The school system needs urgent reform

by Ron Glatter

February 21, 2024

Ron Glatter is someone to be listened to on education administration. Now Emeritus Professor of Educational Administration and Management at the Open University, Ron’s academic career includes many years at what is now the UCL Institute of Education where he was a member of the Council and where he is still a Visiting Professor. He is a past President of  the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (BELMAS)  of which he was also founding secretary. He was also UK Co-ordinator of the OECD’s international School Improvement Project,  trustee of the Research and Information on State Education Trust (RISE), the Public Law Project (PLP) and the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) and to add to all that a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Ron Glatter is a longstanding member of the New Visions for Education Group. Here he challenges the notion that has prevailed in government for over 20 years that structures in the public education service don’t matter much.


An unhelpful debate

“In England, a largely unhelpful debate has claimed that structures are of little consequence”.  I wrote that sentence in a paper published in 2020 which went on to say “Excellent teaching and quality leadership cannot be fully effective in a capricious and dysfunctional framework, with likely detrimental effects on equity…  The current situation in many areas of England can fairly be described as a complex patchwork of schools and school types, with strong local hierarchies difficult for families to navigate and much greater public debate about parental choice and school admissions than is common in developed countries”.   

What Labour has said

That dismissive view seems to have taken a still firmer hold in this pre-election period, even in the context of the very radical process of mass academisation that has taken place in recent years.  For example academies were referred to just twice in the 19 pages of Labour’s education policy document ‘Breaking down the Barriers to Opportunity’ published last summer.  That’s surprising given the central role the academy system might play in any policy developments.  

However the two measures mentioned, however briefly, could have a beneficial impact.  If Labour is elected they propose to require academies to teach the core national curriculum just as other state schools must, and Multi-Academy Trusts would be brought “into the remit of inspection, recognising their role in driving much of what happens in schools” (ibid. page 13).

That statement of recognition seems significant, and is at odds with the neglect of the topic elsewhere in the paper.  We are told that a review focused on reforming accountability would be conducted.  It is expected to take time to draw its conclusions and in any case it appears limited to “the curriculum and assessment system” (ibid. page 9).  The paper mentions “the Conservatives’ chaotic, piecemeal approach to education and skills” ( 14) but doesn’t seem to relate that description to the current design of the school system.

If that approach to the system design issue seems limited and tentative, it’s more positive than the approach adopted so far by the think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), which is often regarded as a key advisory body to the Labour Party on policy issues.  


Just a distraction?

The Institute published a substantial report last autumn, grandly titled ‘Out of Kilter: how to rebalance our school system to work for people, economy and society’. Though the report contained much thoughtful analysis and several promising proposals, the Institute devoted only a little over half a page out of the 45 pages to the system design issue (page 31).  The heading of the section in question is “Case study: structures in schooling – solution or distraction?”  In fact the very short section contains no case study but concludes with this far-reaching and frankly absurd advice: “Policy makers should avoid focusing on structures in seeking to improve school outcomes in the coming decades”. This would leave the present random and incoherent configuration untouched for very many years.  Doing anything about it is regarded as a “distraction”.  My repeated attempts to engage with IPPR about this issue have been largely ignored.


We can’t go on like this

In fact the negative consequences of the current design are increasingly being exposed.  A recent report by the education think tank EDSK lays out in considerable detail the deleterious effects of the present arrangements, in terms of impacts on students, teachers and local communities and also of serious failings in public accountability and governance.  They say the system needs major corrective action based on three principles: coherence, collaboration and transparency.

There have also been detailed studies showing the unjustifiably high costs of the academy system, particularly in relation to management, first in 2019 by Sara Bubb and colleagues and then last year by Warwick Mansell.  That is hardly surprising given the chaotic and irrational nature of the system, with around 1,200 multi-academy trusts of hugely varying sizes in terms of both numbers of schools and geographical coverage, plus single academies and local authority schools. Unnecessarily complex structures are not cost-effective.  The resources should surely be spent on classrooms and teaching staff rather than on excessive requirements related to management.

As EDSK say, the system “has become unsustainable and undesirable” and “has created a fragmented and confusing landscape that leaves everyone from local parents to national politicians worse off”.  It has been a classic example of the kind of flawed English public sector reform that the late Christopher Pollitt dubbed re-disorganization way back in 2007. As John Fowler says in his article about structure and governance on this site “To do nothing is not an option”.


What is to be done? Coherence and ownership

There is no doubt that the Academies Act of 2010 initiated a radical and complex set of changes to the design of the system.  The numerous and far-reaching defects of these will be challenging to tackle, but the task must be addressed.  I will concentrate here on two key aspects.

First the system must be made clear and comprehensible to parents and other stakeholders in each locality, as is frequently not the case currently.  This means that all state-funded schools should operate under the same rules and regulations, unless there is a strong and defensible reason for variation. Many of the current regulatory distinctions between academies and maintained schools have no rational basis.  That can lead to unjustified differences in levels of public accountability, among other things.

The second issue relates to the ownership of academy chains and single academies.  It defies understanding that we have some 2,500 academy trusts, all funded by the state but operating under a vast range of different owners.  They are all given contracts by, or on behalf of, the central government without other elected bodies or the public having any involvement in their selection.

To give one example the academy chain of ten schools that now includes the secondary school where, many years ago, my two children went was founded and is said to be largely run by Lord Nash and his wife Caroline.  They are two of the trust’s five ‘members’ (equivalent to shareholders of a business) and also two of the eight trustees.  He is a venture capitalist who was a Conservative schools minister for more than four years from January 2013 and later became a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office.  It seems strange, to say the least, that someone who has held such a high profile national political role connected with education should also, with his wife, be involved in running a chain of local schools funded by the taxpayer.  As I said, there will be very many other more or less similar examples around the country: my point here is about the system, not the individuals.


To whom should our schools belong?

More than a decade ago, some three years after the Academies Act was passed, I wrote a book chapter (no. 31) with a title beginning ‘“To whom should our schools belong?” With the great increase in academies and free schools over the past decade it is a question that needs to be asked even more urgently today.  

The private school model, on which the governance structure of academies and academy chains appears to be based, is completely inappropriate since private schools are primarily responsible to their owners or trustees whereas publicly-provided schools have a much wider set of responsibilities including to taxpayers and indeed the whole citizenry, as well as to their local community in its broadest sense.  It is a point that the IPPR of 2013 cogently made in their report ‘Citizen Schools: learning to rebuild democracy.  A pluralist governance model that reflects these multiple obligations is surely needed.

The system as a whole has been moving sharply away from such a perspective, particularly with the great reduction in the powers of local government in education.  That has given the centre ever greater control to impose its often controversial and sometimes idiosyncratic preferences about school structure, curriculum and assessment on England’s large and complex system.  

We need an open debate about ownership in publicly-funded schooling.  The current arrangements are dysfunctional and urgently need to be reformed.