Regulatory overkill. Rising inequality and profiteering from education? Is this the future for English Education?


 Photo by Kenny Sarmy / CC BY-SA 2.0 

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Author: Jacqueline Baxter

A recent visit to the centenary conference of the American Education Research Association (AERA) as part of a BELMAS invited symposium on the self-improving school system, provided plenty of opportunity to find out what is happening in American Education and what might well be in store for the English system in the not too distant future.

Charter schools and Academies – what’s the difference?

Although there are many differences, not least in terms of scale and the very high proportion of students in receipt of free school meals (sometimes in excess of 92% of students in some charter schools), the similarities between charter and academy schools are hard to ignore: Charter schools offer primary and secondary education although they are subject to fewer rules and regulations than traditional state schools. Just like academies they were set up with the promise of ‘new freedoms’: freedom to create, to innovate in the areas of curriculum, freedom to employ unqualified teachers, along with budget autonomy. At the time of writing there are around 6,800 public charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia with approximately 3 million students.

Visiting the country which has proved so seductive in terms of policy borrowing, particularly by successive Conservative Governments, offered a tantalising glimpse into how the very policies we borrowed are shaping up some fifteen years down the line.

Stand or fall: the charter mission and accountability

In many senses (though not all), Charter schools were set up for many of the same reasons as academies under New Labour - to provide high standards of education for those that the system had so far failed - particularly in urban areas of high deprivation.

In terms of accountability Charter schools stand or fall according to whether they are fulfilling the terms of their charter, according to the US National Centre for Education Statistics: ‘A school’s charter is reviewed periodically (typically every 3 to 5 years) by the group or jurisdiction that granted it and can be revoked if guidelines on curriculum and management are not followed or if the standards are not met.’ Whilst more than 400 new charter schools opened (2015), 270 schools closed due to low enrolment, lack of finances or low performance. They may be founded by teachers, parents, or educational activists although state-authorized charters (schools not chartered by local school districts), are often established by not for profit groups, government organisations or universities. This is very different to the present system of accountability in English academies in which both regulation and accountability are at present in flux. Our own system is held accountable via a complex mix of Regional School Commissioners, Ofsted inspection, volunteer school governors and where they remain, Local Education Authorities. A recent parliamentary inquiry concluded that we are indeed in a bit of a mess where accountability is concerned.

Regulatory Creep and a stifling of innovation

Acceptance of charter school legislation has in many ways been a slow process, mired in political and policy battles waged in the white hot glare of media focus. Many of which mirror those currently being waged over academies and free schools, latterly intensified by the government’s latest White Paper on education.

Disagreements largely centre on whether charters perform better than public schools: whether they have closed the achievement gap between students from deprived backgrounds and their counterparts from leafier suburbs, and whether they achieve ‘higher standards’ than their public counterparts. In the same way as academies the results are not clear one way or another, what is clear is that the original promise of ‘freedoms’ appears to be disappearing fast.

A session called ‘regulation creep’ organised by The Charter and School Choice SIG arm of AERA - a panel discussion between four leading experts on charter schools and chaired by journalist from the publication Education Week, revealed that the charter school dream is fast being eroded by for profit organisations, regulation creep and the slow but sure strangulation of creativity and freedoms that were the hallmark of their original promise.

Emily Kim Executive Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs of New York based Success Academies, reported on her frustration at the regulatory creep that has led to 15 different government agencies asking for data , data that appears only to function as a means for control rather than,‘ data designed to improve student outcomes.’ In areas where for profit schools had blossomed - for example in the state of Ohio - this creep was even more pronounced. Scott Pearson Executive Director of DC Public Public Charter School Board commented that the under regulation of schools in some states is leading to poor standards and public outcry; a problem compounded when schools from charter groups in under regulated states move into states with far stricter regulatory regimes.

The Future for Multi Academy Trusts

 The UK government’s vision for education is one in which schools are entirely ‘free’ of local control, one in which there is no local government involvement either in the regulation or organisation of schools. Yet as other areas of public services have experienced , the more ‘freedoms’ they are granted, the more the ‘iron fist’ of regulatory control exerts its influence creating, as successful Academies have experienced, seemingly endless paperwork and focus on performativity in order to justify their existence. As Whitehall simultaneously offers ‘freedom’ on one hand, with the other they increasingly create a more centralised system; one with little or no local accountability: in focusing on individual school structures they neglect the wider system, as Ron Glatter pointed out in his recent article. Whilst the English education system (if indeed it can be called that), is nowhere near the size and scale of the American one, we could do worse than to cast a glance across the water and learn from their lessons on the challenges and opportunities of school autonomies and their impact on the wider system of regulation, accountability and governance in education.

 jacqueline-baxter Jacqueline is Lecturer in Public Policy and Management in the Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise, The Open University Business School. Her research interests lie in the area of the governance of public services. Her most recent publications include: School Governance: Policy, Politics and Practices (The Policy Press, March 2016), and School Inspectors: operational challenges in national policy contexts (Springer, December 2016) She is currently working on a project investigating leadership strategy in multi academy trusts. She is a regular columnist in the Politics and Society and Education Sections of The Conversation and editor of the BELMAS blog. She tweets at @drjacquebaxter.
If you have an interest in structural reform, please consider joining the BELMAS Structural Reform Research Interest Group (RIG). To join the RIGs, become a BELMAS member or click the box alongside the relevant RIG groups on your 'My Details' page. Views or opinions expressed in BELMAS blog articles are solely those of the author and do not represent the views or expressions of BELMAS or BELMAS RIGS.
Next article: Towards a self-improving school system: two steps forward one step back?

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