One of the problems with the education debate in England is the tendency to focus on the merits of individual policies - “should we decouple A-levels?”; “are free schools working?” – rather than thinking strategically about what we’d like the system to look like and then using that template for making policy decisions.
My big regret about the 2010 White Paper is that it reads too much like a laundry list of policies rather than a set of design principles for system reform. The vision of a school-led system is explicit but there’s too little about what that means. Having a clearer set of design principles would have made it much easier to explain how various policies fitted into the overall picture and would have provided a firebreak against Ministers/No. 10 inserting their own random or contradictory policies into the mix.
So what would the core building blocks for a genuinely school-led system look be? I think there are three keys elements: school autonomy; accountability and capacity-building.
Autonomy is important because it leads to: faster decision-making as you don’t have to wait for a request to go up the chain; innovation because not everyone is following the same model; accuracy because decisions are based on local information rather than aggregated information at the national or regional level.
Accountability is important because transparent information leads to: the ability to uphold minimum standards; schools being able to benchmark their performance against others and identify areas for improvement; parents being able to more accurately assess their options.
But autonomy and accountability aren’t enough. The latter creates incentives to perform well (along, of course, with teachers’ typically high intrinsic motivation) and the former gives the agency to perform well but neither give them the capacity to perform well if they don’t know how. This is why my third building block is capacity-building. A school-led system needs the institutional infrastructure to broker support between strong and weaker schools without impeding their autonomy.
At the moment we have all the elements of this system but the balance is not yet right. Autonomy is impeded by an accountability system that is too punitive and the infrastructure for capacity-building is under-resourced and patchy. The links between the accountability system and capacity-building are too weak leaving struggling schools unclear what they need to do to improve (though the introduction of Regional Schools Commissioners has mitigated this to some extent).
So what might a set of principles based on these elements, which would allow us to realign the system, look like?
1) Schools should have authority over all their functions apart from those that require co-ordination between schools (e.g. exclusions; admissions; place planning).
2) Where functions need to be carried out above the school level they should – where possible – be done through collective agreement at the local level.
3) Schools should be funded consistently regardless of where they are in the country so they have the necessary resources to fulfil their functions.
1) Accountability should be based on outputs (e.g. test results; destination data) and not inputs (e.g. whether a particular form of pedagogy is being practised).
2) The consequences of accountability should be proportionate and in particular should not disadvantage schools with lower-attaining intakes.
3) Accountability systems should reward collaborative behaviour where it leads to improvements.
4) All data/information should be published (unless doing so would break data protection law).
1) Where schools are considered to be below a minimum standard there should be immediate intervention.
2) For all schools the accountability system should be linked to means of getting support for areas requiring improvement.
3) Support should be available to all schools regardless of where they are in the country.
I’ve come up with these suggestions by myself and in a hurry so they’re unlikely to be right and certainly aren’t exhaustive. My aim is to illustrate the sort of discussion we should be having. Are these the right principles? If not why and what should we have instead? If they are right what would have to change in the system to ensure they were kept?