Ralph Berry: We need less dogma and more transparency to fight the fear afflicting our schools system

Education Secretary Michael Gove takes part in a science class  at Twyford Church of England High School in west London
Education Secretary Michael Gove takes part in a science class at Twyford Church of England High School in west London
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IN the row about those schools not meeting Department for Education targets being forced to become academies, there is a growing concern that the way this process is doing real damage to the prospects of turning around schools that need challenge and support. The aim has to be to urgently lift the aspirations and achievements of many of our most vulnerable children.

Having visited several schools where achievement levels are now being driven up from a low base, I am now very concerned that the current policy framework is, in fact, damaging the prospects for improving outcomes for children.

Let me be clear, myself and councillors representing wards with schools where achievement levels are far too low have been working to get this agenda addressed for some time. So the idea that there is a collusion of silence is frankly offensive. Opposing the method is different from denying the problem.

The central role of leadership is accepted – we need good leaders to make the big move into schools where there have been low aspirations, internal issues or other factors.

It is vital that councils and councillors home in on performance and how to get effective solutions on the ground in place as fast as possible. Not to micro-manage but to target the performance issues and then help secure locally-led solutions and to hold the system to account .

If localism is to mean anything here, it is the ability to connect and engage all the influences around schooling and parenting in the community.

That way, we lift the aspirations around the school and its community. However it is clear that centralist rigid models are now getting in the way of that task.

In any service improvement task knowing the context is vital, but let’s not muddle that issue with making excuses for failure. I know many schools that massively outperformed their context of poverty, and have turned around their school.

The accusation that opposing the current academy strategy means you are in favour of failure is frankly silly and does not help at all.

Let us not forget also there were massive cuts to the services provided via councils to help improve schools in difficulty, so in the cold climate we need to find new ways of riding the change at a local level.

The first essential is securing leadership and here I feel the Michael Gove approach to force academies is undermining improvement – maybe it is really intended to open the door to other options like full privatisation.

I meet many headteachers who have chosen to lead schools facing big challenges rather than the comfortable, well-performing school they have moved from.

Most have a leadership qualification and a deputy headship under their belt and are keen to take on the multi-faceted challenge we call “turnaround”.

We need these leaders to make that leap and support them. We are in danger of choking off the supply of leaders.

This involves challenging years of low standards, internal staffing issues, governance problems and often a complete failure to work with parents and the local community.

There are big issues including widespread disengagement and poverty. It is tough and demanding and does not all happen in a flash, it is firm year on year improvement we need that holds firm over time – not quick fixes.

These leaders and their teams are really lifting standards and making clear progress. If they were not, then we have to be firm and deal with it. But where the evidence is clear that year on year progress is making a difference, we should get behind these schools and support them.

What the policy of forced academies has begun to do is make many heads feel that their entire career is on the line for not being able, for example, to transform the achievements of a cohort of children who came in years before their appointment to the precise target. Or to deal with massive turnover of pupils due to housing changes in the area.

Improving performance itself is felt to count for little by DfE officials enforcing the agenda on governors and heads – the targeting of such schools is seen a form of political mugging.

This policy has also shifted the view of Academy statutes to that being mainly an intervention tool and caused many potential Converter Academies to pause for thought.

I fear what we now have is a toxic mix of fear and uncertainty with children and parents caught up in the middle.

The argument needs to be made for a better approach.

We need to be able to have the ability to pull the best mix of approaches and partners appropriate to each schools and community, and be held to account for that.

That may involve trust schools, collaborative networks, merger or federations, and yes, academy arrangements if that is felt to be the most effective.

We need less dogma and more transparency. The question is we serious enough to put local ambition and trust at the core of education policy?