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CMRE Forum roundtable, 14th June 2016

‘Balancing autonomy with accountability in the ‘self-improving’ schools system’ - view from the MAT - Sir Daniel Moynihan

At the launch of the Government's Green Paper last month, the Secretary of State stated that it was the government's intention to press forward with the academies programme, 'helping all schools enjoy academy status freedoms and school-led system improvement through multi-academy trusts'. She went on to outline the Green Paper's proposals for unlocking new supply from 'premium' Sponsors from the independent sector, from HE, grammar school groups, and faith communities - proposals that have invited controversy not only for their lack of engagement with research and learning from policy experience, but also for their potential to exacerbate existing problems within the system at a time when we need to be getting clear on what is and isn't working.

Since the Spring, CMRE have been engaged in a series of roundtable consultations with sector stakeholders to learn the lessons of reform and consider what can be done to optimise the system for improving attainment and equity. 

The relationship between autonomy, accountability, and attainment is complex. While the theoretical and international evidence base for autonomy reforms is persuasive, and we are getting clearer about what type of Academies have been impactful, and some of the conditions under which they've not been, there's a lot of heterogeneity and thus far researchers have been unable to clearly identify what lies behind these disparities. 

At a recent roundtable opened by Sir Daniel Moynihan, we took a look at the system architecture in consideration of whether politicians, policymakers and civil servants had succeeded in striking the right balance between autonomy and accountability in the design and implementation of policies meant to encourage the development of a ‘schools-led, self-improving’ school system.

Sir Dan opened with a reality check. From his point of view, the level of autonomy in many academies at present is in fact not that much greater than levels of autonomy enjoyed by maintained schools. Contractual funding agreements designed to set out the parameters of academy freedoms haven’t proved sufficient to protect autonomy from the imposition of conditions through other means – such as via Ofsted, and league table changes - a dynamic that appears difficult to resolve. Granted that there must be arrangements for school oversight: the question, he said, is how to monitor schools appropriately, without creating a stifling bureaucracy in the process.

The DfE has extended the remit of the School Commissioners’ Office, seeking an approach and an apparatus, he argued, that facilitate responsiveness, and keeps any growth in bureaucratic accountability to a minimum. But this has comes at the cost of transparency. The recruitment of Sponsors to the framework, the process by which takeovers are triggered, and the selection of which MATs should take them over, are all now tightly controlled by the Commissioners through the brokering system. The essentially network-based nature of brokering, he argued, has had clearly negative consequences for competition.
CMRE Executive Director James Croft's response to this, as he has argued elsewhere previously, was that more than this, it also thereby runs the risk of poor Sponsor fit. Poor recruitment and deployment of Sponsors may very well have been a factor in the unacceptable levels of variance historically seen in the performance of academies. Consistent with CMRE's recommendation in the past on this, the brokering system, Sir Dan submitted, should be replaced by an open tendering framework for deciding which Sponsors, and/or other kinds of providers, should take-over existing schools or introduce new provision, and to what end – in all situations but the most critical of service failures.
Following discussion of Ofsted's role in the wake of the extension of the RSC remit, James further recommended that a data-driven approach to inspection, consistent with the Department’s (i.e. the RSCs’) should be adopted to determine when inspections are needed, in place of Ofsted's present cyclical pattern. The resource priority should be to visit ‘schools causing concern’, so that inspection might inform RSC-HTB decision-making. Alongside of this, random inspection to deter gaming, and as a fail-safe, could be developed. Above all, he stressed that Ofsted should keep in focus its core purpose to inform and engage parents. Against the background of increasing centralisation of accountability, it has a key role to play in balancing this with the interests of those most directly invested in the system.
Sir Dan accented that both the present lack of consistency between the judgements of these two organisations, and the general lack of transparency in the present Commissioning arrangements also affects the confidence and quality of leadership in schools – which will ultimately constrain the success of autonomy reforms. Education leaders need to know that their efforts to innovate and improve will be regarded. It was agreed in discussion that governance reform in MAT contexts had given rise to new divisions of labour at the governance and leadership level. CMRE research had shown that the freedom to federate with other schools has been important for adding capacity for improvement, but more informal collaborative arrangements may be prone to over-dependency on voluntary effort. In relation to individual school autonomy within a hard federated MAT context, James noted that an accountability mechanism involving the right to secede, as proposed by some, goes against the grain of governance reforms designed to strengthen the reputation mechanism in schools, and would therefore be counter-productive. Funding, he said, should be aligned to reflect the envisaged governance model and go direct to the MAT.
Sir Dan said that a key question for the success of autonomy reform is whether the incentives are adequate to draw high quality operators into rural, coastal, and other areas of need.
The best way of doing so would be to ensure that per pupil funding was not subject to so much regional variation, and in particular that pupil premium funding is set at a level sufficient to both attract the right operators to these areas, and pay for the improvements needed in these schools. CMRE research has shown that while the introduction of a straightforward profit motive may not be politically feasible, it might help. The evidence that for-profit providers at least do no worse than other types of schools in terms of their educational performance is clear, while competition effects appear to compensate. Most importantly the profit-motive does not discriminate: investors are interested in opportunities; they often take them in areas where opponents seem to least expect them to – as, in education, in special needs or early years’ education. Sir Dan recognised the desirability of expressly prioritising the educational return on investment in some way. He argued that the potential of social impact bonds for raising private capital for the purpose of tackling regional disadvantage should be looked at as an alternative to PFI-type arrangements.
He said that the main alternative approach of requiring Sponsors of a certain size to take on difficult schools in difficult areas, on the other hand, would run the clear risk of placing stress on the resourcing of other schools, to which Sponsors had already committed. While the government's focus now appears to be on requiring independent schools, higher education institutions, selective and faith schools to get involved in the business of Sponsorsing new schools, contraining these to support its agenda runs similar risks. James added i nconclusion that this was quite apart from the overall strategy being based on faulty assumptions about the transferabilty of leadership expertise from these into regular state school contexts.
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