively, if primaries benefited from working with their Local Authority, they could join the new Learning Trusts. It would be up to the new Regional Schools Commissioners (or Labour’s Directors of School Standards), to ensure that chains perform well. If they didn’t, chains could be closed down or schools moved, just as now. We also propose that most Academies would also have the power to switch chains if they believed their teachers and pupils would be better served elsewhere.
We believe that this deliberate policy shift and evolution of the Academies programme gives the primary sector the means to shape their own future for the benefit of the pupils they serve. It should by the primary focus of any government after 2015.