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When it comes to academies, the coast isn't always clear

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I would like to start this post with a confession: I don’t call my mother enough. I have no excuse – she’s a lovely woman, and we even have some mutual friends (my dad, my sister, some other extended family, neighbours). She’s also a teacher, which means we always have plenty to discuss when it comes to education. So I really have no reason not to.

Our last back and forth, when I finally caved and phoned home last Sunday, was over the recent announcement that the academies programme will be extended to ‘coasting schools’. Twitter was awash with speculation that any school rated ‘requires improvement’ would be subject to enforced academisation. Having read Nicky Morgan’s Telegraph article last Sunday, which doesn’t actually mention ‘requires improvement’ schools specifically, I wasn’t entirely sure this was the case. I then tried to find a definition of ‘coasting’ that mentions Ofsted grades, but to no avail.

I’m not accusing our education secretary of causing deliberate confusion here. If I could only recommend reading one thing on this topic... well, I’d recommend reading this post, because our blog editor said she'll clip me around the ear if it doesn't get enough clicks. But if you want more clarity, I’d also suggest Laura McInerney’s write-up of a Schools Week webinar with Nicky Morgan. This makes it clear that ‘coasting’ will not be defined by a school’s Ofsted grade alone. Regional school commissioners will look at the Ofsted judgement, but will do so alongside progress measures and school improvement plans. They will also speak with the school’s leadership team.

Unfortunately, the clarity stops there. Ms Morgan also said that when identifying a ‘coasting’ school, the regional school commissioners will do so in an “open way”. That sounds great, but how much does it really explain what a ‘coasting’ school will look like? There is still a lot we don’t know (the story of my life). We may never have concrete criteria for what a ‘coasting’ school is, which could lead to inconsistency. We don’t know whether the new education bill will extend academy presumptions for these ‘coasting’ schools. And, most importantly, as my colleague Oliver Kean recently wrote, we really have no conclusive evidence about how effective academies are for school improvement.

Results from The Key’s latest State of Education survey suggest that school leaders are not overwhelmingly positive about these changes. To take a few of the most relevant responses:

  • The most opposed education policy, proposed or current, in our survey was forced academisation for schools in ‘special measures’ or judged ‘requires improvement’. This was opposed by 83.7% of respondents (making this policy about as popular with our respondents as the Iraq war was with the public in 2007)
  • 71.7% expected the academisation of underperforming schools to have a negative impact on the quality of education over the next 18 months. Only no-notice inspections and the creation of free schools were more strongly opposed
  • When asked which of two options would most help raise the standards of teaching, only 13.8% went for 'giving schools freedom to set their own curriculum, recruitment, policies and pay', as opposed to 68.7% who chose 'ensuring schools follow a national curriculum designed by independent experts'

I think that if Nicky Morgan wants the education sector to accept her and her party’s vision, there need to be fewer question marks.

It may be years, if ever, before we can get an impartial, evidence-based picture of whether academy chains are better at supporting school improvement than local authorities. But in the meantime, if the system is going to be putting more faith in academies and free schools to drive improvement, there are things the Department for Education and Nicky Morgan could do to ease uncertainty. One would be to stop using language like ‘coasting’ without clearly defining it. The other is inspired by this tweet from ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted:

If academy chains are going to accept more responsibility for coasting schools, they should perhaps be subject to the same accountability as the local authorities that have supposedly failed in the first place.

My mother, who you may remember from the first paragraph, is a pretty sharp woman. But she, along with many teachers and school leaders, don’t know what proposed changes such as this one will actually mean for their jobs, their schools or their sector (and if the sector belongs to anyone, it belongs to teachers, not politicians – and certainly not lowly researchers like myself). If I could persuade Nicky Morgan – who always seems genuinely willing to engage with the profession – to do anything, it would be to speak in plain English about what these changes mean.  If she wants somewhere to do so, I’m sure we could host her here.


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