News and opinion

News article

Universal academisation is all push and no pull

23 May 2016

To raise standards and encourage collaboration will take more than top-down policy - the profession must be on board, too

This is a momentous time in education. Whatever one thinks about the rights and wrongs of academies, there is no doubt that if the proposals in the schools White Paper come to fruition, the education system will be unrecognisable from the one created by the 1944 Education Act. It will be radically different even from the pre-2010 period.

Nicky Morgan is proving to be a very bold education secretary. She has announced a compulsory transformation of the school structure - a decision that her predecessor steered clear of - and she is introducing a fair funding system for all schools, which no other government has had the courage to implement before, for fear that too many schools in too many marginal seats would lose out in the rebalancing. However, as all leaders know, it is one thing to develop brave policies and make big decisions, but quite another to ensure consistent implementation of those policies and take people with you.

During the era of the coalition government, we saw some excellent bottom-up schoolbased improvement strategies. But, in spite of overall improvement in the system, too often, schools in challenging and coastal areas did not progress as quickly. If anything, the gap between high- and low-performing schools became greater. So, some great practice but too much variation.

One can understand, then, why the government has decided that more direct action is needed. The top-down approach, requiring all schools - irrespective of context or perceived need - to become academies is an attempt to have a single, consistent system and to enable the government to intervene more quickly when things aren't going well.

But top-down approaches, especially ones involving legislation, are blunt instruments that rarely take the profession with them. And the more sizeable, spread out and diverse the system, the harder it is to effect change from the centre. What we know about the leadership of change across educational systems is that the direction of travel can be set by governments, but the detailed reality cannot be dictated.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of any policy, the fundamental paradox is that enduring change has to have a degree of voluntarism attached to it. It requires a compelling vision, combined with strong principles that can pull a given change forwards. Diktat only takes you so far and can backfire and create resistance. Educational researcher Michael Fullan refers to this as the "voluntary but inevitable" principle. As soon as we resort to compulsion, we lose the pull factor and we are left with just the push.

Governments can set the direction of travel but the reality cannot be dictated. It is not that a system based on multiacademy trusts (MATs) would necessarily be a bad thing. We can all envisage in 10 years' time a way of running schools that involves in all cases a chief executive in charge of a group of schools, leading a team of headteachers. It could be an effective model, giving greater responsibility to the most talented leaders and enabling career progression and succession planning across the trust.

But would we be exchanging isolated and variable schools for isolated and variable MATs? And how do we get there from where we are now, with 15,000 autonomous heads and 15,000 governing bodies who don't want to relinquish control? Most heads would be happy to be in a MAT as long as they were convinced that it would lead to better outcomes for children - and, frankly, as long as they were leading it. But in most models, there is only one chief executive, so the rest must learn to have a boss or leave. The same applies to governing bodies. That's what makes the delivery of this policy so tricky.

The fact is that most governments tend to be very good at coming up with policies (it is, after all, what civil servants excel at) but poor at ensuring delivery of those policies.

So, what could this look like if the profession were leading the change?

"Should my school become an academy?" is the wrong question. The right question is: "How can my school best collaborate with others to ensure that each of the children is a powerful learner, and that the adults are given opportunities to learn and develop as teachers and leaders?"

If that is through a MAT, then fine. If it is through some other kind of outcomes-focused collaboration (that may turn into a MAT later), then that is also fine. Who knows what things will look like in 2020?

Authentic leadership with moral purpose is what is needed to build those hard-edged collaborations, based on values, principles and a commitment to collective accountability. It will require an approach to school leadership that looks outwards to other schools. It will require all school leaders to develop new strategies that suit the local context and that people are excited about and find compelling. It will require honest and meaningful dialogue between schools and the government on how to make the education system work better in each locality.

It is leaders who make the weather in their schools, and together they can control the climate across the system. In the end, it is about the leadership and management of change. And, frankly, school leaders tend to be better at this than governments.