When the news is full of crumbling school buildings, rocketing pupil absences and rising teacher shortages, it may seem like a strange time to be banging on about school structures and the virtues or otherwise of ‘academisation’. On the contrary, our new EDSK report argues that these worrying news headlines make the question of who runs mainstream state schools in England more important than ever.
Our report finds that the existing landscape of academies and local authority ‘maintained’ schools is incoherent, unstable and increasingly opaque. As a result, considerable amounts of time, money and resources are being wasted in an increasingly disjointed attempt to prop up two separate state school systems. Funding, curricula, governance, admissions – the dividing lines between these two systems are as unhelpful as they are numerous.
Such dividing lines are pointless from an educational perspective and actively detrimental to the school system as a whole. It is therefore time to put an end to the mostly ideological (and almost always fruitless) disagreements about who should run schools and instead concentrate our collective efforts on building a new approach to state education that prioritises the best interests of pupils, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
To achieve this goal, our report proposes three shifts.
Introducing school boards
First, the language of ‘academies’ and ‘academisation’ has become politically toxic and should be abandoned. In its place, the present system of maintained schools and academies will be replaced by a single system of ‘School Boards’ that operate under a single legal framework set by Parliament – creating a level playing field for all state-funded schools.
This means that state schools will be run by either a ‘Single School Board’ (similar to an existing maintained school or standalone academy), a ‘Local School Board’ (based on the recent DfE proposals for ‘Local Authority trusts’) or an ‘Independent School Board’ (similar to an existing MAT).
Rebalancing central and local control
Second, there needs to be a recognition that policymakers have made mistakes and misjudgements with the academies programme that have left many concerning issues unaddressed. For instance, we need to unwind the centralisation of power by the DfE, which is best achieved by handing responsibility for overseeing the performance and governance of state schools to a new independent regulator so that ministers are no longer involved.
In addition, tackling the financial excesses in some academies and MATs (particularly the indefensible salaries paid to some CEOs) is long overdue. To this end, all School Boards should be forced to adhere to a new national pay scale that caps the maximum salary for CEOs and senior leaders based on the number of pupils in the Board’s schools (with no exceptions).
A clearer role for local authorities
Third, there is an urgent need for clarity over the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders – particularly local authorities. To help inject more clarity, local authorities will act as the ‘champion’ for all children and young people in their area, and they will take charge of admissions for all state schools including existing academies. As noted above, local authorities will also be able to create their own School Boards if they wish to continue being involved in overseeing schools in their area.
When taken together, these three shifts aim to create a coherent, collaborative and transparent school system that leaves behind the political baggage of the past and focuses on helping teachers and leaders devote all their energy to improving teaching and learning.
In truth, debates over how to run state schools in England go back well over a century. In more recent times, since the first academies were created in 2002 politicians have more often than not chosen to ‘muddle through’ rather than fixing the underlying problems that are staring directly at them. Inevitably, this tactic causes yet more confusion and disruption while also storing up more problems for the future.
Whoever wins the next election will have the opportunity over the next five years to calmly and carefully move towards a simpler and more stable system for running state schools. Let’s hope they seize it, and our report shows how it can be done.
The full report will be published today at www.edsk.org