Since being reappointed as secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan has immediately selected structural reform as her main focus, trailing new legislation empowering the Department for Education (DfE) to force “failing and coasting” schools to become academies.
Indeed the very short mention of education policy in last week’s Queen’s Speech focused entirely on that initiative.
Ms Morgan’s language about “tackling” all “coasting” schools is familiar. We have heard government and Ofsted tell us since at least 1999 that they will be cracking down on “coasting” schools. However, this rhetoric has now become the keystone of current government policy.
“Coasting” is still not defined yet, although as reported by SecEd (Teachers demand clarity over definition of ‘coasting schools’, SecEd 415, May 21, 2015: http://bit.ly/1PwFkvF), Ms Morgan recently said that the progress students make will be one of the ways of identifying a “coasting school”. She has confirmed that the new Progress 8 measure will specifically play a part, too.
On that basis, no school is safe from intervention if, as seems likely, a school could historically be rated “good” or even “outstanding” by Ofsted overall, but still deemed to be “coasting” on this new progress measure.
The legal mechanism for allowing more intervention will be set out in a new Education Bill which is due to be published by the DfE later this week. This legislation is likely to have three key features:
Schools that “require improvement” (Grade 3 Ofsted) will be automatically subject to forced academisation (at the moment only schools rated Grade 4 are in that category).
There will be power to force leadership support and change in all schools that are deemed to be “coasting”; presumably this would require a working definition of “coasting”. Regional Schools Commissioners will also presumably need the powers of intervention that only local authorities currently have in relation to maintained schools through the “warning notice” process (it has been a constant complaint of the current chief inspector and of the DfE that local authorities have not used their powers of intervention enough).
The process of academisation will be simplified: this might involve overriding local authority entitlements to have a substantial say in the land and asset transfer from their schools to academies.
However, the real issue facing the new government is the capacity of the education sector to absorb the number of academies and leadership interventions that it has planned.
The problem is system capacity. There are just not enough multi-academy trusts in existence to absorb even the 3,300 primary and secondary schools “requiring improvement” that will seemingly certainly be forced into academy status as soon as possible. The DfE has found from bitter experience that even the largest multi-academy trusts cannot manage more than about 50 schools, especially if a high proportion of those schools are “failed” institutions in recovery.
Although Diocesan multi-academy trusts are now emerging belatedly to include the large number of Church of England and Roman Catholic schools that will want or need to go into one, their development is embryonic and uncertain.
So it is very unclear whether enough durable multi-academy trust structures can be put in place to receive the large increase in rate of new academies that Ms Morgan is contemplating.
The second constraint on capacity is the availability of the excellent headteachers that Ms Morgan wants to send into failing schools to turn around their leadership.
By raising the bar again by targeting “coasting schools”, the drop off the cliff between being good and “coasting” will only be one weak pupil cohort away, and the willingness of headteachers to extend their workload to help other schools may diminish rather than strengthen if they have to watch their own backs even more.
This is particularly so if, as has been the case, no credit is given by Ofsted to a school for their headteacher helping another school.
If school improvement is to be teacher-led, sufficient incentives must be put in place.
Roger Inman is partner and head of education at Stone King LLP.