How the drive to ‘empower’ our schools created chaos in classrooms

Carolyn Roberts, the head of Thomas Tallis school, a comprehensive in south-east London, is facing an agonising decision. The school has always prided itself on embracing the creativity of its students and the arts, but now it is grappling with whether the curriculum should be overhauled to meet targets designed to ensure that the majority of pupils complete a core of maths, English and science GCSEs.

“We are consulting staff and parents about whether we follow the accountability measure to entirely shift our curriculum,” Roberts explains. “If we took a decision that the measure was the most important thing, that would mean fewer choices for students. Things that weren’t compulsory might sink or die. While it’s unlikely that the arts in our school would be a casualty of that, that is why the take-up of arts at GCSE is falling year-on-year.”

The prevailing rhetoric of educational reforms since 2010 has been to empower schools and their leaders, stripping away the control of local authorities. The drive to turn schools into academies, outside council control, was turbocharged. Schools were encouraged to join chains of other academies to help them to improve. Power moved away from local councils towards top-performing schools and their heads, who were lauded for their performance and given responsibility for improving others.

Eight years down the line, however, the findings of a seminal work on England’s education system published in the Observer reveal a tension at the heart of the nation’s classrooms. According to the UCL Institute of Education, the drive to increase school power has been accompanied by a web of accountability, attainment and progress targets that boxes schools in. It creates, the researchers say, a “chaotic process of centralisation”. Whitehall ends up with greater control over schools, while free sources of support dry up.

Roberts, now into her third headship, has always opted to work in schools that remain under local authority control. “It always seemed to me that the rhetoric around autonomy was unconvincing,” she says. “I never understood what we were trying to escape from. It is the accountability structure and progress tables that are the things that constrain our lives. That’s nothing to do with the governance structure that we have.”

Others involved in drawing up policy since 2010 warn that too much emphasis was placed on the benefits of giving schools more power. “There was always undue optimism among some of the advocates of academisation about the potential benefits in what in England was already quite an autonomous schools system,” says David Laws, the former education minister who now heads the Education Policy Institute.

“What we know is the most successful part of the academisation programme was the early part of it under New Labour. Those early academies had absolutely everything thrown at them. They were academised school by school, with huge ministerial intervention. The new governors were almost hand-picked. They often brought in the best headteachers to replace failing management teams. They had new buildings. Sponsors had to put in extra cash.

“Our research shows that much of the programme since then has had little impact on standards. If the same people are running a school just with a different nameplate outside, it is optimistic to think they will suddenly make a dramatic change in performance.”

The UCL study finds no statistically significant benefit for student attainment from the drive to force secondary schools to become chains of academies. There is also mounting evidence that the system has created a desperate scramble for students that, despite attempts to alter the way schools are judged, is seeing poorer, more difficult students disappear from top and improving schools. The fear is that government policies are increasing inequality.

Meanwhile, the UCL report also raises the dangers of handing so much power to favoured, charismatic headteachers. There have been a number of high-profile falls from grace. Former “superhead” Jean Else was stripped of her damehood in 2011 after it emerged she had failed to observe minimum standards in recruiting and promoting staff. Sir Greg Martin, once seen as Michael Gove’s favourite headteacher, was criticised when it emerged that he had a £400,000 salary, partly as a result of operating a leisure centre on the school site.

These tensions are made harder by a funding and teacher recruitment crisis that has led Roberts to conclude that it is the most difficult period for teaching that she has ever experienced. “Head teachers will try to act as a barrier between the pressures and the classroom, but it is very difficult,” she says. “Workload becomes an issue and fewer teachers will stay over a 20, 30 or 40-year career. We are anxious about the future,” she says.


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