Is this the end of state education? Academics give their reaction to the changes to come

This week the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced in the Budget that all schools in England will become academies by 2020 or have plans to do so by 2022. He also announced that schools will be able to extend the school day.

The education secretary, Nicky Morgan, outlined further changes in a white paper which would see parent governors abolished from school governing bodies.

Here two education experts reflect on these changes.

Comment from Steve Higgins, Professor of Education, Durham University:

“A key concern in current government policy is the removal of all local democratic accountability. Although the details of Local Authority responsibility have yet to be defined (in particular their statutory roles and responsibilities which are not included in today’s White Paper).

We have a long involvement of local governance in education in England since the 1870 Education Act established School Boards (with similar provision in Scotland set up two years later). The 1870 Act allowed voluntary schools (mainly Church schools) to carry on unchanged, but set up a system of ‘school boards’ to build and manage schools in areas where they were needed.

The boards were locally elected bodies which drew their funding from the local rates. However, in 2016, nearly 150 years later, even voluntary-aided schools are going to be forced to change and become academies under the current proposals. Responsibility for standards in local schools will move to the Regional School Commissioners, unelected and unaccountable to Local Authorities or parents.

A recent NFER report indicated some of the challenges for the six people in this role to cover all schools in England, particularly in terms of rising pupil numbers and the increasing number of academies, and this was before the new proposals were announced. (See: https://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/RSCR01/RSCR01_home.cfm).

More worrying, in my view, is the proposed removal of elected parent governors. This completes the removal of all local voice in the running of our schools. A requirement to consult is not the same as a vote on the governing body.

One of the consequences of the changes is likely to affect those most vulnerable in our society. If academies have control over their admissions policies, and Local Authorities cannot force schools to take children with particular needs, or who have been excluded from another school, how will a Local Authority meet their current statutory responsibilities?

Who will parents go to when there are issues they wish to raise? Their local councillor will have no influence, and they will have no parent governor to voice their concerns. How will local need, a problem we recognised in 1870, be managed from 2020?

Also indicative of this centralisation is the proposed ‘land grab’ of school premises and grounds by the Secretary of State in Educational Excellence Everywhere (4.1.2). Local Authorities, as the White Paper says “will fall away entirely” (4.73) by 2022. So will all local voice in the needs of schools. Is a fully centralised education system going to meet the needs of all children and young people and their communities across England? Are the needs of children the same in Harpenden as Hartlepool?”

Notes:

Ball, S. J. (2012). The reluctant state and the beginning of the end of state education. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 44(2), 89-103.

Durbin,B., Wespieser,K., Bernardinelli, D. and Gee, G. (2015). A Guide to Regional Schools Commissioners. Slough: NFER.

Comment from Professor Stephen Gorard, School of Education, Durham University:

“In one respect the announcement that all schools – primary and secondary – are to become academies makes sense. A national, compulsory school system requires only one type of school. It should not matter where someone lives for the kind of school they can attend. Diversity of schools is strongly linked to social and economic stratification between them. If we know that academies are superior schools then all children should be entitled to have an academy as their local school.

However, there are a number of problems with this. Most obviously, we do not know that academies are superior schools. In general, their ‘performance’ appears to be about the same as all other kinds of schools.

Secondly, the announcement deals only with the criterion of diversity. We will still have dozens, maybe hundreds, of different types of schools in our supposedly national system and these will continue to drive stratification. Varieties include specialisms, age ranges (5-13, 7-13, 9-16, 11-16 and so on), selection, and faiths.

The policy would make more sense if all of these were to go as well. But this leads to the third problem – an argument for academies is that they offer greater autonomy for school leaders, but a uniform fair state system actually requires the reverse (in terms of structure), with the state ensuring that provision is equal across the country. Equal provision has many other advantages – such as permitting a national pay scale for teachers and school workers, and retaining a(not necessarily the) national curriculum that eases pupil and staff mobility (and is the comprehensive system in operation as well as structure).

Above all, it became clear even when academies were in a minority that they needed a higher-level body to co-ordinate, plan resources, share joint ventures and minority activities, provide peripatetic staff and so on. For obvious reasons this needs to be relatively local, and would also have a role in planning pupil places. A bit like a local authority.”

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