March 10, 2021
In a major report, part-funded by the Association of Education Committees Trust and the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society and based on extensive research and contributions from a broad range of education experts, Susan Cousin and Jonathan Crossley-Holland examine the operation of high performing education systems and make recommendations for a new model in England.
On this page we republish the Report’s Executive Summary and its Recommendations. The full report is available here for download in PDF format.
Since 2010, England has pioneered the move towards a self-improving school system where school partnerships lead improvement by sharing expertise and building capacity. However, evaluations have found that the government supported infrastructure to support school-led improvement has not benefitted all schools equally, with those most in need the most poorly served. The Covid-19 pandemic during which the latter part of the research was conducted has highlighted the challenges of responding rapidly to local need in a system which lacks a robust infrastructure.
The research was commissioned to investigate how high-performing education systems operate, in order to develop a set of criteria by which any revised governance model for the English education system can be judged and to outline clearly the role(s) of a middle tier. Four systems were explored: Estonia, Finland, Ontario (Canada) and Singapore. These high-performing jurisdictions strive for both excellence and equity and have taken evidence-based steps to deliver both. A single reform strategy was cited in literature on all four high-performing jurisdictions: ‘Leadership from the Middle’ defined as “a deliberate strategy that increases the capacity and internal coherence of the middle as it becomes a more effective partner upward to the state and downward to its schools and communities, in pursuit of greater system performance” (Fullan, 2015: 24). Top-down leadership does not last due to lack of sustainable buy-in from professionals; bottom-up change does not result in overall system improvement: some schools improve, others do not and the gap between high and low performers increases. A strong message from the study is that, as systems become more decentralised, to maintain equity as well as excellence, there needs to be a coordinating mechanism across a locality or region. Greany (2020) suggests that local coherence may be associated with improvements in student outcomes.
“What the English system lacks are clear shared goals and a strategy to unify the system so that it works for all children.“
Section One outlines five principles of a successful school system derived from the literature:
• a focus on collaborative learning;
• a positive ethos with shared moral purpose;
• a whole-system focus to ensure efficiency, equality of access, cost-effectiveness and economies of scale.
Respondents were asked to rate each principle for importance and to give a judgement on how well the English system performs against the principle. In each case, the rating for importance was stronger than for performance. There is a clear appetite for reform. The need to rebuild in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is seen as an opportune moment to reset for the future.
Many features common to high performing systems can be found in England, but only in pockets of provision. What the English system lacks are clear shared goals and a strategy to unify the system so that it works for all children. In interviews and focus groups, there was overall a recognition of the need to rebuild capacity at the middle-tier level to achieve a more managed system.
“There was a strong view that the accountability system needs to be recalibrated, away from a focus on ‘proving’ towards ‘improving’.“
High-performing systems have clear alignment of purpose between politicians, policy-makers and practitioners and clearly defined roles. The research highlights the interdependence of different elements of the system: the accountability system affects the recruitment and retention of teachers and leaders; admissions policies can lead to the marginalisation of disadvantaged pupils; overcentralisation disempowers parents and communities; and a fragmented system with overlapping responsibilities leads to the inefficient use of resources. At the heart of the problem lie the twin issues of a lack of shared vision for education and a lack of clarity about where decision-making power lies for key governance functions.
Section Two takes a governance approach to conceptualise the role of the middle tier. It considers the optimum level for responsibility to lie for seven key governance functions: 1) teacher supply, 2) support for vulnerable pupils, 3) the curriculum, 4) school improvement, 5) accountability and quality assurance, 6) admissions and place planning, and 7) preparing young people for the future. The research recommends strengthening the middle tier with greater integration, collaborative decision-making between the centre, the middle tier and schools; and better coordination of services across an area. It supports calls for a more clearly defined set of roles for the middle tier including local authorities (LAs).
A large majority of respondents felt that LAs should be given greater authority to fulfil their roles in relation to: oversight of pupil admissions, including the enforcement of Fair Access Protocols; place-planning; and coordination of support for pupils with SEND or other disadvantage where support is needed beyond the school. There was strong support for unifying school improvement for academies and maintained schools, on a locality basis, led by school leaders. Different views were expressed, however, about what the basis for the locality should be, with advocates of all current arrangements: LA, area-based partnerships (AEPs), Combined Unitary Authority, Regional or sub-regional (e.g. Opportunity Areas). Many, but not all, favoured moving away from LAs as the basis for school improvement, to sub-regional or regional structures, in order to widen access to good practice and for economies of scale.
There was a strong view that the accountability system needs to be recalibrated, away from a focus on ‘proving’ towards ‘improving’. There was support for the idea of area-based accountability, of using district data to derive a measure of local accountability for all schools, primary, secondary and further education, so that schools’ successes were mutually dependent, stressing that all are part of a local service.
The Covid-19 pandemic has both made the need to build a robust system more urgent and provided examples of what the future might look like, in terms of increased collaboration and multi-agency working. The potential of technology to motivate pupils and enhance teacher collaboration has brought into focus the urgent need to ensure internet access for all pupils. Many practitioners, as well as the charities and parent groups consulted, argued for a greater voice for parents and pupils, seen as crucial for social justice and social mobility.
Section Three looks at current approaches to place-based working, which is rooted in localities but looks outward, drawing on wider expertise and resource. It is seen by interviewees to provide clear benefits: essential “glue” or coordination of activities; a collective sense of responsibility and pride, to reduce local competition which drives local hierarchies and increases the effects of disadvantage; and a focus on contextual factors which can provide barriers to achievement or offer solutions. In addition, it has the potential to increase cost efficiencies, provide external quality assurance and prevent ‘reinvention of the wheel’. Government and professionals have recognised the potential of place-based approaches to reduce the social attainment gap which is beginning to widen again as Covid-19 exposes societal inequalities. Opportunity Areas and AEPs demonstrate the value of collaboration between LAs, early years providers, schools, multi-academy trusts, dioceses, colleges, universities, businesses, health professionals and voluntary and community organisations, working beyond organisational boundaries
towards a shared aim. It is recommended that a national evaluation of existing place-based models is commissioned, to draw together good practice to inform system learning.
England’s middle tier has been variously described as ‘missing’ or ‘muddled’. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for a strong middle tier to fulfil a coordinating role. Now is a good time to reset and take to scale the benefits of the place-based approaches described in this report. Claims that over-centralisation of decision-making has contributed, in some regions, to poor economic growth and a sense of being ‘left behind’, have led to the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. The government intends to develop a ‘more thoughtful’ (Gove, 2020) approach to local leadership, to allow communities to take control of the policies that matter to them through a devolution of power to combined and unitary authorities overseen by elected regional mayors. The potential advantages of strengthening links between education and other Combined Authority strategic roles were welcomed by several members of the focus groups.
The OECD are clear that: “the way education systems are designed has an impact on student performance” (OECD, 2012: 25). The design of the education system is a national responsibility. There is a strong case for a review of the role of the middle tier with the aim of reducing fragmentation and improving support for disadvantaged pupils. The recommendations in the report are intended to be helpful in making progress towards the best practice principles derived from high-performing systems. The research offers examples where progress is already being made in delivering some of the recommendations by voluntary agreement across a locality: monitoring of vulnerable pupils in Warwickshire; admissions protocols across Sheffield; School Improvement by some Area-based Education Partnerships. It is hoped this report will encourage more such initiatives.
Summary of Recommendations
1. A review of the current system is needed to reduce the fragmentation, duplication and anomalies of the present system if England is to be as successful as high-performing systems in giving equal weight to performance and tackling disadvantage.
2. The five principles of system design should be used as a guide to system reform.
3. The future role of the middle tier should be clarified in terms of the following functions.
Support for Vulnerable pupils
The research illuminates how weaknesses in teacher recruitment, training and retention and a narrow curriculum monitored by a punitive accountability system, combine to disadvantage learners who are vulnerable.
4. The government should allocate adequate funding to services (including youth, mental health, family) that support vulnerable pupils.
5. Mainstream schools should introduce, if not already in place, more inclusive policies for SEND pupils (including CPD for all teachers and enhanced roles for special needs teachers and SENCOs).
6. The LA should be granted the powers to fulfil their statutory duty to ensure places and services for vulnerable children, including the right to intervene if Fair Admissions Protocols are not followed or to challenge a school’s pupil data if they have concerns.
7. Recognise the progress of disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils as a collective responsibility of all schools and agencies in a locality by setting a metric against which LAs report. LAs, working with schools, should produce data termly on their progress and placement in schools and an annual action plan. All schools should be required to provide LAs with the relevant data and support the implementation of the plan.
8. Unify the governance of the system by bringing together LA and RSC responsibilities for school improvement into a single locality governance structure. The DfE should support each locality to establish a School Partnership Board (sub-regional or local, depending on the area). The Board to be responsible and accountable jointly to the LA and RSC and be held to account for performance. The locality could be based on AEPs, Combined Authorities, LAs or Opportunity Areas but need to include all schools in the area.
9. School improvement should focus on the ambition for all schools to improve on their previous best. Outstanding practice should be accredited and openly shared.
10. All schools should complete a robust, externally-moderated self-assessment to agreed national and local metrics and an action plan to deliver against these, monitored by the local School Partnership Board.
11. Revise the role of Ofsted to provide national validation of the processes of self-assessments and peer moderation in each locality.
12. Britain is the only country in Europe to retain examinations at age 16; we should follow other systems’ examples of moderating standards across a system without testing every child every year, by representative national sampling. The money saved on examinations should be reinvested into schools to provide students at 18 with digital passports of the whole range of skills.
Pupil admissions and place-planning
13. Every school should have the right to propose an admissions policy to be translated by the LA into a formal set of arrangements for all local schools; this local body should administer the arrangements and deal with appeals, including for pupil admissions outside the main transition points. In the absence of national action, localities should follow this approach through voluntary agreements as a number already do.
14. DfE to set out a coherent framework for the planning and commissioning of school places which acknowledges a) the central role of the LA in planning and commissioning sufficient school places to meet local need and b) stipulates full consultation with parents, staff and local stakeholders. In the absence of national actions, LAs, Dioceses, MATs and SATs should adopt such an approach.