Changing Control of Schools
In the future, central control of education by Government will give way to innovation and leadership at the individual school level. Sam Freedman, Head of Education at think-tank Policy Exchange, outlines his ideas.
When Tony Blair explained his main priorities for government in 1996 as 'education, education, education' he formalised a developing consensus in British politics. Since James Callaghan's 'secret garden' speech in 1976 politicians from all parties have attempted to intervene, with increasing regularity, in the education system to try to boost standards. The 1988 Education Reform Act remains the most significant of these interventions; giving us the National Curriculum, CTCs and grant-maintained schools (which later morphed into academies and foundation schools), Ofsted, national key stage assessments, nominal parental choice and league tables. Since then a further 20 Education Acts have built on this initial framework.
These developments were, I believe, partly the result of a shift in thinking about the purpose of education from being a necessary right that government had to fund to being a direct investment in economic growth and, therefore, crucial to the future wealth and security of the country. In the early 1950s Churchill did not consider education important enough to require a seat in the cabinet (he also famously believed that 'my education was only interrupted by my schooling'). By the 1980s education was considered an important investment - now it is considered a vital one. (It is notable that two of the three party spokesmen on schools - Ed Balls and David Laws - are economists by training.) Gordon Brown has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been one of the most ardent political believers in the direct economic relationship between education and financial growth and this has driven much of the policy agenda, with the new 'specialised diplomas' designed to provide training for specific careers coming on-stream this year and functional skills assessments starting next year. The Conservatives remain somewhat more committed to education for its own sake, but still see education primarily as the best way of achieving other desirable goals like social mobility.
This politicisation of education has been a mixed blessing for schools in the state sector. On the one hand they have seen massive increases in spending, especially in the last eleven years when it has more than doubled. More than #50 billion has been committed, by this government, to rebuilding every secondary school in the country and half the primary schools by 2020. There has also been increased investment in areas like teacher training (especially Teach First) and behaviour management which have had a positive impact. However, they have also had to operate in an environment of permanent revolution, with successive governments making constant changes to the system. In the last year alone state secondary schools have had to, amongst other things, retrain staff to teach the diplomas; prepare for functional skills assessments and A*s at A Level; deal with the sudden and abrupt withdrawal of Key Stage 3 exams in the middle of the school year and start-up behaviour partnerships. The unfortunate 638 who had fewer than 30% of pupils scoring five good GCSEs including English and Maths in 2007 have also been put through the National Challenge process which has meant more advisors and consultants (all state secondaries already have to have a School Improvement Partner).
The overall impact has been negative, with too many state schools now terrified of innovating or using their initiative lest it lead it to more interference from the centre. There is widespread teaching to tests and less attention given to truly gifted students or to those really struggling. This is a question of the atmosphere created by high-stakes testing, and constant interventions designed with the media in mind, more than anything else. The National Curriculum and rules over teacher pay and conditions both actually give considerable freedom to innovate but there is only risk - and little value - in doing so. Many headteachers feel that their leeway to operate is narrower than is actually the case because of the environment in which they have to operate. Notably the vast majority of requests made to the DCSF 'innovation unit', which can suspend legislation for individual schools allowing them to experiment, were for changes that heads were already allowed to make under existing laws.
The one significant policy that has worked against this increase in 'command and control' from central government has been the academies programme. This was initiated in 2000 by Tony Blair's education guru Andrew (now Lord) Adonis after he visited one of the few City Technology Colleges built by the Conservatives in the early 1990s and saw how the combination of external sponsorship and freedom from government provided an impetus for innovation and excellence. Academies are state-funded but legally independent secondary schools run by a sponsor, who can be an individual, university, fee-paying school or educational charity. The sponsor appoints the majority of governors who then have considerable freedom over their curriculum and can set their own pay and conditions for teachers (though they cannot select academically or charge any fees). There are now 133 open with a target of at least another 267. While most have used some of their freedoms their success (and they are improving twice as fast as other kinds of state schools) has been largely due to the influence of the sponsors, the injection of new leadership and freedom from local and central government interference.
Since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister and Ed Balls became Education Secretary, there has been a significant shift in policy towards academies with some of their freedoms rolled back and local authorities being given more choice over the sponsors operating in their area and more control over the design of new buildings. Some of the more recent academies have even been co-sponsored by local authorities, which somewhat defeats their purpose. Nevertheless most academies still retain considerable independence, and, as their number grows are forming an important 'third sector' in the education world between comprehensives and traditional independent schools.
As such they are both a threat and an opportunity for fee-paying schools. The threat is that academies will represent real competition as they are benefiting from two of the most significant drivers of the traditional independent sector's success - significant investment in facilities and freedom from most government interference. The opportunity is that academies are breaking down the traditional barrier between the independent and state sectors. A small number of formerly fee-paying schools like William Hulme in Manchester and Belvedere in Liverpool have switched directly to academy status - allowing the parents to benefit from the same education free of charge. Many others, like Wellington College and Marlborough, are sponsoring sister academies. While this may seem like a purely altruistic act (or one designed to pass the Charity Commission's new 'public benefit' test) it has considerable benefits to the fee-paying school; offering a potential stream of Sixth Formers and building profile. A number of charities that run multiple schools now operate in both sectors, owning fee-paying schools and operating academies, including: Haberdashers, United Church School Trust, Girls Day School Trust, Woodard, Skinners, Mercers and Drapers.
Importantly all three main parties support the academies programme so there is little risk in getting involved. In fact, the opposition parties are more interested in learning the lessons of the academies programme than the government that initiated them. The Conservatives (and the Liberal Democrats) will fight the next election on a promise to allow any charitable group to open a school, as long as it meets a set of basic standards, and have costs funded by the state. If it attracts parents it will thrive, if not it will quickly close. Local state schools would face serious competition and might themselves have to close if their new competitors are more popular. There is no reason (though the Conservatives have not made this explicit) why existing independent schools could not switch into the new system as long as they were charitable, were prepared to operate on the per-pupil costs offered by the state, and were prepared to drop academic selection. While this would be an unlikely route for some of the better known fee-paying secondary schools, it may be an attractive option for smaller prep schools and single-sex schools struggling to keep above water in the current economic difficulties.
Labour have attacked these proposals for risking an unsystematic and costly expansion in the number of school places. A similar scheme however has been operating in Sweden for the last sixteen years without a noticeable increase in overall cost. Though overall results have not risen as quickly as the scheme's designers had hoped, they are improving. Moreover, 'Free Schools' as the Swedes call them are now significantly outperforming state schools. Many states in the US also have provision for independent state-funded 'charter' schools. Again, many of these schools are outperforming local state schools (despite being paid less money per pupil).
One big difference between these schemes and what the Conservatives are proposing here is that in Sweden and the US school operators are allowed to make profit. This has had quite a significant impact on the market as, over time, chains of branded schools run by entrepreneurs have developed. The chains that have thrived, like Kunskappskolan and Vittra in Sweden (both owning over thirty schools) and Edison in the US (who own almost 100) are now running some of the most successful free/charter schools. This is because economies of scale make them more efficient and once they find a successful pedagogical programme they can farm it out to all their schools. There are a few US chains that are not-for-profit like the extremely successful KIPP (Knowledge is Power Programme) but they rely on vast amounts of philanthropy to keep going - amounts that would probably not be available in the UK even in an economic boom.
If the Conservatives win the election and continue with their plans in the current form then most new schools coming into the state-funded market will be relatively small and often religious. We can expect to see some charitable fee-paying schools and some parent co-operatives, especially in rural areas where local authorities are threatening small state primaries with closure. If they were to decide to allow profit, the education world would change much more radically with chains of branded schools operating - possibly in both the state-funded and fee-paying sectors. In any case, consolidation within the fee-paying sector is likely given that many small family run schools are too inefficient to continue for much longer. Cognita - the schools company chaired by former Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead - have already bought out almost fifty schools in the few years they have been operating.
So we can expect significant changes in the education world over the next ten years. Our traditional ideas of the differences between independent and state schools are already being challenged by the academies programme and will be more radically shifted if the Conservatives win the next election. Either way, it is likely that we have seen the 'command and control' approach to running the education sector taken as far it can be - in the future there will be more opportunity for innovation and leadership at the individual school level.