The Independent View: Keep academy freedoms – and extend them to all schools

schoolsignThe question whether to curtail or extend academy freedoms to state-funded schools was resurrected last October in a speech by Nick Clegg. The answer he put forward was to extend academy freedoms to all schools, albeit in a limited form. Clegg would like to claw-back the freedoms academies have over unqualified teachers and the curriculum, but to extend the remaining freedoms to all state-funded schools.

 Clegg’s new-found middle way is based on a belief that guaranteeing high standards in education is best achieved by curtailing autonomy. In October 2013, he said: “There is nothing…inconsistent in believing that greater school autonomy can be married to certain core standards for all.”

 Yet high levels of autonomy and accountability are conducive to high pupil attainment. The Deputy Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher, has said that England’s multiple measures of accountability, along with a “high level of autonomy and discretion at the front line”, are key to success in education.

Evidence from Reform’s survey of academies supports this view. Between June and October 2013, Reform and the education body SSAT surveyed 654 academies (20 per cent of the total academy population) to understand how academies use their freedoms. The survey found no evidence that autonomous academies forfeit core standards of education.

Among those schools that both employ unqualified teachers and use their own curriculum – the freedoms Clegg would like to remove – 60 per cent reported that headline pupil results had improved. Only 1 per cent reported pupil results had fallen.

These results are not a consequence of a higher attaining intake. Among the schools, 83 per cent reported that the ability of pupil intake had gone unchanged. Only 10 per cent reported a more able intake. Clegg should therefore reconsider his un-evidenced scepticism of freedom over qualified teachers and the curriculum.

While academies have freedom over the curriculum, school day and teachers’ terms and conditions, under half make use of these freedoms. This is the central finding of Reform’s academies survey.  Financial and educational autonomy were the two main motivations for conversion among the academies surveyed. However, only 35 per cent exercise freedom over their curriculum, and only 19 per cent over the structure of their school day.

National frameworks may prevent academies from using their freedoms. The freedom academies use most is over teacher pay: 60 per cent reported already having made changes to teacher pay policy. However, all local authority schools were required to introduce performance-related pay policies in September 2013. Conversely, 6 per cent of academies reported exercising their freedom over the school term. The existence of restrictive local authority term dates may prevent academies from using this freedom.

Clegg is right to want all schools to have academy freedoms. This will allow local authority schools to benefit from increased autonomy and enable academies to use their existing freedoms. The Government has already made progress towards this aim. Should the Deregulation Bill pass as proposed, governors of local authority schools will have more autonomy over school term dates, and headteachers more autonomy over behaviour policy.

Another barrier remains over teachers’ terms and conditions. Last month, the School Teachers’ Review Body rejected proposals to remove the national framework around working hours and the provision to “rarely cover” lessons for absent colleagues. Only 33 per cent of academies surveyed use their freedom in this area. Maintaining these restrictions for local authority schools may deter academies from negotiating teachers’ terms and conditions.

The debate should move away from scepticism over the curriculum and unqualified teachers. Gradually, all schools are being given academy freedoms. The challenge for Government now is to enable academies to exercise them all.

* Amy Finch is a researcher at the independent, non-party think tank Reform.

Read more by or more about , or .
This entry was posted in The Independent View.
Advert

20 Comments

  • Patrick McAuley 18th Mar '14 - 4:26pm

    I think your conclusion is spot on with regard the challenge for government enabling schools to use their freedoms. My own view is this is less about a statutory or policy solution and more an issue of challenging the state school culture within academies. We are going through a process of enervating the ‘institutional think’ pattern particularly in the secondary sector, but some people are easier to move than others. I see schools and head teachers gaining autonomy from the educational structure but not the prevailing pedagogical culture meaning some academies are Autonomous schools in name only.

  • Has anyone actually explained to you that school attendance is compulsory? Academies can do what they like and those forced by law to attend (and their parents) can lump it if they don’t like it. This ‘freedom’ is hugely harmful to the interests of children and parents.

  • Paul Griffiths 18th Mar '14 - 7:56pm

    Of course, Lib Dem policy is for a slimmed-down Minimum Curriculum Guarantee rather than the current National Curriculum, so Ms Finch is in danger of comparing apples with oranges.

  • With grade inflation grades went up everywhere, not just in academies. I just dont understand how seemingly statistically illiterate folk can be made to carry out research and then draw conclusions in public. If you pay more for higher quality education you get better results. Freedom to hire unqualified teachers is not a freedom schools need. My children have a right to be taught by skilled qualified teachers. Cutting costs and cutting corners in education is something politicians advocate for *other peoples children*.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Mar '14 - 11:04pm

    I agree with this – with the proviso that the role of monitoring and (where necessary) supporting schools (including existing academies) should rest with local education authorities, and not the new centralised bureaucracy that is being set up by Gove. LEAs should be given the role of supporting schools in taking on the new powers, with a timescale of possibly five years.

    I did table an amendment on these lines to the Academies Bill nearly four years ago but of course it did not meet the Gove agenda.

    Tony Greaves

  • Julian Critchley 19th Mar '14 - 12:55am

    There’s a few issues here which we need to take the jargon so beloved of thinktanks, politicians and the media, and inject the reality of what this means in the real world of actual schools :

    “Yet high levels of autonomy and accountability are conducive to high pupil attainment. The Deputy Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher, has said that England’s multiple measures of accountability, along with a “high level of autonomy and discretion at the front line”, are key to success in education.”

    This is awfully misleading. PISA has identified that there is a link between outcomes and school autonomy to decide on assessments and curriculum. But there is no such link between outcomes and school autonomy over resource allocation (how you pay your staff, essentially). Yet guess what ? In this country, schools have very limited “freedom” over the curriculum and assessments, which are determined outside the school and enforced by OFSTED, but have been given lots of “freedom” to lower teachers’ pay. However, Schleicher being the actual non-political data-cruncher that he is (I know him, as it happens), he also added that those looking for simple answers would be disappointed : “Raising autonomy alone is not, at least from our data, a guarantee for improving outcomes.” (from your own link). It’s possible to argue that you’ve seen what you want to see here, rather than what the findings actually are.

    “Evidence from Reform’s survey of academies supports this view….”

    With the best will in the world, a self-reported study in which you ask schools whether they’re doing better is about as reliable as wet toilet paper. Schools always say they’re doing better, because the slightest hint that they might have done worse, or even stayed the same, brings down the wrath of Wilshaw. In addition, you fail to mention here that your report was done alongside the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust – Cyril Taylor’s perennial parasites. No vested interest there. It’s like a report from Imperial Tobacco discovering that smoking is good for you.

    “Among those schools that both employ unqualified teachers and use their own curriculum …..60 per cent reported that headline pupil results had improved. Only 1 per cent reported pupil results had fallen.”

    In a self-reporting survey, did you really expect a headteacher to say “yes, we employ unqualified staff, and it’s had a negative affect on those classes, but it does allow us to increase my salary”. This is stretching credulity to present such stuff as evidence of anything. Moreover, I wonder what the figures would be for LEA schools which didn’t employ unqualified (cheap) teachers ? Perhaps they’d be the same. But then, you don’t ask them, so there’s no way of knowing whether this guff is unique to academies, or simply the standard annual results increment for all schools. Yet presenting it in isolation like this gives the impression that academy status results in particularly impressive improvement in results. Almost as if the authors had an agenda.

    “However, only 35 per cent exercise freedom over their curriculum, and only 19 per cent over the structure of their school day.”

    This is because the curriculum is dictated by DFE policy (good luck offering a non-Ebacc curriculum right now), and policed by OFSTED, and very few schools are willing to risk OFSTED’s criticism, even if they have the theoretical ability to scupper their own league table position by ignoring Gove’s latest curriculum meddling.

    As for the structure of the school day, this is because the only way to change the school day structure is to spend more on staff so that you can cover a longer day (but academies have no more money – that was always a con), or force your existing staff to take a large pay cut. I have the freedom to punch myself in the face repeatedly, but I’m not likely to choose to do so. Why are you surprised that the overwhelming majority of those schools who “choose” to do so are those which are in the awful “chains”, whose business model is essentially to force out any teacher over the age of 30, bring in hosts of unqualified or trainee staff, and use the cheaper staff to line their pockets.

    “The freedom academies use most is over teacher pay: 60 per cent reported already having made changes to teacher pay policy.”

    So the sum total of all this massive disruption to our education system, and the removal of our schools from local democratic oversight, is that most of the academies are now paying teachers less ? Great result. You know that’s what this means, right ? SLT members get large pay rises, teachers get pay freezes, and expensive older teachers get competency proceedings to force them out. It’s the business model you seem so keen on.

    “Conversely, 6 per cent of academies reported exercising their freedom over the school term. The existence of restrictive local authority term dates may prevent academies from using this freedom.”

    At this point, I started to actually laugh. This has got NOTHING to do with “restrictive local authority term dates”. You know why academies don’t change term dates ? It’s because – drum roll – some children have siblings in different schools ! Try selling to parents the idea that, having arranged childcare for their two primary aged children for a week, they then have to arrange a second week for their secondary age child. Or even better, tell parents that they can’t go on holiday with their whole family this year, because the schools aren’t on holiday at the same time. Pesky kids, eh ? How dare they stand in the way of progress ? The fact that the report clearly implies regret at the lack of messing about with the school term dates suggests that the authors have lost sight of the reality of what schools are about – not business models, not ideological positions on “autonomy” : they’re about children, and their families.

    “Another barrier remains over teachers’ terms and conditions. Last month, the School Teachers’ Review Body rejected proposals to remove the national framework around working hours and the provision to “rarely cover” lessons for absent colleagues. Only 33 per cent of academies surveyed use their freedom in this area. Maintaining these restrictions for local authority schools may deter academies from negotiating teachers’ terms and conditions.”

    Let’s be clear what this agenda is : making teachers work longer hours, for less pay. That’s what this means. Less non-contact time, so less time to prepare/mark at school (has to be done unpaid at home instead). More working hours (this in the same week that a survey was released demonstrating that teachers already work an average 60 hour week); and worse terms and conditions (is there anyone out there daft enough to believe that the unions are resisting this because academies want to offer better terms and conditions to their members ?).

    This report is disgraceful. It’s misleading, selective, ideologically driven and creatively drafted to hide the true motives. Yet those motives do slip out. Here’s a quote from the report itself :

    “There are plenty of schools who need additional intervention,
    not more freedom. LAs have a greatly diminished capacity
    to provide such intervention and until such schools are
    forced into academy chains they will drift.”

    It doesn’t attribute this quote, but it sounds remarkably like the chief executive of the Harris chain. And at least he’s honest about his goals. Gove’s academization policy is not about autonomy, or standards. It’s about taking schools which are supported and held accountable by local authorities, and “forcing” them into private chains which can skim off their slice of the pie, usually at the expense of the quality/experience/welfare of the teacher in our childrens classrooms.

    There used to be a lot of teachers in the LibDems, which is why the party’s education policy was always very sensible. I hope there’s enough left to reject this sort of idea.

  • Julian Critchley 19th Mar '14 - 8:20am

    On a separate note (now I’ve slept on it and am no longer quite so ranty), it would be really nice if the comments could in some way use basic word-processing tricks like bold, italic or quotations. It would make longer posts much easier to access, I think.

    🙂

  • Chris Manners 19th Mar '14 - 5:31pm

    “The survey was completed by SLT members at individual academies, not by academy chain chief execs”

    Reminds me of Sir David Bell’s line that academy chains were accountable to the schools in them.

    As evidence to the Education Select Committeee has shown, academies are more run by bureaucrats than LA schools ever were. These bureaucrats often pack the governing body, reducing parent governors to an insignificant minority. Academy chains, think tanks and journos have misled the public for years.

    Academy school leaders are on the leash.

  • Julian Critchley 19th Mar '14 - 7:49pm

    Amy

    Thanks for your reply. You’re right, I’d missed the reference in your article to the SSAT. I don’t think it reduces the impact of the point, however, as the SSAT is, and always has been, a propagandist for whatever latest fad comes along (it started life as the Grant Maintained Schools Centre, then metamorphosed into the Specialist Schools Trust, and so on). I wouldn’t trust them if they told me grass was green !

    I think it’s really interesting that you surveyed only SLT members, rather than teachers. Anecdotally, SLTs are becoming increasingly detached from teachers, seeing themselves more as an OFSTED/DFE compliance enforcer on site, rather than senior classroom practitioners. For them, academy status has been great, while for teachers, far, far less so. I don’t know if anyone’s researched this, because it can be very hard to get accurate information out of academies, but it would be very interesting to compare the salary differentials between SLT and teachers in academies and non-academy schools, since academy status gave SLTs greater autonomy over how to pay themselves and their staff. Perhaps in your next survey though, you could get some anonymised comments from teachers, and compare and contrast with SLT comments. You might find the difference illuminating. Of course, another interesting angle would be to seek student views on whether academy status has made a difference. There’s only a relatively short window to do this, because it’s the current student population which has lived through it. Again, I suspect that the findings might be illuminating, with almost no difference between academy schools and local authority schools in terms of the student experience. I’d predict that academy status is irrelevant to the students’ classroom experience, deleterious to teachers, and beneficial for the “director class”.

    I think ultimately though, no survey of the “benefits” of academy status is really much use unless there’s a control group of non-academy schools. There have been comparison studies, and these have found that academies simply are not improving any faster than similar LEA schools. These are based on hard objective data, rather than self-reporting comments from the bureaucrat layer which has benefitted most from academy status, so I think they have rather more value. The SSAT may not be quite so happy to be associated with such reports though.

  • Julian Critchley 20th Mar '14 - 8:19am

    Ian ! You’re a miracle-worker. Errr…is there some page of handy guidance somewhere which tells a technoprat like myself how to do that ?

  • Like Julian,I am also of the “technocrat” tendency. Still trying to get to grips with the IPad my son gave me for Christmas.
    I spend all my time recorrecting the predictive text, which for some unknown reason thinks that the name of the leader of the Liberal Democrats is called “Legg”.

  • I would endorse greater educational freedom for all schools, with a national minimum entitlement, and with professionals given almost total educational freedom. The academy model does not allow that, as a single school in a chain has less freedom than many which remain democratically accountable.

    Structural freedoms also undermine parental confidence in education.

    So I endorse all the educational freedoms that academies have and – let’s face it – many schools really have already, just not all the academy freedoms as currently understood.

  • Patrick McAuley 25th Mar '14 - 12:40am

    belated response to Amy’s Questions. Do I think culture needs to change before policy? I think there are two types of policy; that which stimulates changes in culture and that which reinforces it.

    I think in the case of academies there is little more policy that can stimulate change in without reintroducing a more prescriptive method of instituting education (I think Gove’s approach to slimming down the English curriculum is an example of this).

    I think some Heads and teachers need to start embracing evolution rather than fearing change. But as a liberal I would say that.

    I think the best way to give teachers autonomy over pedagogy is to convert the profession to one of self-employed professionals. Barristers, GP’s and Solicitors all enjoy the benefits of autonomous professionalism, while being held to a high standard. The important thing is that they are not institutionally constricted in the way teachers are. Of course this would require another big change in education policy from a demand led system to one encouraging supply. So perhaps policy is necessary to improve creativity in educational outcomes as you argue. My fear is in reality a change in policy for a Tory or Labour Led Government Minister means reinforcing the institutional, hierarchical, status driven status quo. i.e. moving the chairs around the dinning table that in reality has little effect on the look or feel of the room itself.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?

Advert



Recent Comments

  • Peter Martin
    @ SimonR, There some other advantages. Such as: you can't be sacked if you own your own business! You can put your partner and children on the payroll even i...
  • Andy Daer
    Tom, thanks for this excellent summary. Steve, it was hubris that led that "London adult" to think his hurt was so important - he was on the radio shortly afte...
  • Simon R
    @Katharine: 3 year default tenancy and no evictions other than for breaking the contract? Umm... how does that work if - say - for some reason, I have to move a...
  • Simon R
    @Peter Martin: Yes you're correct that, if you run a small business, taking your income as dividend will typically mean paying less tax than if you take it as a...
  • Katharine Pindar
    Thanks for the support on the share buybacks proposed policy, Peter Martin. Just now I want to add a few facts about what we want to offer young people on housi...