July 22, 2023
The underpinning structure
Underpinning England’s school system is a set of legislative, financial, governance, employment and administrative structures ideally forming a coherent and integrated set of arrangements.
The prime task of the structures is to get approximately 8 million children aged 5 to 16 in front of 400,000 appropriately qualified teachers helped by a similar number of support staff, in 20,000 well-equipped and safe school buildings for 190 days a year at the current annual cost of £50 billion.
Ideally, the structures must be efficient and sustainable and, to be successful, must have the support of those who work in schools, as well as the wider civic society.
To help children get the best out of the school system, the structures need to support school attendance (including transport), school meals, family welfare and safeguarding, special education needs and disability services, educational psychology, and health services.
In order for the structures to be most effective, there need to be stable mechanisms for financial control, assessing and improving the quality of education provided, and accountability arrangements. Given the size of England, the central government authority has aimed to work in a partnership built on trust with local bodies to govern the school system.
The operation of the structures
How the structures operate, and the resources available, is a matter of political and professional debate. Into this operational mix will be the priorities of the central government and other bodies from local government organisations representatives of employers and employees, faith groups and other voluntary bodies. The result is pivotal to
- the content of the school curriculum and its assessment,
- the happiness children and their parents with the school system
- the recruitment and professional development of teachers
- teachers and other school staff having well-remunerated and fulfilling lives
- how society views the importance of education and what we as a country want our school system to do
- the desired outcomes for children and the contribution they may make to society throughout their lives through their families, communities and workplaces etc.
Top-down structural change
Over the last 20 years the national government has increasingly chosen to work with centrally contracted bodies in preference to local bodies. Funding is almost exclusively from the central exchequer now. Structural change has occurred through the slow removal of schools from local authority maintenance. In its place, a new form of governance has been instituted whereby academy schools come under direct central control through an intermediary charitable body called an ‘academy trust’.
The Conservative government is obsessed about structures with the result that more schools are now under central government control with approximately 75% of secondary schools and 45% of primary schools. Local government funding to support local authority maintained schools is tightly controlled. This change has cost an estimated £1 billion so far including legal fees, and preoccupied DfE to the exclusion of other pressing issues.
In 2022, the Government set an endpoint for this process with a target of full academisation in 2030. This is not going to be achieved.
Government attempts to define in legislation what a fully academised system might look like have failed twice, once in 2016 when a Bill was withdrawn before publication. In 2022 the Schools Bill was published and debated in the Lords but withdrawn in the face of widespread criticism mainly from the academy sector.
As a result, we have a half-implemented structural change which is leading to structural instability. Fault lines include:
- Transparency: too many decisions about schools are now taken in private.
- Place: the nature of academisation means that there is no longer a local system of education responsive to the local community.
- Fairness and equality: the emerging academy system has too few checks and balances to ensure all pupils, especially disadvantaged pupils, receive an appropriate education and institutional interests do not take precedence over the interests of pupils and their families.
- Over-centralisation: too many decisions are taken nationally especially funded initiatives which cannot begin to understand local needs and circumstances.
- Financial management: decisions taken by academy trusts, especially in relation to financial decisions, such as chief executive salaries are often questionable.
The next government
The next government will find itself with a half-finished structure, with no end in sight for completion let alone a plan to achieve completion.
The new Government can
- Try to complete the work which the Conservative Government did in 2016 and 2022 and meet the same obstacles; or
- Halt further structural changes including academisation, save money and make urgent changes to stabilise the system, before considering the longer term structure.
To do nothing is not an option.
The effect of the half-finished structure is putting significant strains on the school system. Listed below are seven areas in no order of priority with some possible ways forward. There are other strains, e.g. Special Educational Needs and Disability.
1. Implications of increased and continuing academisation
While having a dual maintained/academy system is possible (although may not be desirable in the long run), the arrangement when local systems do not know at the start of a school year what it will look like at the end is destabilising.
Further academisation must stop unless there are pressing reasons to bind local schools together in an Academy structure because there are no other mechanisms. Permitting an academy to join a hard federation and a maintained school to join a MAT as a maintained school should be considered.
2. Testing and assessment
The primary school curriculum is overloaded with testing and is affecting the quality of teaching and learning when its sole purpose is for school accountability. The proportion of 16-year olds who ‘fail’ secondary education is a disgrace. Proposals from the Times Education Commission and the Independent Commission on Assessment in Primary Education must be implemented.
3. Falling rolls
The number of live births rose annually from 2003 but have fallen every year since 2013. While the earlier boom helped make the Government’s Free School programme an apparent success, the fall in schools will be significant in many areas and urgent action will be needed to secure efficient and appropriate education for all children in these areas. Local authorities must plan for this fall in rolls and given the power to close and/or amalgamate all types of publicly provided schools.
4. Austerity and school community support
While school funding has arguably not suffered greatly over the last 13 years due to austerity, this is not the case for the many local community and family (and cultural) services which sustain local communities. This has had a massive effect on schools serving vulnerable communities. Schools and their staff in these area have provided support from food banks to counselling that they were not doing previously.
An incoming government must initiative a debate about the community role of schools and decide whether such services should be funded through the school structure in future or returned to local communities supported by their local authorities.
5. School attendance post-covid
The rate of school attendance has not returned to its pre-Covid levels especially the persistently absent group. The School Attendance provisions in the 2022 dropped Schools Bill must be put on the statute book without delay with a less bureaucratic School Attendance Order procedure and a power by the local authority to direct an Academy to admit a pupil.
6. Teacher supply
The emerging problem of teacher recruitment and retention have been well-rehearsed. The problem can mainly be attributed to one of the Government’s own making as will any solution. Sidelining local collective solutions is regrettable. See Sr. Bethan Marshall’s paper on Initial Teacher Education and Retention.
7. School inspection and accountability
The problems of the current Ofsted-led school inspection and the use of the single grading system for school accountability have again been well-rehearsed. The assumption that the external pressure of the accountability system will lead to school improvement is false and is damaging to the recruitment and retention of teachers. See Sir Alasdair Macdonald’s paper on Accountability and Ofsted.
John Fowler’s article is one of four papers together published by the New Visions for Education Group as “Propositions For The Next Labour Government”
John Fowler expresses thanks to John Bolt for his assistance in compiling this article.