Education policies converge but details remain sketchy

20 Apr 10
All the main parties support independently run schools in some form. But there is no guarantee that they produce results for the pupils themselves, reports Lucy Phillips
All the main parties support independently run schools in some form. But there is no guarantee that they produce results for the pupils themselves, reports Lucy Phillips 

20 April 2010

By Lucy Phillips

The issue of whether schools in England should be state-run or independent is provoking fierce debate in the run-up to the May 6 election. But while the main parties all move towards the latter, their plans are short on detail and based more on political popularity than robust evidence. Their financial viability is also yet to be proven.

The Labour Party, which has protected its schools budget from spending cuts, plans to accelerate its programme of academies – schools that are publicly funded but relatively independent of state control. Meanwhile, new powers will enable successful head teachers or education providers to partner failing schools or take them over. This will double the number of ‘federated’ secondary schools – belonging to a chain of schools overseen by a board of trustees – to 1,000 by 2015.

The Conservatives extend these ideas. They plan to relax rules surrounding the setting up of schools to allow individuals, parents, charities and teacher groups to establish and run ‘academy schools’ – at both primary and secondary level. They will receive state funding according to the number of pupils enrolled, with extra funding targeted towards the most disadvantaged – a form of ‘pupil premium’.

Existing successful state schools will also be able to turn themselves into academies, while parents will be given powers to save and run local schools threatened with closure. The Tories’ proposals are based on the model of free schools in Sweden (which they claim have raised standards across the board) and charter schools in the US, which run independently of the state school system.

The Liberal Democrats offer a variation on this theme, replacing Labour’s academies with ‘sponsor managed schools’, which would be independently run but accountable to councils as opposed to central government currently. Their manifesto places most emphasis on a £2.5bn pledge for a pupil premium to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The rhetoric would therefore have us believe that a move towards ‘independent state schools’ was inevitable – and charities and other not-for-profit providers are readying themselves. This includes the National Education Trust, whose director, Roy Blatchford, predicts such organisations will soon be running clusters of schools, should new legislation enable them.

He argues that the current system is unfair and depresses expectations of children’s achievement. He calls for a model where ‘the public purse provides the funds but the past system no longer provides the services’. Blatchford says it is unacceptable that 30% of primary schools ‘tick over’ as only satisfactory under Ofsted’s ratings.

‘You can’t guarantee [better attainment] but you start off with an assumption that the child can and will achieve,’ he says, citing the ‘best run’ academies that ‘have absolutely transformed standards of attainment’.

According to Blatchford, the changes are cost-neutral, even cost-effective, where clusters of schools can share resources, such as back-office functions, playgrounds and specialist subject teachers. A single executive head teacher and a group of school leaders would also negate the need for so many head teacher salaries. ‘I don’t believe you need more money. If we do differently with the resources we have, we can make this transformation. You have to challenge a few orthodoxies and the target-driven culture,’ he says.

But Raphael Wilkins, director of international affairs at the University of London’s Institute of Education, believes all the parties’ proposals will ‘add costs’ to already strained education budgets.
‘The most financially efficient education system would be one with much greater stability, instead of a mass of semi-autonomous institutions and organisations in a constant state of innovation, change and reorganisation. All these things are very resource thirsty’, he tells Public Finance.

Moreover, he says, research ‘overwhelmingly’ indicates that there is no correlation between educational outcomes and the route through which a school receives its funding, nor the amount invested. ‘No-one has ever been able to prove that if you pop more pounds in you get better education out and that’s because the factors that differentiate good and bad quality learning are independent of resources. Good teaching is no more expensive than bad teaching,’ he explains.

Research into the impact of ‘independent state’ schools does not support the politicians’ views. Labour’s academies have produced a mixed picture when it comes to educational attainment, and their expansion has only reduced the competitive advantage. They are seen as less distinctive by parents and staff and fewer have been given new buildings, says Wilkins.

Sandra McNally, director of education and skills at the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance, agrees that the evidence base for charter and free schools is unconvincing.
Positive effects of the Swedish reforms do not last beyond high school, she says, while a report by Stanford University last year found only 17% of US charter schools reported significantly better academic gains than traditional public schools. The highest percentage (46%) showed no significant difference while academic improvement was worse at 37% of charter schools.

‘It’s true that if anybody sets up a school there’s no guarantee the new schools will be good schools. Like setting up any business, many fail,’ says McNally.

Both academics agree that there is little difference between the parties’ policies, and they are light on detail. McNally adds: ‘I don’t know that it’s research-based. It might be politically popular because everyone likes the idea of being able to choose a school for their child and is frustrated at not getting their first choice... I would like to have more information on what exactly schools are allowed to do that they are not allowed to do already and what limits would there be to their authority.’

Wilkins adds: ‘All mainstream parties in England are adopting almost identical positions on this, so there’s almost no choice for the public.’

Unions and head teachers are also sceptical about the reforms. Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, tells PF that, on the whole, politicians ‘don’t quite get’ the realities of how to improve a school. He says Labour’s academies programme was ‘not a magic bullet’, with their make-up now resembling ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of other state schools. And the Tory policy of ‘any Tom, Dick or Harry being free to set up a school is not the answer either – it’s not that simple’, he says.

History shows that these concerns might be fruitless anyway. Wilkins says that planned major educational reforms are often later ‘watered down’ by Whitehall.

He adds: ‘It would astonish me if there are thousands of parent groups up and down the country interested in getting involved with management organisations to run schools. I can’t see these things taking off any more than the vast armies of industries that were going to sponsor academies – in the end it was a handful.’

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