Education Policy in the Election 4: Accountability, Intervention and School Turnaround
By: Simon Burgess
Schools are given two highly valuable resources: the potential of the nation’s children and a lot of public money. While £40bn sounds like a lot of money, it pales into insignificance compared to the value of improving human capital.
Schools should be accountable for how they deal with these: to parents for their kids’ progress and to the taxpayer via central government for their use of public money. In England, the accountability system has two components: performance information in the league tables and Ofsted reports. This accountability matters. We have shown that the publication of school league tables improves school performance, and have shown that the detail also matters. (It may just be election fever but there seems to be a danger of ad hoc extras being tacked on to this framework: the Tories for example “… will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel. They should be able to write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar.” This does not seem helpful).
The important policy issue now is about beefing up the link between the information provided by the accountability system and action to turn low-performing schools around. There are plenty of examples of individual schools experiencing a dramatic turnaround – see this example just this week. But the policy goal is to make this systematic rather than serendipitous. This is part of the rationale for a ‘middle layer’ of oversight in the education hierarchy, between schools and the Department of Education.
Why is this needed? We currently have two main channels for action.
The first is bottom-up, from parents choosing schools. Parents scrutinise the school league tables and decide which schools to apply to; low-performing schools get fewer applicants and so come under pressure to raise their game. This is the school choice channel for school turnaround. It works to a degree, but is not very strong (for reasons on another day) or very quick. The substantial attainment gap that opened up between England and Wales after the latter abolished school tables was due in part to that mechanism. We speculate that it was also due in part to schools’ reactions to the ‘shame’ felt by the low-performing schools in England that Welsh schools could hide from.
The second channel is a recent market-contestability measure: the potential setting up of a free school in response to low performance was meant to keep all schools on their toes. The evidence suggests there is little competitive spill-over pressure and it is not credible as a source of ongoing pressure.
There is a third potential channel that is resisted: Ofsted is resolutely determined not to do school intervention, but to stick to inspecting and reporting.
The ‘Middle Tier’
So the ‘middle layer’ is to make a stronger link from information to action. It is also proposed because of the craziness of having central government be directly responsible for over half the secondary schools in the country.
What should this be like? One option is for it to be left to academy chains to fulfil this role. While these groups are growing significantly, they nevertheless account for around half of academies and obviously no non-academies. Their regulation is an important issue for the next parliament.
So a comprehensive statutory body is better. The Coalition set up Regional Schools Commissioners to fulfil this role for academies. Their role is precisely to intervene to deal with poor performance, but is limited to academies and free schools: “Regional schools commissioners are responsible for … intervening in underperforming academies and free schools in their area.” They are required to monitor academy performance and take action when required. The Commissioners are supported by a small number of experienced local academy headteachers.
RSCs versus DSSs
The alternative is the proposal from Labour for Directors of School Standards (DSS). There are similarities but also a number of important differences. Similarities: the number one remit of a DSS is school turnaround: “facilitate intervention to drive up performance – including in coasting and ‘fragile’ schools”. The mechanisms for turnaround are pretty similar, though emphases and language differs. The DSS document emphasises a requirement to engage in “collaboration”. It’s possible that this may become something closer to academisation of a school including acquiring a sponsor in extreme circumstances. The Tories propose to dramatically increase the number of schools at risk of forced academisation.
The first and most important difference is that a DSS will cover all schools in her/his area. This will be achieved by essentially turning all schools into academies. This seems much more sensible, coherent and efficient to take all schools under a single umbrella. A second difference is that there will be many more DSSs than RSCs: there are 8 RSCs and suggestions of perhaps ten times that many DSSs. This is also an improvement – if taken seriously, this is a big job.
I think that the DSS proposal is very positive. The risk is that two factors will overwhelm the post-holders. First, they are responsible for more or less everything to do with schools: attainment obviously; but also financial probity (very specialist skills needed), and then also “British values”; obesity; personal, social and health education; and so on. Arguably, they should be asked to focus solely on attainment and school turnaround. Second, they are to have very little support. The DSS will have “a small back-up secretariat providing only the most essential administrative support”. Unless the DSS is just meant to sit in an office and issue edicts, this won’t work; more support will be needed.