Speech: How autonomy raises standards

Let me start by saying thank you for inviting me to speak at the Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association (FASNA) annual conference. It’s always a delight to come to a FASNA conference. Now in its 24th year, FASNA‘s history maps perfectly onto the wider story of increasing school autonomy in this country.

At an event such as this, it is good to give ourselves a sense of perspective about the development of school autonomy. In 1993, around the time this organisation was founded, there were 15 city technology colleges. By 1998, there were around 1,200 grant-maintained schools, though grant-maintained status ended that same year. The idea of school autonomy was of course reborn with the first city academies created by Lord Adonis in 2002, and by 2010 there were 203 academies in England.

Since then, our government has been guided by the idea that school autonomy should no longer be a status enjoyed by a select group of schools, but an opportunity for all. Today, there are over 5,000 academies in England, including 65% of all secondary schools, and 18% of primary schools.

And these schools are prospering. Sponsored primary academies open for 2 years improved their test results at more than double the rate of those in the maintained sector over the same period – 10 percentage points compared to 4 percentage points based on the 2015 figures. Secondary sponsored academies – our most challenging schools – opened over the last 4 academic years have, on average, matched or bettered their performance compared with this time last year.

At every step of this development, FASNA have been helping to shape government thinking, campaigning for more school autonomy and aiding newly autonomous schools by publicising good practice. The great Victorian constitutionalist Walter Bagehot wrote that “policies must ‘grow’; they cannot be suddenly made”. Our academies programme has undoubtedly ‘grown’ out of the activities and intellectual drive of organisations such as FASNA.

Key to FASNA‘s functioning has always been the belief that for autonomous schools to succeed, collaboration is vital. That is why the latest direction that the academies policy is taking, towards firm collaboration through multi-academy trusts (MATs), is so important. Permanent and structured arrangements, as we find in MATs, gives school collaboration a solidity that informal, voluntary or temporary forms of school collaboration cannot achieve.

MATs are becoming increasingly common. Of the 761 new converter and sponsored academies which opened in the 2014 to 2015 academic year, 86% are part of a MAT – up from 76% in 2013 to 2014. The Education and Adoption Bill, which is currently making its way through the House of Lords, will ensure that every failing school is turned into an academy, under the guidance of sponsors with a proven track record in raising education standards.

It is our ambition that every school will have the opportunity to become an academy during this Parliament, with the autonomy, but also the support, to achieve our aim of educational excellence everywhere.

There are, of course, challenges ahead for schools. Greater autonomy means a more important role for school governors. For this reason, our reforms are professionalising the quality of school governance.

In the current year we have allocated over £1.4 million to the recruitment of high-calibre people to govern schools and MATs. We have also allocated £2 million to the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) to provide training for chairs, governors and clerks.

Under the direction of my colleague Lord Nash, the department has set up the Academy Ambassadors programme, to recruit experienced business people onto the boards of MATs, smoothing the transition from a traditional governing body to a board of directors. We have now recruited 100 such people onto the boards of MATs, with many more waiting in the wings.

Joining a MAT should also aid schools with financial pressures in the years to come. By centralising core functions, such as staff payroll and training, purchasing of resources and back office functions, MATs can provide an economy of scale that allows more money to be spent on those people who really make the difference: teachers.

We are also committed to making school funding fairer, something for which FASNA have of course campaigned for years. Many previous governments have promised to overturn the unfairness of the current local variations, and fallen short. We remain firmly committed to this aim, and we will have more to say about this in the New Year.

There is a danger, however, that a discussion about school autonomy loses sight of why we value autonomy in the first place. Granting schools more independence is not an inherent good. Such structural changes are only beneficial in so far as they drive up academic standards.

The fundamental premise for school autonomy has always been that the current mode of education, the orthodoxy that governs how schools are run and how lessons are taught, has not been good enough. For decades, too many English schools had been under-performing or coasting. The only way to challenge such schools is innovation through autonomy.

On this point, I often think back to a line about public service reform from Tony Blair’s memoir, ‘A Journey’. He wrote that the early New Labour approach of forgetting about complex structural reform, and focusing on ‘what works’ in terms of outputs, was misguided. To quote, “It was a bunkum as a piece of policy. The whole point is that structures beget standards. How service is configured affects outcomes.”

At root, the one change that will drive up educational standards in this country is improved teaching methods. Changes to school structures and inspiring school leadership may be the midwives of such a change, but it is the fundamental interaction of what is happening in the classroom, between teacher and pupil, day in and day out, which will transform their potential to succeed.

The journey from structural reform to improved teaching methods can be seen in action in the charter school movement in the US. The first American charter school opened in 1991, so their journey is 10 years ahead of ours in England, and offers some instructive lessons.

The consensus amongst American academics is that the overall success of charter schools is, in all honesty, mixed (though I’m certain the same will not be true of academies and free schools in years to come!)

However, this hides the fact that charter schools vary considerably in their educational philosophies. Some are significantly outstripping traditional American state schools. This variation in approach means that in America researchers are better able than ever before to see what is working in the classroom.

An informative article by 3 economists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California appeared in the American Economic Journal 2 years ago. They surveyed 33 different Massachusetts charter schools about areas such as school philosophy, curriculum, policies and classroom practices. The results of the survey were then compared against 10 years of historic data for the schools, to see which approaches were succeeding. Their conclusion was clear – I quote:

“We show that urban and lottery-sample charter effectiveness can be explained by adherence to a No Excuses approach to urban education that emphasizes discipline and comportment, traditional reading and math skills, instruction time, and selective teacher hiring.”

They continued: “Conditional on No Excuses status, traditional inputs such as time in school and per-pupil expenditure are not predictive of charter effectiveness.”

In terms of individual school practices, the practices with the strongest correlation with high achievement in mathematics were ‘math drills’ and ‘extended math instruction’. That with the weakest correlation was ‘group projects’.

The findings of the Massachusetts project are being replicated right across America. Four economists from MIT and Duke University produced a paper last year which showed that Charter School takeovers – the American equivalent of an academy conversion – by schools with a ‘no excuses’ approach showed “substantial achievement gains for a highly disadvantaged student population” in New Orleans.

In 2014, 20 state schools in Houston were chosen to have No Excuses methods injected into them in a randomised trial. The result was an improvement in mathematics in both elementary and secondary schools, showing that these effective charter school methods can translate from one context to another.

Though the level of academic research is not at the same stage in England as it is in the US, a similar pattern can be observed. The best non-selective state school in the country according to provisional 2015 GCSE results is King Solomon Academy in central London. At this school, 93% of pupils gained five good GCSEs, and 75% of pupils passed the EBacc.

Founded as a ‘new academy’ in 2009, this school is not tucked away on an island of wealth and privilege. Located just off Edgware Road in central London, it sits in one of the most disadvantaged boroughs of London for child poverty. In all, 41% of King Solomon Academy pupils are eligible for free school meals – almost 3 times the national average.

What this school has achieved is remarkable, and offers a challenge to every school in England to reimagine what is possible for their pupils. How King Solomon Academy achieved such results is not surprising – its founders explicitly modelled their school on the ‘no excuses’ approach of American charter schools.

As such effective approaches to schooling become better known, we can expect improvements to cascade through the English education system. I will give one small example of how this is already happening. The head of King Solomon Academy introduced a rather unusual idea into his lunch hall when the school was founded in 2009: family dining. Pupils sit at small tables, and each pupil is assigned a role of serving out the food, setting the table, clearing the table, and so on. It has been an enormous success, and is being widely copied by other schools. Earlier this year I had lunch with a group of year 7 pupils at a new free school in Wembley, where behaviour and manners were far in advance of what you would expect in most smart restaurants.

At root, it is not autonomy that really matters, it is what autonomy allows you to do differently that counts. The real genius of school autonomy is that when 1,000 flowers bloom, we are able, given time, to see which flowers bloom brightest. Current research points in the same direction – it is the traditional, academic, disciplined, ‘no excuses’ approach to education that will truly allow pupils to fulfil their potential.

The highest performing academy chains in this country have a clear vision and a distinct model of teaching. I would encourage all new academy chains not to see themselves only in terms of being effective administrators, or competent managers. They should also be bound by a philosophical and pedagogical vision. As Tom Clark wrote in his recent editorial for Academy Magazine, “too many [academy chains] are just groups of schools without a clear, shared ethos and philosophy”.

In previous decades, those who were critics of the prevailing trends of English education had to remain exactly that – critics. If you had a strong alternative vision for what English state schools should look like, there was no outlet for taking this vision from words on a page, to the bricks and mortar of a school. Today, with free schools and academies, the situation is entirely different. We now have an education sector that contains within it the source of its own improvement.

This current era of high autonomy, alongside high accountability, can be traced back to Jim Callaghan’s landmark Ruskin Speech in 1976, where he said of our education system, I quote, “we must aim for something better”.

There is another story about Jim Callaghan which always sticks in my memory. In 1978, the Prime Minister’s office bought two new Rover 3.5s from British Leyland to use for his transport, as a show of unity with the, at the time, ailing British car industry. On its arrival, Callaghan went for a ride in the car, and as it was driving through London he pressed a button to open the snazzy new electrical window. The window fell onto his lap. Callaghan, so the story goes, calmly recommended that the car be returned to the factory.

At that time, the state-run, highly unionised, highly regulated British car industry was in terminal decline, and held no signs of the capacity for its own renewal. Today, the British car industry is dynamic, innovative and successful, making more cars last year than it did in 1979. What has allowed for this improvement is moving from a system of conformity and central control, to one of enterprise and innovation.

It is my great hope that over the next 10 years, this country’s schools will undergo the same transformation: from a sector defined by coasting and underperformance in parts in terms of both outcomes and ideas, to one flourishing with effective practices and high educational standards. Only then will we have a school system where all children are given the chance to succeed irrespective of birth or background.

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