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Viewpoint: our school system the way ahead

26 September 2018

Approaching the tenth anniversary of the start of the “self-improving school system” concept we are at a cross-road for our schools system. Do we continue to develop a genuinely school-led system or do the current tensions in the system lead us in a different direction?

At a roundtable hosted by Browne Jacobson earlier this year attended by key education sector stakeholders including John Fowler of LGiU there was a debate about the way ahead for our school system. The discussion first considered the system – the current state of the self-improving school system and its future direction. It then turned in the second part of the discussion to consider the curriculum - what the system is delivering and the challenges the sector will face when looking ahead. In this viewpoint we will focus on the system elements of the discussion.

While opinion may be divided in the sector on the state of the self-improving school system, it is clear that we are at an important crossroad. If the sector wishes to continue down the path of a self-improving school system then it is critical that it engages with the opportunity created by the Secretary of State for Education’s announcement on 4 May 2018 outlining high-level principles for a clear accountability system. There was a commitment in that announcement to work with the sector and to then consult in the autumn on detailed proposals.

“the sectors’ voice needs to be clearly articulated and heard before the DfE implements any new accountability system”

One of the key recommendations from the report produced following the roundtable hosted by Browne Jacobson was that school and system leaders need to be more vocal in challenging the barriers to the development of a truly self-improving school system so that the benefits of a highly autonomous system as envisaged by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) can be realised.

Perhaps the form of autonomy that was used as the basis for pursuing a school led system has been diluted. We have written separately on this subject so will not expand on it in this viewpoint save to say there is strong case for the sector to redefine and create a consensus as to what is meant by autonomy and what it is for.

The effect of the current accountability framework on the goal of a self-improving school system is clearly significant. The case put forward by The Teaching Schools Council in partnership with FASNA in their thinkpiece Where next for the self-improving school system? Getting System Governance Right is compelling. In summary, this document puts forward a description of three inter-locking but independent components to system governance - the improvement space, the inspection space and the intervention space.

Whilst discussions will have been taking place behind the scenes there has been relatively little wider sector discussion and debate on what the future should look like since May. So far it appears that the May announcement has drawn a lot of heat out of the growing discontent in the sector about the way the accountability system was functioning and the effect it was having. As school and system leaders return from the summer break it is critical that the sector hits the ground running articulating its view on what changes are needed so that, in the time left before the consultation is launched and during the consultation, the sector leaders’ voices are clearly heard and influence future policy.

On a related note, another fascinating aspect of the discussion was the impact of the focus of MATs in the self-improving school system and how this may have overshadowed other vital components of a genuinely self-improving school system. For example, coming out of the discussion there was the feeling that the importance of local partnerships and placed based education were being overlooked. The focus on hard structures and more recently the DfE’s “rebrokering” programme appears to have led to a large part of the system often not even recognised for its contribution to the self-improving school system. Going further the discussion is often skewed to underperformance rather than the work of many school and system leaders who are also driving up performance right across the performance spectrum. Again, it is important that the sector actively engage in readdressing the balance in any discussion about how effective the system is in England.

One final aspect, at a system level, it is worth considering for a moment is the first key recommendation from the report produced following the roundtable. This was a recommendation to go back to first principles and establish a national consensus for the vision for our education system, perhaps through a national commission. Whatever the method, the vision needs to articulate the purpose of the education system, who it serves and what it will deliver. This is clearly ambitious and undoubtedly not without challenge because education was firmly placed in the political space – balancing a longer term vision based on consensus with ensuring education remains a priority for the government of the day is no easy task. It is nonetheless an objective worth pursuing with ambition and aspiration.

The roundtable report can be accessed here.

This article was originally published by LGIU (September)