As the DfE vows to accelerate its flagship school reform programme, Mark Rowe asks whether government has the capacity to deliver
The number of free schools and academies in Britain has now reached 4,500. These schools, removed from the orbit of local authorities, are under the direct control of the education secretary. And now, released from the shackles of coalition, the Conservative government is determined to significantly roll out its free school and academy programme.
The Election and Adoption Bill published in June 2015 proposes that schools rated by Ofsted inspectors as “requiring improvement” be compulsorily converted to academy status, a process until now applied solely to schools judged “inadequate” – of which a further 1,000 are set to convert into academies.
Publicly funded, academies have more freedom and control over curriculum design, term dates, and staff pay than comprehensive schools. Likewise, free schools – usually new state schools funded by the government, but not run by the local councils – can set their own pay and conditions for staff and don't have to follow the national curriculum.
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Yet the government’s school reform program has been far from straightforward. Scandals such as the Trojan horse affair – where hardline Islamist groups were accused of undermining Birmingham academies – have raised concerns over accountability and oversight. Earlier this year, 13 out of 87 local authorities told the National Audit Office they did not monitor academies’ safeguarding arrangements, even though under the Children’s Act 1989, they are responsible for monitoring safeguarding arrangements in all schools, including academies set up in recent years.
Are free schools too far removed from a controlling hand, and has centralisation given the Department for Education (DfE) a task for which it lacks capacity? At the moment, civil servants are being pulled in two directions, argues Ron Glatter, emeritus professor of educational administration and management at the Open University. They must facilitate the establishment of free schools; yet at the same time provide oversight at arm's length, which may only be possible by compromising the autonomy that such schools are supposed to enjoy.
"The extent of centralisation is quite remarkable," Glatter says. "There's a capacity issue for Whitehall. I'm not anti-Whitehall at all, but in a country as large as ours you cannot run these schools from a central point."
And centralisation may even be making it harder for free schools and academies to exercise the advertised benefits of their status. "They have freedoms around governance, the curriculum, they can emphasise certain subjects," says Dr Susanne Wiborg, reader in education at the Institute of Education, UCL. "But they feel that centralisation is constraining them in making full use of the freedom to develop innovative approaches. They can't experiment as much as they want to –they face the pressure of teaching to the test."
In response to these emerging concerns, the coalition in 2014 appointed eight regional schools commissioners with responsibility for approving and monitoring these schools on behalf of the education secretary. Glatter suspects that their introduction was an acknowledgement that the DfE was struggling.
"I feel this originated from the civil service, senior civil servants must have gone to the minister and said they couldn't work with the present system," he says.
Indeed, such a system places unfair responsibility on civil servants, Glatter argues. "If you don't have the checks and balances, you get mistakes," he says. "It's not sustainable in its present format. There will be more and more problems and too often the mandarins get the blame."
Wiborg also struggles to see how the existing structure can be made to work. "In practical terms it's very difficult without that middle tier of local authority. To cut off the cord completely, to pass on all the extra work to central government – I don't see how that is possible."
Removing the local authority from the equation, argues Wiborg, has raised further issues that relate to democratic accountability. "Local democracy is about more than just getting parents to paint the classroom, you have to engage the local government and communities too. When things are so top-down you undermine local democracy."
The DfE rejects such accusations, though a spokesperson said that any academy school with failings could expect the government to take robust and swift action. "Academies are free from much of the regulation and bureaucracy which has historically stifled innovation," the spokesperson said, "but with additional freedoms comes robust accountability."
The DfE said commissioners “are supported by a number of teams across the department", but added that commissioner resources would be kept under review "as their role evolves".
Neil Carmichael – chair of parliament’s cross-party education committee –acknowledges the challenges posed by expanding academies but feels these can be addressed without undermining the central drive. "The question of the regional commissioners and what support they could get is an interesting one," he says. "There's an issue for civil servants – if the commissioners take on more powers, how will they be supported? If you stay with the current number of commissioners you're bulking up their offices. Or if you go with more commissioners then they will need smaller regions. What is key is that we improve governance."
One solution might be to reproduce the model provided by the Maintained Schools Trust, which was introduced in the Education and Inspections Act of 2006. "This preserves that degree of autonomy," says Glatter, "but still allows for external bodies to be involved in school governance."
And there may be measures civil servants might employ within the status quo to improve links. "If I were a civil servant in a position of influence [with a minister] I would argue strongly for a third tier, either a local authority or another body," says Wiborg. "Civil servants can still work to make sure schools are not isolated. Schools need support from the civil service in maintaining and sustaining innovation. Civil servants could encourage schools to collaborate more, structure the relationships between clusters of schools. That's where the civil service can play a big role."