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SMART proposals for education?

Pre-election hype has already begun with promises of a radical overhaul of Ofsted and a middle tier of accountability to provide more effective school governance. But how achievable are these aims?

Jacqueline Baxter
2 April 2015

education3.jpg
Flickr/Xin Li 88. Some rights reserved.

Party political proposals for governing and accountability post 2015.

As the 2015 elections loom large, education is an important element of party political manifestos. Pre-election hype has already begun with promises of a radical overhaul of Ofsted and a middle tier of accountability to provide more effective school governance than exists at present. But how achievable are these aims - particularly in view of limited resources and the enormous changes that the Coalition Government imposed on the structure of England's education system? In this article Jacqueline Baxter takes a look at two key areas - school governing and school accountability and discusses whether these proposals are realistic based on the state of school governing and educational accountability today.

The election countdown has begun and proposals for education are high on the list of the main political parties. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the sweeping changes to the structure and character of English education effected by the Conservative /Lib Democrat Coalition since 2010. The changes, ideologically underpinned by a neoliberal belief in the primacy of parental choice, have created an education system which whilst offering schools so called freedoms (curricular and financial), is also subject to one of the most stringent regulatory systems in Europe.

Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education, Childrens’ services and Skills), the quasi autonomous government body tasked with regulating this system, has not only struggled to keep pace with these changes but has also been tasked with combining these accountabilities together with a coherent plan to tackle the burgeoning issues related to the purported growth of extremism in schools. In addition to this the impetus for educational improvement has placed education under increasing pressures from government to ensure that educational standards are raised in line with international performance indicators such as the OECD programme PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).

A large and unwieldy system

At present there are over three hundred thousand volunteer school governors overseeing the 24,000+ state funded schools in England. Statistics from the Department for Education (DFE) indicate that as of Jan 2014 57% of these schools are now academies. This combined with a growing number of free schools means that a substantial number of schools no longer come under the auspices of Local Education Authorities - bodies that traditionally formed a middle tier of accountability in the education system. Even in the case where schools are still maintained by LEAS, education budgets have been cut substantially, resulting in reduced levels of both support and education accountability.

The English system of school governing with its long and labyrinthine history has over the course of the last 40 years vacillated between the ideals of democratic accountability and neoliberalism. For some time now school governors have been increasingly interpellated as skilled professionals who bring their particular skills to the board room. In addition to this, changes to the system have meant that governors are often responsible for large groups of schools with sophisticated multi-level systems of governance and large and complex budgets.

Discussions on governor work are infused with ideological hegemonies that combine accountability requirements with social democratic ideals of governance, and recent events and high profile failures of governance have shown that the whole system for educational accountability is creaking under the strain of these pressures.

The steady and persistent erosion of the powers of local government (not restricted purely to the field of education but across a range of public services), is leaving schools with no option but to buy in governor support services that were previously provided by the LEA; governors who are now in many cases directly accountable to the Education Secretary.

British Values and Extremism an unholy alliance.

A number of high profile scandals beginning with The Trojan Horse Affair – an alleged plot to impose a hard line Muslim ethos in 21 Birmingham schools – and continuing more recently with a furore over schools in Tower Hamlets, have made headlines over their alleged links to extremism and have resulted in another load for schools to bear: the teaching of officially British Values and the policing of this by the schools’ inspectorate – Ofsted.

Although the recent report by the House of Commons Education Committee into The Trojan horse affair concluded that apart from one incident there was no evidence of extremism or radicalisation found by any of the inquiries into any of the schools involved, the fallout has been considerable with a series of schools being subjected to snap inspections and subsequently downgraded or even closed down.

The whole issue around what constitutes a ‘British Value’ has been the subject of substantial and heated debate, not least in the area of faith schools. The government’s recent decision to close down The Durham Free School, partly due to a lack of adherence to guidance on British Values, resulted in widespread concern amongst faith schools that this nebulous and seemingly evanescent way of judging schools would allow political agendas to triumph over school performance and capacity to improve. Nigel Genders, Chief Education Office for the Church of England has spoken out on more than one occasion about the risks that ‘the government’s narrow definition is failing to prepare young people about the realities of life in modern Britain.’

An inspectorate past its sell by date?

The involvement of the schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted, has become contentious for many who accuse it of political partiality and some going so far as to accuse its head – Sir Michael Wilshaw - of leading a witch hunt where faith schools are concerned.

The future of Ofsted, the main body charged with education accountability, has been in doubt for some time. Inspection systems are used by many countries both in Europe and beyond, to ensure accountability and drive up standards. Yet even in the UK they differ considerably in character and remit. These differences are particularly marked in the cases of Scotland and England. The Scottish inspectorate (HMCI) is closely aligned with Education Scotland and is infused by national principles and priorities. Their inspection system is largely based around school self-evaluation and is very much focused on school improvement. Ofsted in contrast is renowned for its regulatory focus and high stakes approach.

Born out of the neoliberal ideal of parental choice, Ofsted was originally designed to be ‘the parents’ friend’- an organisation that would provide clear and unbiased information for parents in choosing their school. Increasing levels of school autonomy that characterised 2010-14 Coalition policies have placed increasing pressures on an agency whose remit was also vastly extended following the 2006 ‘Every Child Matters’ paper and subsequent Education Act.

But as the agency has grown so too have levels of public dissatisfaction - this has been particularly true since the Conservative/Liberal Coalition came into power in 2010. Accusations of political partiality which have continually dogged the inspectorate since inception, became increasingly vocal following the appointment of Conservative Education Secretary, Michael Gove. As poor Ofsted inspection judgements were invariably followed by schools either closing or being taken over by sponsored academies or trusts, Ofsted was accused by many of being far too close to government agendas - to have lost its ability to inspect ‘without fear or favour.’

These developments caused outcry among parents and governors who were often bitterly opposed to takeovers. Dissatisfaction with the agency’s approach to the Trojan Horse Affair and other cases that have taken place since the agency was tasked with policing British Values has done little to improve its reputation and public standing. 

A New Dawn

Educational accountability is not a great vote winner in the same way as for example: raising standards, the abolition of tuition fees or promises to reinstate the grammar school. And the most recent political announcements give some indication of varying degrees to which the political parties have got to grips with the thorny issue of governance and accountability of what some have termed, ‘a systemless system.’

UKIP has announced its intention to support the principle of free schools but only on condition that these schools promote British Values. They appear to be happy to permit Ofsted to police these values and want to give parents and/or governors the opportunity to trigger snap inspections if 25% or more sign a petition. This, according to Paul Nuttall ,UKIP’s spokesman for education, would be enough to prevent other Trojan Horse Scandals.

The Green Party proposals take a much more nuanced view of educational accountability. They have announced their intention to dismantle Ofsted and replace it with a National Council of Educational Excellence, which would not only be responsible for accountability, but would also devolve this accountability to a local level. They are concerned with keeping schools firmly rooted in their communities with a return to local governors empowered to lead schools after a period of training (provided by schools themselves). Free schools and academies are to be brought under local authority control, along with any private school wishing to retain its charitable status. Those that refuse would lose this and be subject to the same levels of taxation as private companies.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on education, in contrast wants to retain Ofsted, giving it the power to inspect academy chains - at the moment Ofsted can inspect multi academy trusts but not judge them, a nuance that considerably constrains their power. The Lib Dems will restrict the setting up of new free schools to locations where places are scarce, negating any reference to the recent right wing think tank report that free schools have positive effect on some school results in areas where they are established – the concept being that competition drives up results.

Labour however have vowed to dismantle many of the education changes brought in by the coalition, and stated their firm commitment to put power and accountability back into local hands. This would take place through appointment of new independent directors of school standards who would be tasked with accountability and driving up standards in local schools as well as working with parents on their concerns about local schools. They are adopting a particularly granular approach to financial transparency and accountability, insisting that under their plans, schools would be opened up to Freedom of Information requests and would have to publish certain financial information online. In terms of inspection as an accountability mechanism, Tristram Hunt stated recently that ‘Ofsted has to move beyond box-ticking and data-dependence', that too much teacher workload is the product of preparing for an inspection. Yet in relative terms, Ofsted has already moved away from a so called box ticking strategy by reducing the number of its judgements from twenty nine (2009) to just four(2012) and its proportionate approach to inspection is reducing the number of times a school is inspected, particularly those judged to be outstanding. Hunt also stated that we must 'depoliticise’ our inspectorate. Yet how this is to be achieved, particularly in view of their current proximity to government in policing its Prevent Strategy, is not clear at all.

Writing in The Observer, Hunt has demanded ‘greater stability in our inspection framework,’ yet most inspection frameworks evolve according to national and international drivers. The difference between England’s system and many operating in other parts of Europe is the vast industry that has grown up around the agency marketing courses, books and consultancy all promising to ensure that your school delivers ‘the perfect inspection’. This industry does not move at the same pace as the inspectorate and creates and perpetuates a whole system of mythmaking around what it is that the inspectorate actually wants. This is not helpful when it comes to teacher understanding of frameworks, not to mention the considerable ethical dimension of corporate involvement in what is designed to be an impartial and dispassionate public service inspection.

Conservative Party proposals come as no surprise as they set out to finish the job they began under Michael Gove: forced academisation will continue with ‘thousands of coasting state schools forced to become academies in a hyped up ‘all-out war on mediocrity’. In spite of Nicky Morgan’s attempts to build bridges with the teaching profession, Tory statements around their future plans are peppered with the type of combative language that characterised Michael Gove’s tenure. Ofsted has been far from popular with government since 2010, and has been the subject of a number of negative reports particularly by right wing think tanks, such as The Policy Exchange’s damning report published in 2014 which suggested that Ofsted judgements were so unreliable, "you’d be better off flipping a coin". Many would argue that it has been very useful in driving through the academies agenda. It has longevity on its side, it is one of the few Qangos that have transcended the electoral cycle, and it has successfully cut its operating budget in recent years, to £146 million, making reductions of 30% from its core costs since 2010-11.This is partly as a result of changes to inspection methods and less frequent visits to high performing schools. It will further reduce its budget from September 2015 onwards when its six year contract with inspection providers comes to an end and it takes inspector recruitment in house.

In terms of school governance the relative silence from the Conservative Party on this area suggests a belief that the present move to professionalise school governors and bring in more academy chains and sponsored academies will organically change the nature of school governing, reducing the number of governors to a few professionally qualified individuals responsible for large numbers of schools and operating according to commercial board principles – tallying nicely with the neoliberal rationale underpinning the academies and free schools projects.

SMART, the over used acronym used in the setting of objectives, provides a set of useful criteria to evaluate government policies – are they specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound? In terms of accountability and inspection most education proposals, whilst not being without individual merits do leave questions in at least one of these categories.

But perhaps the most pressing problem facing the next government is that the present education system has evolved without any thought at all of accountability. In the haste to implement a school system based on neoliberal ideals of choice and competition and the apotheosization of the market, accountability has been left on the back burner. As the recent inquiry into The Trojan Horse Affair concluded:

 ‘The Trojan Horse affair epitomises many of the questions and concerns expressed elsewhere about the changing school landscape and the overlapping roles of the organisations responsible for oversight of schools.’

Unless political thinking around education becomes more joined up, and unless accountably is given priority with appropriate democratic checks and balances, and recognised as being fundamental to a healthy and functioning education system, any populist and lofty political proposals will soon lose their appeal in the wake of yet more high profile ‘school failures.’

PN

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