The Government ‘Vision’ for Education : where are we now ?

The government’s vision for education is difficult to swallow – here’s why

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

If you were in any doubt about how complex and opaque the education system in England has become, a new report by MPs has outlined it in no uncertain terms. The report by the House of Commons education select committee into Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) raises a number of concerns about the role and function of the people charged with overseeing the growing number of academy schools in England.

The report questions the role and function of England’s eight RSCs and the whole area of democratic accountability in education, particularly in light of proposals to expand the academies programme contained in the Education and Adoption bill making its way through parliament. Combined with reports that over 500,000 primary school children are now being taught in super-size classes and that we are facing a chronic shortage of teachers, the whole area of the government’s strategic planning in education is called into question.

A sticking plaster approach

As parliament’s public accounts committee pointed out in January 2015: “The DfE [Department for Education] presides over a complex and confused system of external oversight.” This confused system is made up of state schools that continue to be maintained by Local Education Authorities (LEAs), as well as academies and free schools, which are free from LEA control.

RSCs were introduced as “a pragmatic approach to academy oversight”, a sticking plaster over what has become such a convoluted form of accountability that not even those working in schools can understand it – not to mention parents. According to PTA UK, a charity that helps parent-teacher associations, just one in ten parents know what role RSCs play in their child’s education, leading to confusion when it comes to deciding where and who should address any problems.

Effective strategic planning is recognised as one of the cornerstones of effective public services, as a number of research projects have highlighted.

Yet as the boundaries between public and private become increasingly blurred, this planning becomes ever more complex. Reforms of the English school system that have intensified since 2010 have produced a hybrid system of accountability in which numerous bodies compete and collaborate to provide educational governance. These reforms have also led to a serious planning deficit in terms of school places.

This lack of strategic foresight is all the more concerning given that none of these issues have come out of the blue. Researchers have been predicting a teacher shortage for some time now, and the number of children entering reception classes has been rising in relation to population over a number of years.

The ability to plan locally has been severely compromised by the undermining of resource and statutory powers of local authorities, not least in the areas of school planning. This led the Local Government Association (LGA) to urge the government to expand academy schools to meet demand for school places, or else to give back powers to councils to open new state-maintained schools, something they currently are not permitted to do.

Patchy solutions to big issues

The government response to the places shortfall has largely been to advocate the opening of new free schools. The prime minister, David Cameron speaking in March 2015, committed his party to providing another 270,000 school places in free schools, if re-elected, by 2020.

Since 2010, free schools have taken a disproportionate amount of funding compared to state-maintained schools. But they have also compounded the places problem by opening in areas where there is already a surplus of places.

Crammed in.
Smiltena/www.shutterstock.com

And even when they do open in areas of need, they often don’t immediately operate at full capacity, but admit just one year group and build up to a full complement of pupils over a number of years.

A survey by the LGA published in August 2014 found councils had spent more than £1 billion in attempting to make up the shortfall. This was based on data which revealed that 66 of the 152 council areas with responsibility for schools would have more primary-age pupils than places for them in 2016-17, rising to 85 areas in 2017-18 and 94 areas in 2018-19.

The government response to the accountability gap – which has already led to issues such as the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham – has been to implement the system of regional commissioners. But as the education committee’s new report points out, the flaws inherent within the reach and remit of the role are wide-ranging, affecting crucial areas of safeguarding, inspection, school improvement, democratic accountability and variation in standards between regions. The committee also points out that conflicts of interest need to be addressed far more cohesively, along with the thorny issue of who exactly holds these increasingly powerful individuals to account.

An uncertain future

The Education and Adoption bill stands to place further pressure on what education scholar Martin Lawn describes as a “systemless system” of education. This is one in which strategic planning is almost impossible given the number and overlapping remit of organisations involved in the governance of English education.

Jon Coles, chief executive of academy chain United Learning, giving evidence to the select committee, suggested that the whole area of education needed a “back to basics” approach, stating:

I think we are reaching a point where we need a new settlement. We have not had a settlement that has been national, clear and comprehensive since the 1944 [Education] Act … there has been a progressive erosion of some people’s roles, development of new roles, changes to the key functions of key actors in the system the landscape has changed hugely I think we just need to have a fresh look.

The government assures us that it does have a vision for education: “A world class education system in which all schools are academised.

Yet it is becoming harder and harder to buy into this “vision” when viewed through the prism of the issues that currently beset education in England. No doubt the parents of those pupils being taught in a portacabin by the fifth supply teacher in as many weeks, and who have little idea as to where to address complaints, may have problems buying into that “vision” too.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter, Lecturer in Public Policy and Management , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Where are all of the women on public service boards ?

More women on company boards, but what about the public sector?

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

There are now no all-male boards in FTSE 100 companies, marking a watershed in women’s representation, according to the launch of the Female FTSE Board Report 2015. Since the Davies Report set a target of 25% of women serving on boards of FTSE 100 companies four years ago, women’s representation has almost doubled.

But the successes of the FTSE 100 are not mirrored in the public sector. Despite a number of government interventions since 2010, representation of women, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities remains challenging to say the least.

In health, although women account for 77% of the NHS workforce they hold only 37% of board positions. A mere 30% reach the position of chair, compared to 70% of men.

In policing, the picture is even bleaker: the system of elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) introduced in 2012 was driven by the need for greater transparency and public accountability. But the elections resulted in only six women PCCS compared with 35 men.

Combined with a total lack of representation of ethnic minorities this led to the system being described as a “monoculture”. And it makes the current government plans to extend the remit of PCCs to include all emergency services concerning, to say the least.

In spite of the fact that there are around 22,000 schools in England, governed by an estimated 300,000 volunteer governors, we have no idea how representative these boards are. No statistics have ever been kept.

Since September 1, 2015, schools have been required to post certain information regarding their governing body on their websites. The Department for Education is currently looking at ways that this can be made easier, but there is no indication of how this will be monitored or whether diversity data would be gathered at any point.

The government’s current emphasis on recruiting people with “business skills” as school governors runs the risk of creating exactly the same issues around diversity as have occurred in corporate public boards – the very same issue that the FTSE 100 project sought to eradicate.

In higher education the outlook appears to be more positive with a fifth of the boards of governing bodies in the UK possessing a 40-60% split between men and women members. Out of 166 higher education institutions in the UK, women make up 37% of all governing body members. But only 12% of chairs of these boards are women.

Quotas or no quotas?

The FTSE report is impressive, not least because it demonstrates what can be achieved without the introduction of quotas. But it also indicates that achieving diversity on boards doesn’t come without hard work and collaboration.

Lack of supply of qualified female candidates is often quoted as a reason for the lack of diversity on public sector boards. An important part of the FTSE 100 experience lay in encouraging and supporting the pipeline of women as potential leaders. It carries the additional benefit of encouraging women to fulfil their potential on merit rather than relying on quotas to do the job.

The substantial body of research into quotas – largely relating to their use in political appointments – has shown that although they act immediately, they also have the potential to reinforce the status quo. This is because they recruit a “particular type of candidate”, which then provides too much “group think”.

“Group think” is recognised by psychologists as being a strong desire for harmony or conformity within a group which can result in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making. In the worst case scenario, members go to extraordinary lengths to minimise conflict by suppressing dissenting viewpoints and isolating themselves from “outside influences”. In the case of boards, the phenomenon is found far more frequently in those that lack diversity in their membership.

Research suggests that there are also problems in the appointment process: organisations often employ a narrow definition of experience, essentially seeking candidates with prior board or executive experience. This restricts the access of qualified female candidates, whose backgrounds might not fit this narrow profile.

Interpersonal dynamics are often found to play a part, largely in terms of recruiters’ preference for similar candidates and narrow perceptions of who fits and who doesn’t. Social capital and relationships have also been found to be critical and organisations such as Women on Boards have been set up to provide formal and informal support through referencing and sponsorship.

Good for business.
Monkey Business Images/www.shutterstock.com

The benefits of a diverse board

There is little doubt that diversity on boards is a good thing. A recent report by McKinsey argued that advancing womens’equality could add US$12 trillion to global growth.

Other evidence shows that companies with mixed boards outperform those with all male ones. There is also substantial evidence to support the fact that women also bring particular skills to the table.

So with the evidence that women on boards increase performance, it’s time the public sector woke up to the benefits of female representation and made a concerted effort to emulate their FTSE counterparts.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter, Lecturer in Public Policy and Management , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Election Countdown – British Values and the Horse that never was.

The spectre of 'British values' is infusing education policy

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

The Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools last year has left an indelible mark on the education system and the ensuing debate on the need for schools to uphold “British values” has infused parties’ proposals for education. This is despite a final report into the affair by the House of Commons education committee which concluded that apart from one incident, no evidence of extremism or radicalisation was found in any of the schools involved and there was “no evidence of a sustained plot”.

Guidelines for schools on embedding British values were introduced in November 2014 and were designed to:

Tighten up the standards on pupil welfare to improve safeguarding and on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils to strengthen the barriers to extremism.

These guidelines were also an attempt to shore up a national identity at a time of increasing threats from fundamentalism. But the move has caused anger in religious schools such as St Benedict’s Catholic Secondary School in Bury St Edmunds, which was downgraded by the schools’ inspectorate Ofsted last year for failing to prepare students for life in modern Britain.

Conservative backlash

The whole idea of British values may have been conceived by the former Conservative secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, but feelings in his party on the issue are running high. Edward Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough, recently argued in the House of Commons that Ofsted was waging a war against faith schools with the policy, citing the recent announcement to close the Christian-ethos Durham Free School.

This tension between nationalism and faith places the Conservatives in an uncomfortable position. Although the party has declared its intention to forge ahead with the expansion of its academy and free schools programmes (many of which will presumably be faith-based), it has vacillated in its support of Ofsted in a number of areas, including the policing of British values.

The Conservatives have been seemingly content to use the inspection system to drive their academy and free school programme, by enjoining schools judged to be weak to become academies, yet also reluctant to allow it to perform thorough inspections of academy chains. Recent developments have moved the inspectorate a little closer to doing this, but Ofsted still has to stop short of offering an actual judgement on the overall performance of multi-academy trusts.

Diverging views on ‘British values’

Meanwhile, UKIP has specifically mentioned British values in its proposals for education, stating: “UKIP supports the principle of free schools that are open to the whole community and uphold British values.” This infers that those schools found to be lacking in this area would not be supported. UKIP also states that parents and governors would have the power to trigger snap inspections, potentially exacerbating Ofsted’s already contentious role in this issue.

In contrast, Labour’s Tristram Hunt, writing in The Observer, described British values as a ministerial fad and announced Labour’s intention to reform and de-politicise Ofsted.

The Liberal Democrats have spoken out on a number of occasions about their concern in labelling values as specifically British. In an interview last June with The Independent, its leader Nick Clegg expressed concern that imposing British values in schools could alienate moderate Muslims. But since then the whole issue surrounding British values has not been confined to those holding Muslim beliefs but has been the subject of heated discussion within a number of other faith groups too.

The Green Party talks in terms of human values rather than British ones but firmly declares that, “no publicly funded schools shall be run by a religious organisation” and that “privately run schools run by religious organisations must reflect the inclusive nature of British society.” It also states that faith schools will not be allowed to opt out of equality and diversity legislation, nor will they be allowed to promote homophobia or transphobia on the grounds of religion.

The Greens are also proposing that Ofsted be dismantled and replaced by a local system of accountability shared between each local authority and a new National Council of Educational Excellence. Speaking to the TES in February, Green leader Natalie Bennett argued that Ofsted has become very damaging and that parachuting inspectors in every few years was not an appropriate form of accountability.

Governance issues

It is somewhat ironic that the incident that initiated the whole issue around British values and their promotion in education is not only widely viewed as a hoax, but also rooted not in extremism but in inadequate governance and oversight.

Debates around incorporation of the policing of British values into the inspection schedule, Ofsted’s heavy-handed approach in policing them and the conflation of the whole idea of British values with the fight against extremism, are not going to disappear overnight. Nor are the accusations that what began as a failure of governance in 21 Birmingham schools has since been used to downgrade and close many others.

In considering any future policies on accountability and oversight, the next government will have to think very carefully about what is to be done with the spectre of British values or wake up with a severe post-election hangover from the last administration’s policies.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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