White paper, white elephant '“ a headteacher's concerns

Jules White, headteacher at Tanbridge House School, writes about his concerns with the government's white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere.

Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School
Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School

The minimum expectation for any leader should surely be that they ‘practise what they preach’. In this regard, many of us, including myself, are far from perfect.

At Tanbridge House School, we extol the virtues of consideration and tolerance. Whilst these values are of undeniable importance, they are not ones that I can fully sign up to at the moment.

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I worry that I am becoming a hypocrite.

The problem is that our education secretary – Nicky Morgan MP – has just published the DfE’s new white paper – Educational Excellence Everywhere.

It’s full of lofty ambitions and the centrepiece is a commitment to ensure that every primary and secondary school in England is on track to be an academy by 2020.

There is no choice, it must happen.

The grown-up response to any white paper is to provide a considered analysis of the proposals within it, but I am not prepared to be that tolerant.

Crucially, this white paper is driven by a narrow agenda and subsequently it fails to deliver what most moderate teachers and families really need to ensure - that educational provision promotes the highest standards for all.

First and foremost, there is absolutely no compelling evidence that academies do better than maintained schools.

This point has been repeatedly stated by any number of independent bodies ranging from the National Foundation for Education Research, the Kings Fund and Parliament’s own Educational Select Committee.

As the Consevative MP, Will Quince, put it: “There is no evidence that academies are somehow automatically better than state maintained schools………call me old fashioned but I hold the view that if you’ve got a well-governed, well-run school that is performing well, just leave it alone and let it do its job.”

The DfE’s view that chains of Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) will fill the gap between Whitehall and individual schools is entirely misjudged.

They have neither the capacity nor the consistent pedigree to do so.

This doesn’t mean that there are not excellent academies and trusts around but at present, there are simply not enough of them.

This view is echoed by FASNA - the major independent forum that promotes self-governing bodies - who describe the proposal as ‘risky’ and doubt that the system ‘has the capacity to execute the policy effectively’.

Further, large flagship chains such as E-Act and Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) have been severely criticised by Ofsted and, in the case of AET, even the Department itself stated that: “Too many children are not achieving well enough and the impact of these changes must lead to better results in 2016 and beyond.”

Worryingly, ministers seem to have lost all sense of clear-sighted and balanced policy making.

The baby is being hurled out with bathwater.

New proposals will, for example, make it possible for Trusts to exclude parents from governing bodies should they wish to.

Also, small rural primary schools will also be at risk of closure if they are deemed to be unviable by MATs who are may be more bothered about balance sheets rather than the needs of local communities.

Leaders of schools know that the so called ‘freedoms’ that they are apparently missing out on are just an illusion.

My school’s curriculum is essentially no different from any other school or academy in the country – since when is any school going to drop maths, English or any other mainstream subject from its curriculum offer?

With the support of a highly effective leadership team and governing body I am also free to run the school in the best interests of our students and teachers.

The irony of imposing directives, whilst championing supposed independence for school leaders, seems to be entirely lost on those who are peddling its virtues.

If all of this wasn’t bad enough, I haven’t begun to touch on the real problem associated with ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’.

Namely, it is the abject failure of the white paper to address the real issues that are proving to be so detrimental to all schools and all academies in England.

Ask any school leader about what they need to maintain and then raise standards and I guarantee that they will not enter in to a long discussion about school governance arrangements.

All of us will tell you that we need two things; sufficient funding and high-quality teachers.

Recently the National Audit Office has confirmed that for the fourth year running, teacher recruitment targets have been missed this year by 6.5%.

No school or academy can deliver high standards without having the tools to do so.

It’s a bit like asking everyone to play like Barcelona FC without giving them access to Lionel Messi and company.

Moreover, schools need the funds to retain and then attract high quality professionals.

We also need to be able to invest in equipment and IT in order to give students the education that they deserve and the skills that future employers and our economy depend upon.

Against this background school budgets are being slashed by unfunded cost pressures connected to pension and national insurance contributions.

Whilst the government tells us that there is ‘no more money in the pot’, they are somehow able to fund a hugely expensive academy conversion programme - estimated to be over a billion pounds over this parliament – to fulfil proposals that do not tackle the urgent needs faced by schools and academies across the country.

Consideration and tolerance are vital attributes but at Tanbridge House we also teach students to stand up and challenge things that are plainly wrong too.

I am heartened by the stance of other leaders from education circles and beyond who have spoken out against ‘a one size fits all’ policy.

The debate needs to move on from the red herring that is school organisation and focus on the issues that really matter to children in our schools. Perhaps I am not so much of a hypocrite after all.

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