A bit of extra cash and some tech gimmicks will not solve the schools crisis
If government is to regain the trust of teachers and parents, we need a system overhaul that takes a more localised approach to accountability.
Education has been one of the big casualties of the pandemic. Best estimates suggest that, even if schools are able to go back in March, and this is the last lockdown, there will be an average of around five to six months of learning loss for young people. Those from lower-income households will be hardest hit and the gaps in the system will widen yet further.
Recovery will be a gargantuan task and there is a real risk the government will unveil a package of catch-up tuition, a bit of extra cash and some tech gimmicks, and hope that does the trick. Instead, we need to look at our schools system as a whole and at what fundamental changes might be required to deal with a problem of this magnitude.
Even before the pandemic hit, the government’s schools policy seemed directionless. The Gove reforms, in which I participated as a policy adviser, were unpopular with teachers, arguably as much because of the way they were enacted as for their content, but at least they constituted a clear agenda.
Subsequent secretaries of state have been tasked with maintaining progress, but with diminishing levels of enthusiasm (and latterly, competence), and without any alternative ideas either.
The Gove reforms can be broadly split into two groups. One, focusing on ‘standards’, saw a new curriculum and adjustments to GCSEs, A-levels and primary tests. The second, focusing on ‘structures’, led to a massive expansion of Labour’s academies programme, with most secondary schools and over a quarter of primaries now either standalone academy schools or, more commonly, part of a multi-academy trust privately operated by a charity.
Straddling both themes was a significant hardening of ‘accountability’ for schools, with poor exam results or Ofsted inspections often leading to a takeover by an academy trust.
Judging the impact of these reforms is extremely difficult, because none were properly evaluated or piloted, and they all started at the same time. The only real evidence we have is from the international PISA study which, in 2019, showed England improving in maths for the first time since the survey began (while remaining stable in reading and science).
It’s impossible to be sure what’s responsible for this but it is notable that Scotland introduced a very different kind of curriculum at roughly the same time as England and has seen its PISA scores go backwards.
My best guess is that, if this improvement is policy-related at all, it is due to introducing a curriculum that is knowledge and subject-based. Countries like Scotland that have gone down a more competency-based route with themes instead of subjects, and pseudo-skills such as ‘critical thinking’ emphasised over content, seem more likely to be going backwards.
At the very least this argues for serious caution in making any dramatic changes to curriculum or assessment. There is much wild talk at the moment of scrapping exams, and the transformative potential of artificial intelligence in the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ and suchlike. This feels like displacement activity for the perhaps duller but more serious work of genuine education reform.
If there is a case that curriculum changes have led to real benefits, it feels much less likely structural reforms have led to system-wide improvement. There is no evidence that academies are outperforming schools that continued to be maintained by their local authority.
That said, there have been some benefits. Some academy chains have shown that it is possible to scale what happens in a successful school over a group. Some free schools, which are essentially new-build academies, have been radically innovative in their approaches, which have then been picked up more widely (and free schools, on average, do appear to be outperforming the rest of the system).
But the structural changes have also caused problems. Through its oversight of academies, the Department for Education (DfE) has taken direct responsibility for schools educating more than half the nation’s children, and has struggled to set up a regional system to make this manageable.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in the system is that local authorities have not been given a clear role to replace that of maintaining schools that have academised. The centralising tendencies of the DfE have caused some of the worst moments of the pandemic – with, for instance, threats to sue councils which asked schools to close in late December as case numbers were spiking.
Relatedly, this mass centralisation has forced the DfE into a crude approach to holding schools accountable, relying purely on Ofsted ratings and exam scores rather than any local knowledge. This is not a new phenomenon; centralised accountability began in the early 90s and intensified under the Blair government. It has had clear benefits in terms of largely eradicating genuinely failing schools from the system. But it has now intensified to the point where it is likely doing more harm than good.
Headteachers, in particular, are under so much pressure that the job is less desirable than ever before. Moreover, this pressure can lead to perverse distortions in the curriculum offer, with lower-performing children often forced into focusing on a narrow range of content.
If this approach had gone too far before the pandemic, it’s certainly not the right one now. Given everything schools have been through over the past year, and the challenges still to come, the government will need to try to forge a new relationship with the profession.
Trust, already damaged by centralisation and accountability pressures, has taken a further hammering given the multiple Covid-related failures of the last year. A system where the profession has no faith in the directions it’s being given can only be an unhealthy one.
A new relationship that would rebuild trust requires more than a change in abrasive government communications and leadership. We also need a new, localised, approach to school accountability. Central government can retain ultimate oversight powers while allowing local government to be the primary bodies responsible for ensuring schools are meeting standards expected locally; as well as ensuring admissions and exclusions processes are fair.
The great potential advantage of the academies reform is that local authorities, or mayors, could now take on these responsibilities without the conflict of interests that came with also being responsible for the governance of the schools.
This role as Champions of Children’s Interests would not only lead to a more intelligent accountability conversation, that reasserted nuance over crude metrics, but also allow for a more localised response to pandemic recovery rather than relying on centralised catch-up schemes.
One thing we have learnt over the last decade is central government officials simply do not have the local contextual knowledge to adapt programmes effectively. And farming out national programmes to private contractors doesn’t work either.
Ultimately the big flaw in the Gove revolution was not the ideas – the jury is still out on those – but the belief that reform can be done to a system rather than with it. Circumventing local government and professional bodies certainly accelerated the process, but the cost has been high.
Through the pandemic, the refusal of government to listen to or engage with the sector has repeatedly led to major errors. During the clean-up operation, they need to start listening or the damage will become permanent.