Education Nov 8 2011

There is no plan B for schools

Last month I wrote in the Guardian about Michael Gove’s speech to the Tory Party conference. He opened his remarks by saying he wanted to tell his audience “what was changing”.  I was on a train at the time and as I struggled to make a satisfactory internet connection to hear the rest of the speech. I started to think about the things that weren’t changing. The full version of that article appears here and the key points were that:

  • We will have the same old hierarchical and stratified school system. Government policy will only make this worse.
  • Far from being freed up, the school system is being increasingly centralised in Whitehall
  • Maintained schools are being marginalised.
  • Labour isn’t really offering a different vision

After the article appeared I was contacted via Twitter by Sam Freedman, Michael Gove’s former political adviser turned civil servant and berated for not making more of the common ground between Labour and the Conservatives on issues like the London Challenge which inadvertently led me to exploring what strategies the government does actually have for school improvement, beyond conversion of so called failing schools into academies/take over by chains. As a result I wrote this piece in the Guardian today, most of which is re-printed below.

The success of London Challenge is worth examining closely. A dominant strand in Labour’s school improvement strategy for the last decade ( and latterly extended to two other regions) it must have some important lessons for the future.

The reasons why London Challenge was so effective are set out in the final Ofsted report before the programme was wound down in 2011. The opening summary is succinct “Programmes of support for schools are planned with experienced and credible London Challenge advisers using a shared and accurate audit of need. Excellent system leadership and pan-London networks of schools allow effective partnerships to be established between schools, enabling needs to be tackled quickly and progress to be accelerated. “

Ofsted highlighted other striking features; the clear sense of moral purpose among teachers and school leaders; their commitment to all London children, not just to those in their own schools; their sense of pride in being part of a city-wide education service, irrespective of whether they were receiving or providing support; their appreciation of effective professional development opportunities, use of data and well supported interventions for individual children.

By the time the programme ended less than 1% of London secondary schools were below government floor targets and 30% judged “outstanding”. Moreover statistics released by the DFE last month show that London is now the most highly performing region in the country on the 5 A* to C including English and Maths measure. Some the capital’s  most deprived boroughs like Tower Hamlets ( incidentally without any academies or free schools) chalked up results this year that are comparable with Mr Gove’s  leafy Surrey and  knock spots off the performance of the Prime Minister’s affluent Oxfordshire.

So back to Mr Freedman. How much of this clearly effective work is being carried on and scaled up? Judging by the DFE website – very little.  All references to London Challenge have been eradicated to the Page Not Found category. True, a hundred teaching schools have been approved (out of 23 000 schools) but this was only one element in the London Challenge highly tuned, multi faceted approach.

The other crucial elements – the centrally resourced strategic partnerships, the advisers, the focus on teaching and learning, have gone. Moreover budget cuts mean local authorities are increasingly under resourced and relatively powerless in the new fragmented market.

It is worth asking if there is in fact any coherent school improvement strategy being proposed by Mr Freedman’s department? The only evidence on the DFE website is a letter from Mr Gove to local authorities ,  asking them to set out their plans for  schools below government floor targets , and a press release explaining that  another civil service tweeter, Schools Commissioner Dr Elizabeth Sidwell will then step in and broker sponsorship with an academy chain.

Yet even Dr Sidwell  recently admitted to having concerns about a significant number of sponsored academies that appear to be stuck, unwittingly reinforcing the point that structural solutions do not necessarily equal school improvement. The fate of those schools is presumably to be passed from one edu-chain to another until they start to progress.

In fact the government’s education policy increasingly resembles its questionable plans for the economy and the health service. All have the same basic features; set out a clear ideologically driven path that runs counter to most evidence, then hold on for dear life and hope it works. Unless I am missing something blindingly obvious, there is no plan B for schools, in spite of what Sam Freedman says.

Leave a Reply