Saturday, 7 March 2015

What we should have put in the White Paper

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?


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  2. I like where you're going with this. When I read, " 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)." This strikes as defining a school as an object, not really amoebic in nature.

    I think a deeper foundational investigation of the purpose of the school, views of children might help to align these principles a bit more. Some questions I have are: What is a school? Should a school be leading a system? What is the goal of these principles? Maybe you already have answers to these questions.

    My real interest is in your question of policy change. Understanding the implications of policies on the overall functioning of the school and the society at large (my assumption). To begin, I would suggest policies that are clear through all levels. Policies should be created from the bottom and then defined and reinforced from the top.

  3. As someone who's recently completed the UK Schooling System I can confidently say that whatever principles it's currently built on do not reflect our era. And then we wonder why students don't engage and cause trouble for stressed teachers?

    The first thing I'd like to do is to completely separate the terms 'education' and 'schooling'. Education happens within a person before they start school, after school is done with them and would happen without schooling. I cringe when I hear the phrase 'Education System' because who claims to systematize, on any community/national scale, something that so so personal and organic? Schooling however is a system. School used to be where the knowledge was, now the internet is where the knowledge is. School used to be where we get access to experts, now the intent is where we can access the experts. What is school for now?

    We're moving into an age of connection and away from the age of power by scarcity. We are moving into the age of collaboration and away from the age national ranking and sorting. Already students realize that to develop themselves in their field they must do this outside of school time and often, sadly, in the face censure from teachers who need students to do perform well in their class so their jobs are secure.

    Big shift required, or I'm not sure how much further national non-selective cost-free schooling for all can go and I would be so sad to see the end of something that could be so great. I'm writing more on my site:

  4. Hi Sam
    I admire the clarity you're aspiring to here, to develop and re-articulate the policy position and ideological preoccupations of 2010... although I wonder why it's taken five years and you not being in the DfE to move this forward.
    I agree with a lot of this, but I think you need to recognise two other points - the limitations of a purely school-led system, and the contradictions inherent in the current school-led model. I do my best to promote school-led activities and I keep bumping up against these two issues when I talk to teachers and headteachers.
    Contradictions: this is the 'collaboration vs competition' issue. How do I persuade a school of the merits of working to support and develop the quality of nearby schools, when they are very conscious of the fact that their outcomes will be compared and ranked against those schools? Why should they (for example) release an excellent teacher for half a day, a day per week, to lead the CPD of teachers in other schools? Some schools do embrace this philosophy, but a much larger number look at you like you're mad if you suggest it. You and I might say that we know this school-to-school support benefits all, but they don't see it - there's still a sort of nervous protectionism out there, created by the punitive accountability structure you mention.
    It doesn't have to be like this, of course. You can have accountability without competition.
    Secondly, limitations: I probably only need two words to explain this - School Direct. But the catastrophe of under-recruitment in some subjects was only one example of how individual schools - with the best will in the world - do not have the ability to effectively manage national priorities. Similarly with the school-based CPD networks I describe above - you need some external agency, such as subject associations, to manage, lead, possibly fund and promote the ongoing activity or it will wither away with a very short half-life. Again, its a question of the schools' priorities - and also the capacity and experience of the school to lead activity like this (e.g. project and business management, not to mention the time...)
    As I say, interesting and clarifying points but, I think, worth mentioning these provisos. I should add that I don't think either are insurmountable.
    All the best

  5. (@chemistrypoet) I agree that this is where the discussion must be. It does also strike me that to design a system we also need to be clear what we are trying to achieve with it. That is, what is education for?

    But, to return to your partly gestated ideas. I have my doubts that it is possible to achieve the level of accountability and transparency that you feel is essential by empowering schools with autonomy, and then driving them forward through informal (and very diverse) collaborations. With the current accountability system this simply could not work, as currently schools are driven to do whatever causes them to rise up the league tables, and this is not necessarily the best for the students, and has given us teacher unsustainable workloads. My fear would be that a loose autonomy leaves schools open to local demagoguery which would blight the working lives of teachers, and distort the received education.

    Overall, I think that the system needs to be designed to deliver a sustainable and developing workforce; and this will not be achieved unless the accountability system is replaced with a nurture/encouraging model, and if local autonomy can't equate to local demagoguery.

  6. I'd add a fourth section around Commonwealth, a requirement for the pooling in perhaps overlapping venn-diagram structures of resources around the group of local schools, from nursery through to sixth form, including SEN and Educating otherwise. Governance for our local state schools is perhaps their biggest challenge, coupled along side teacher recruitment and expertise. Every type of support structure currently exists side by side, from ancient charity, LA, Academy, Cluster and free school. Locally, it's like the Tower of Babel, and whilst its incoherence is obvious, its tone is divisive, alarmed, even frightened.

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