It has been a seductive slogan, for several reasons. But ‘standards, not structures,’ the oft-invoked rallying cry of those who want to cast themselves as fair-minded pragmatists in the now-very-inflamed academies debate, has been an error, I think. For, as has been becoming clearer in recent days, last week’s white paper spelling out the policy of forcing schools towards academy status has at last pushed serious questions about the detail of the academies policy to the fore, and we do need to talk about structures.
The phrase ‘standards, not structures’ – first made popular during Tony Blair’s first term in office – is an attempt to take what is seen as ideology out of the debate as to how state-funded schools should be run. Instead of viewing one type of organisational arrangement – local authority versus academy – as superior and then defending it to the end, the argument goes that we should be agnostic on that. Instead, we should worry only about the quality of education provided to pupils; acknowledge the obvious truth that good practice, or not, exists on either side of this ideological debate; and then move on. In terms of what kind of organisational structure we have in English education, basically we should join the majority of the public and not care: what happens in the classroom is all that matters.
As I say, this argument, set out in those terms, is very powerful. My perception is that ‘standards, not structures’ is used principally, and to a certain extent very effectively, as a weapon against ministers who have been seen to favour academies as an end in themselves. It is very difficult to argue that this is not their position, when a white paper has been published which says all schools are to be turned into academies, but when there is no clear research evidence in favour of the policy. (My last blog discussed this, and it will be set out in detail in my forthcoming research review for the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, especially in relation to primary schools.)
‘Standards, not structures’, was deployed again in Sunday’s Observer newspaper by David Blunkett, who introduced the original academies policy back in 2000. Here, in a well-argued analysis of many of the central problems of this extraordinary white paper, Blunkett said it was part of an ‘ideological agenda that put the structure of our school system before classroom standards’.
He’s right, of course. A government which really cared above all about the quality of what went on in schools, took seriously all the evidence it had and genuinely put children rather than politics first, as the white paper claims to do, would not be proceeding in this manner. Before pushing thousands of schools through a costly and energy-diverting change such as this, it would want to know for sure that improvement would follow. If you want a further insight into the fragility of the evidence base, by the way, just consider Nicky Morgan’s first response when asked about it on last Thursday’s BBC Question Time. The main piece of evidence she could muster on academy quality was a set of statistics embracing changing Ofsted grades for all schools, academies or not.
So the implementation of this policy is, of course, ideological. But that does not mean that arguments about it should stop at a consideration of supposedly ideology-neutral statistics. In fact, we do need to consider arguments away from pure ‘standards’ questions, too.
A personal view is that the obsession over, say, whether school test and exam results are better on the academy or non-academy side, or whether either is improving Ofsted results faster, though important, has obscured real debate about the detail of the really quite fundamental structural changes schools go through in moving to academy status.
And I find myself increasingly thinking about structures – is this the best way of setting up our schools system, irrespective of often small movements in data? – when fielding calls from whistleblowers as I do when writing news stories about the academies system. I would highlight a few structural issues now.
Structure of control
The academies policy, of course, originated under Labour as the suggested answer to usually long-standing problems in inner-city secondary schools. Where institutions had struggled for many years, if not decades, the thinking was that something bold and new had to be tried. The answer was to give great influence to an outside sponsor who, initially usually in response to a promise to donate £2 million, would be given effective control over the school, with only the Secretary of State, overseeing matters from Whitehall, as a democratic backstop.
This was controversial, as it took schools away from local democratic influence and gave great power to sometimes controversial individuals who might have been seen by the ministers backing the scheme to be dynamic. However, if there were worries about an over-concentration of power, they might have been viewed by ministers as a price worth paying in the hope of finally bringing about improvement.
Fast forward to 2016, though, and this, effectively, is the model being proposed for every state-funded school in England by 2022. Academy trusts can be set up with a very small number of ‘members’ – sometimes, only three – at the apex of their governance structures. They can appoint and dismiss the other governors.
It is true that academy trusts can be set up in a much more democratic manner. Yet some of the larger current multi-academy trusts clearly are run as described above, with a small number of individuals having great power. This is made possible because the essential overarching philosophy of the way they are set up has not changed from the original scheme under Labour.
This is not just an abstract debate, either, in my experience. In recent years, as a journalist contacted by people raising concerns, I’ve heard about: a prominent couple running an academy chain, who have particular views as to what should be in the curriculum, imposing that curriculum on schools despite opposition from professionally-trained teachers; an American firm which is influential in running a school ensuring that ‘its’ curriculum is taught in that school; and high remuneration packages finding their way to two individuals who are both among only three or four controlling ‘members’ of the academy chain paying their salaries. This looks to me to suggest an over-concentration of power with regard to taxpayer-funded bodies, serving many pupils.
A key structural question might, then, be: is the original architecture of academy governance, set up for the very particular circumstances of a small number of secondary schools which had struggled, now right for all English primary and secondary schools?
Autonomy for individual schools
This is probably a key one for school governing bodies considering how to react. The white paper effectively spells the end of the settlement between local authorities and individual institutions, ironically set up by the Conservatives in 1988, whereby autonomy was given to headteachers and governing bodies, but with the local authority influencing in the background.
Now, the favoured multi-academy trusts can run a whole chain of schools in a top-down manner if they choose. Schools contemplating joining one would be well advised to try to pin down MATs on precisely what freedoms they might be allowed if they join them.
Complaints when things go wrong
It’s a fast-solidifying view of mine that worrying about ‘standards, not structures’, is fine so long as all is well in an institution. It is when things start to go wrong that there are problems. For, over the past four years I’ve been contacted by many people concerned about various goings-on within academies. These include staff bullying, inappropriate spending, the ‘gaming’ of Ofsted inspections, pupils going missing from the system and institutionalised exam cheating.
A refrain of many of these whistleblowers has been concern as to who academies are accountable to. In theory, central government, through the Education Funding Agency and Department for Education, investigates. But we have often found that these remote Whitehall agencies, who, after all, now have thousands of institutions to oversee, are not interested. Nor, by the way, generally is the new intermediate tier of academy oversight, the Regional Schools Commissioner. To be sure, local authorities, a natural first port of call for a whistleblower in the past, are far from perfect. Yet the ability of an individual to complain, for example, to their local councillor about a particular issue with a local authority school, will be lost in a move to an all-academy system. The general concept of an appeal to a truly local body outside of the instititution itself has fallen by the wayside. The white paper promises that local authorities will focus on protecting, for example, the needs of ‘vulnerable’ children. But without real power, how are they to do this?
These are just a few structural issues. I could mention more, such as questions about the merits of teacher pay and conditions deregulation – is it really best for the taxpayer to have a kind of ‘race to the top’ going on in terms of academy chief executive pay, with salaries in the range of £200-£400,000 now not unheard-of? – the now-well-discussed removal of parents from academy governance structures or the fact that much education law can now be formulated privately, away from the Parliamentary gaze, in the form of academy funding agreements with the Secretary of State.
The bigger issue is that all of these structural changes, which may centre on the de-democratisation and deregulation of state schooling, are important. They should not be seen as subservient to questions about often small changes in test and exam results, for example, or Ofsted outcomes. The country needs to ask itself whether these structural reforms are really in the best interest of pupils. In making this whole issue much more contentious, by proclaiming that all schools are to be forced into the status, ministers may actually have done this debate a favour. At least now these questions might get more attention.
Warwick Mansell is a freelance journalist and author of ‘Education by Numbers: the tyranny of testing’ (Methuen, 2007). His CPRT research report on recent systemic reforms in the primary sector will be published next term. This blog, a sequel to the one posted on 4 March, was prompted by the publication on 17 March of the White Paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’.