"Who should own our schools?" London 19 June 2013

Missed this conference?  For an informative and entertaining report on the presentations and discussions, read Susan Young's piece below. Video footage is also available.

Wide-ranging education debate around school ownership at BELMAS conference suggests that change may be on the horizon

When you organise a conference called Who Should Own Our Schools?, and invite a diverse group of speakers, it's highly unlikely that you anticipate any kind of consensus. But you can hope for an interesting range of insights.

And that is precisely what came from BELMAS's conference posing that question, held with an audience of more than 40 academics, educational leaders and consultants. Opening the day, Professor Ron Glatter posed the question of ownership, asking: "How does it relate to concepts of the 'public' in relation to education? How can effective democratic control be partnered with effective accountability for performance? Would the central question be better phrased as 'Who should control our schools?' And underlying all these is a deeper question: Who and what is education for?"

Ron Glatter - Introduction from BELMAS on Vimeo.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, there was some degree of consensus that the English system which has been developing and evolving in a particular direction for the past three decades may be on the verge of change.

The first discussion of this came during the session from Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, who set his remarks in a theoretical framework that there were fundamentally three ways of thinking about change. These were the individualistic model, backed with ideas like autonomy, freedom, individual aspiration and enterprise; the hierarchical framework, in which change was considering in terms of leadership, planning, strategy, bureaucratic rules and regulations; and finally the solidaristic perspective, with notions of membership, shared values and collective responsibility.

"My argument is that most effective organisations... are ones which combine those three active forces," he said, adding that: "I'd also argue the solution will never be particularly stable. These three perspectives get energy from hatred of others."

He argued that in the broadest terms, from the perspective of the education system as a whole, it had been a highly solidaristic system in the mid-1970s. The Ruskin speech by James Callaghan had changed this, saying some hierarchichal oversight of the system was needed. Added to this were the tools of individualism and the market: "In essence 35 years of hierarchichal and individualist assault on solidarism...if you wanted to capture this utter domination it is in the notion of superhead", he said, adding: "The position of head is detached from what any normal human being can carry on their shoulders. They are perceived to be gods. If they've inherited a school with a dodgy dashboard they have two years. It's a vortex of madness... absolute power and constantly on the knife edge of success and career insecurity". This, he said, could lead to problems. Organisations need to use all three sources of power, he said, and there needs to be a rebalancing of the system. "Do we hope to get forces of individualism and hierarchy to retreat? If we do, we'll be waiting a long time". Solidarity, he said, needed to be rekindled and not just from a theoretical perspective. The London Challenge and the education reforms in Alberta had shown the sense of collectiveness was very important, with a sense of moment.

Mr Taylor said there might be three routes to rekindling solidarity. The first was the current conversation about a Royal College of Teaching, binding teachers to the highest quality of professional practice. The second was among schools, the idea of schools as intelligent communities where there was a sense of purpose, a distinctive ethos, a voice for students and teachers, where governance worked. The third way was in solidarity between schools on children's progress, with a challenging and robust relationship with other schools and civil society. "Can we make changes better than these great lurches between paradigms? I think we are at a solidaristic moment, with an appetite now in the system for something to be a counterweight. Let's take this moment and see how quickly and creatively we can respond to it", he said.

Matthew Taylor from BELMAS on Vimeo.

Melissa Benn, author of School Wars and co-founder of the Local Schools Network, thought we were "at a crossroads between two different ideas about the direction of our schools," at the end of a 35-year period "and maybe the Govean model is the final passionate bloodcurdling cry of that", she said, adding her concern that with schools in semi-private groups, that could lead "if we are not careful, to full profit-making schools". The current narrative, she said, was that comprehensive education was a broken egalitatian concept, and that Govism was now claiming the comprehensive mantle, claiming to improve state education and education of poor children. "Who's going to complain? It's the PR coup of the last three years. Govism does have passion at its heart, but I think it's a grammar narrative grafted on to a comprehensive system."

Ms Benn said the current system, with its constant exhortations to improvement, too often resulted in widespread resentment, "a sulky kind of rebellion", with a standoff between Mr Gove and most teaching professionals. She described a running-down of educational professionalism in the public sector, with no criticism of local authorities with selective schools and demoralisation among more experienced teachers. However, she saw "a new alternative model emerging from successful comprehensives and dynamic local authorities, with disillusionment feeding into the sense of another way".

"Comprehensive education can work, can be a success story, drawing on elements of Finland and Alberta, local government, rejecting the market model of closure and collapse which is harmful to communities and children. ... it is about accountability, real power to local government, fair admissions, rational place planning and improvement, and a forum of parental demand and complaint", she said. There needed to be a strong sense of inclusion and collaboration. Ms Benn said we "had to start talking up a modern comprehensive model", using work done by organisations such as the Headteachers Roundtable on curriculum models. The curriculum had to be taken from direct political control, with a return of professionalism to teachers and longer and more rigorous training. And parents had to be involved more.

Melissa Benn from BELMAS on Vimeo.

More thought-provoking contributions came during the afternoon panel session, with contributions from a wide variety of speakers.

Jon Coles, Group Chief Executive of academy chain United Learning, and formerly of the Department for Education and director of London Challenge, started by arguing that ownership of schools was not fundamentally the most important thing. What was important was access (can you get in?), quality (is it any good?), accountability (can you influence how it is?) and finally stewardship (do you have some confidence that it is there in perpetuity?).

Expanding on this, he said that the same rules of access should apply to all schools, whoever ran them. "You must have in place identical conditions for young people and parents to have access to school places", he said. On quality, he thought one of the potentially beneficial things about an education system with multiple providers was that if one wasn't doing a very good job they could be removed from the role and it given to somebody else. On accountability: it should be possible for the community to influence the nature of education. It should be clear and transparent and possible to hold people to account for the quality of what they are doing. And on stewardship, there should be very clear expectations about how public money was not used for private gain and continued to be made available in perpetuity for the public.

"If those are four key propositions about publicly funded education, there are quite a lot of consequences", he said. Questions could be asked about the current framework under each of these headings, starting with whether it was a level playing field when it came to school access. "In some respects, yes", he said, adding that while a great deal had been done to the admissions code there were quite a large number of examples of non-compliance. "I am personally not convinced it is more of a problem with one status of school than others." On school status, it would be "good to have a mechanism for changing providers if what's on offer is not good enough... but we probably don't have a responsive enough system for that", he said. Mr Coles said that if every academy was on a seven-year funding agreement and the only other way out was through central government intervention "I'm not convinced that's the best of all possible places to be... the department is stretched to quality assure 2,000 academies and we might have 20,000 across the country in a few years’ time". A "more responsive" way was needed.

"It seems a natural way to hand a bit more influence at least back to the locality. With the best will in the world a civil servant sitting in Whitehall is not as conscious of the performance of an individual school in, say, rural Somerset as the community will be about quality of their own school. "There can be proper accountability... I think that means there needs to be a funding mechanism which is in much more sense a performance contract." There could be an ability for local people to say performance had to improve within 12 months, or they would get a better provider. This would mean groups and independent academies would face more scrutiny and there was more opportunity for the local community to ask what was going on. However, Mr Coles said he had "grave concerns" about suggestions that it would be OK for a for-profit provider to take over schools. While he was not in any way anti-profit, and profitmaking organisations did work in education, it seemed a "fundamentally different" proposition to the governance of the school itself being built on profit. "We should think very hard before going down that particular road", he said, concluding: "Who cares who owns schools, providing those protections are in place. If we want them in place we need to adapt and evolve a policy framework. It's very different to 10 or even 5 years ago: if we want this system to work well for children and young people we need some quite hard thinking about the framework".

Next up was Emma Knights of the National Governors Association, who pointed out that ten years ago people would have said that ownership of the legal advice service didn't matter, just quality and access. The situation now was very different. There was interplay, she said, between ownership and quality. She continued that there was a lot of churn in the third sector, with institutions going bust. "Are we ready for that level of risk? If money is mismanaged and academies are going bust, what is Mr Gove going to do then?"

She said there was a school of thought that local authority governors gave local authority accountability; and that she supported all governors, who needed the skills to perform their roles well. "We have to get much better at engaging different groups." Schools needed to think in terms of who they were working with: ownership might move to someone at the other end of the country or the secondary school up the road. "There are quite a lot of issues with people handing over ownership not entirely understanding repercussions", she said. Ms Knights said there were real strengths in schools working together in groups, and federations were still being chosen by governors despite being thought of as "a last government model" by the DfE. "We're all in this together: let's come up with a collective response", she said.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "We are on a cusp at the moment", adding that he had a hypothesis that there was a contiuum of schools, ranging from confident at one extreme to constrained at the other. Confident schools tended to have strong exam results, no falling rolls, good staffing and no concerns about Ofsted inspecting. Constrained schools' worries included that Ofsted would put them in a category, and perhaps have a free school opening down the road when there were surplus places in the area. "Confident schools can say ‘Let's put performance indicators and Ofsted to one side: what can we do for children and young people in this area, be creative and move on?’" The challenge is how do we ensure all schools can be confident in that way in partnerships with all people with a legitimate stake in running that school?

"In spite of the battering and negativity there are a number of reasons for a great deal of optimism in the system. I think there is a growing consensus in the profession of what we ought to be doing, what works."

BELMAS, he said, was important to muster research. To rekindle solidarity, there needed to be a shift towards evidence, working together to re-establish the education system and agree an entitlement for young people, "and not two hours of this and three of that". It was, said Mr Lightman, about a sense of value, an agreed set of values. "There must be some things that are really non-negotiable. There must be certain things we agree on." A college of teaching, he said, was a "very interesting proposition", but a hierarchical model was the worst thing that could happen. "I worry a bit about the increasing numbers of MPs and ministers supporting it. The support has to come from the profession", he said. We were now at a cusp, he said, where we could move on and say we are going to take control of things again, to make the education system the best.

Mr Lightman divulged that ASCL is planning to lead a "second great debate on education" over the next year, with high level questions about the purpose and leadership of teaching and learning. "The answer to the question is that we all own schools, and we need to move away from the top-down system which has seriously disenfranchised the profession", he said.

Mervyn Wilson, Chief Executive and Principal of the Co-operative College, said co-operative schools were the third largest alliance of schools after those run by the churches, and education was about producing well-rounded citizens. Recently, evolutionary scientists had disproved the selfish gene theory, he said, finding that most progress was made by those who co-operated. Headteachers whose schools became co-operative reported that the system kept money in the area, and had "horizontal accountability to all the stakeholders in the community you serve". Mr Wilson said neighbouring schools in partnership safeguarded community assets, built up over generations, and that the speed at which the number of co-op schools was growing was "quite remarkable", with 444 trust schools by June, 56 association schools, over 150 more consulting, 35 converter academies and six sponsor academies.

It was, he said, about ethos, and co-operative values which resonated with local communities. "Ownership is democratic governance not a tokenistic minimalist requirement of engagement with standard academy model, which is by definition absolute sovereignty to the sponsor. A broader concept of ownership lies best with local communities best able to respond and not driven by the chain. Schools are about communities, and the co-op is the best model for that."

Panel Speakers at the BELMAS Conference 'Who Owns Our Schools ?' on 19 June 2013 from BELMAS on Vimeo.

Panel Discussion - BELMAS Conference 'Who Owns Our Schools ?' from BELMAS on Vimeo.

Susan Young

Susan Young is a journalist, writer and editor specialising in education

Upcoming Dates for this event

  • Wed 19 Jun 2013
  • Wed 19 Jun 2013
  • Royal National Hotel, , London

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