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Don’t be fooled. Of course it’s not a u-turn

Adapted from directions twist by Chistian Koehn - used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Don’t be fooled. Of course it’s not a u-turn

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The Secret Governor may or may not be on your governing board. They may also continue to refer to it as a ‘governing body’, which may or may not be an attitude which Requires Improvement. They have indicated that this post represents a very personal opinion, with which you may dis/agree wholeheartedly.

A Friday feeling

Any governor or senior leader within a school knows that late on a Friday is when the DfE put out their rubbish – and the more busy or significant the Friday is, the more rotten things might be. So, was it any surprise when a thousand smartphones trilled notifications from news apps halfway through Friday afternoon, while the local and London mayoral elections consumed attention?

U-turn if you want to

And that, apparently, was that. Terms like “u-turn”, “backed down”, “retreat”, “victory”, “people power” flew across social networks – my Facebook timeline lit up with the collection of slightly varied photographs of Nicky Morgan in her purple outfit, stood in front of a chalk board (of course), with arms set in a variety of freeze frames in what I saw dubbed her tribute to the late Prince’s dance moves. Later than evening a breathless email from the campaigning organisation 38 Degrees tumbled into my inbox – with the excited subject line of Local schools saved. Its opening paragraph read:

Parents, children and teachers can breathe a huge sigh of relief tonight. The government has just dropped plans to force every school to become an academy. It means that decisions over our children’s education can stay with local parents, teachers, and councils – rather than businesses or Westminster bureaucrats.

Anyone with any insight, or who has thought to any degree about the climate we’re in, knows that a statement like this is painfully naïve – and possibly betrays a group who have picked up school policy as something to campaign on, before moving on to the next policy area…

The reality is different

First of all, can we get one thing straight? The quality of our thinking.

Let’s behave as we’d expect any good learner to – surely we should exhibit the standards which those of us who are school governors would hope that learners in our schools would live up to?

Let’s look beyond the fizz of a headline, the froth of electoral candyfloss spun from the DfE at the start of a sunny weekend.

Let’s explore the substance of an issue, become critical thinkers around this critical area of policy. Some may decry it as cynicism, but currently it feels like the policy environment around schools at the moment is toxic, incoherent, and cynically ideological – and to understand it, to be conversant in it, to have the ability to engage with it requires a degree of cynicism which is all at once heartbreaking and strangely empowering – Ah, I’m beginning to think like a politician...

Let’s do what some in the DfE would recoil at – think critically about what’s before us. Not just look at it as a piece of knowledge to be ingested, and spat out to inform our discussions as if it were some divinely-inspired wisdom, but to do some higher-order thinking. Someone has to on these policies, it might as well be us.

What’s the truth?

I’m of the opinion that universal forced academisation was never the government’s genuine intention – or at least not one they imagined would make it to law. It is so unpalatable, so obviously difficult to swallow for such vast swathes of the schools sector, that it was just put up by ministers as a distraction, a fake argument for people to rail at, mobilise against, campaign against, achieve an apparent victory against. Critically, it would enable the government to appear to have listened, to have engaged with the sector, when something like near-mandatory academisation – see, this was your own choice, wasn’t it? Don’t blame us… – was waiting in the wings.

It’s been said that the policy of universal forced academisation sprang from a pre-election time, when it would have been seen as a hard-boiled, almost extreme policy which might have been diluted through negotiation with a coalition partner. However, when asked, Nicky Morgan has said that it was born in the second half of 2015, which appears to rule this out. It seems so ham-fisted – not costed, unpopular with even Conservative voices, unsupported by evidence – that it scarcely seems that it would ever have a life as a viable policy. Even the I’m all about the evidence tsar Tom Bennett has been uncharacteristically quiet on it, but we have learned this week that so-called tsars have lines that they’re not allowed to colour outside.

When the ‘u-turn’ consists of an intent to “change the path to reach [a] goal” (and the goal in question remains “making every school an academy”) – how can any of us seriously consider that this is a genuine u-turn, reversal or climb-down? Remember, this is an ideological position – that an academised school is inherently “better” than a maintained school – and ideologies are not changed by evidence, or by pressure, or by anything the learners in our schools would describe as “rational”. Nicky Morgan has made many statements which turned out to be… aspirational at best… but she has said there is no reverse gear on academisation. This is clearly not a slamming into reverse at 70 miles per hour, it’s changing down from sixth gear to fourth in order to take a different route…

It’s all about the levers

So, to some of the detail – from the DfE’s press release – which (and this is important) notes that “the government has decided, while reaffirming our continued determination to see all schools to become academies in the next 6 years, that it is not necessary to bring legislation to bring about blanket conversion of all schools to achieve this goal”. If that doesn’t signify the absence of a u-turn then… anyway:

  • “the government will continue to require underperforming schools to convert to academy status where they can benefit from the support of a strong sponsor.”
  • “the government will bring forward legislation which will trigger conversion of all schools within a local authority in 2 specific circumstances:
    • “firstly, where it is clear that the local authority can no longer viably support its remaining schools because a critical mass of schools in that area has converted. Under this mechanism a local authority will also be able to request the Department for Education converts all of its remaining schools
    • “secondly, where the local authority consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools, demonstrating an inability to bring about meaningful school improvement”

“Underperforming” is the key word here, because the DfE has the power to move the performance goalposts to ensure that schools are deemed to “fail” (in the eyes of Ministers) and therefore trigger academisation – which will be mandatory, and see them allocated a sponsor rather than choosing one. Minsters have a Swiss Army knife of measures to apply to this thorny problem – the percentage of secondaries entering students for the English Baccalaureate might not be necessary, as financial incentives mean that most secondaries will already be on their way to academy status, but the EBacc figures might be useful to the DfE for dealing with those who stubbornly refuse. The largest rump of maintained schools is in the primary sector, and it’s clearly not coincidental that that schools are nervous about the changes to primary assessment- another Damoclean sword which will likely motivate some schools to jump into academisation before they’re pushed – again, allowing Ministers and the DfE to pass this off as being done through choice and not compulsion.

This is where cynicism is, sadly, unavoidable. We know that such conversions – effectively at gunpoint – aren’t genuinely voluntary or elective. The DfE knows this. Anyone caring to undertake some critical thinking or reading to even a cursory level knows this. However, we all know that it won’t be spun like that. Read this section from the DfE press release – you may need to read it twice, such is its denial of the real world (emphasis added):

Since launching our proposals in the education white paper, the government has listened to feedback from MPs, teachers, school leaders and parents.

It is clear from those conversations that the impact academies have in transforming young people’s life chances is widely accepted and that more and more schools are keen to embrace academy status.

Anyone who has been awake since the Budget knows that this is not the case – but this way of working appears to be endemic to the DfE. When the undeniable teacher recruitment crisis is brought to Ministers’ attention, their response is consistent:

– and it’s this, this selective hearing, this bare-faced denial of the truth as experienced by schools, this ideological conceit at odds with any pragmatic realism, which engenders cynicism. Of course, it could be said that any school which educated children to exhibit these qualities would be condemned by Ministers – and rightly so. I’ve often said that as governors we should exhibit those qualities – curiosity, encouragement, hope, tenacity, honesty and many more – which we would want our students to exhibit. Why is this too much to ask of ministers? It breaks my heart to be so cynical – but Mr Gibb, Mrs Morgan, Mr Gove – you have done this to us,  and it’s heartbreaking.

When, with my own eyes, I see the Secretary of State say:

…those who took to the airwaves over the weekend to crow about a victory in the battle against rising standards will find themselves sorely disappointed…

I’m sorry? Seriously suggesting that anyone who has any substantial disagreement with you is opposed to raising standards? There’s no other word for it, Secretary of State – that is grubby, untrue, and I cannot believe you don’t know it. I’ve seen you and Mr Gibb spout this line too many times not to be cynical. You might presume that I’m some Tory-hating enemy of promise who would rather walk somewhere than share a train with a Conservative – but you’d be wrong.

The “whole LA” approach could in theory lead to academisation faster than was previously envisaged, if “failing” LAs are identified early – and is it possible to imagine that those failing could turn out not to be those of the Conservative voices opposing the plan? Of course not… oh, wait…

What sort of DfE do we want?

Before this turns into the Enemies of Promise hour on Blob FM, I need remove the mask of policy cynicism from my face for a moment, and imagine a situation where this is a genuine change of heart by an attentive Department.

If it is, how should we react?

To return to the notion of behaving as our imagined idealised learners would, do we react to a change of heart by holding street parties, claiming victory, demanding concessions and for heads to roll? Is this a war? Do we genuinely believe that, at their core, Ministers don’t want children to progress – even if their methods are different from how ours would be? Would we recoil from any sort of consensus between Conservatives and Labour, the DfE and the wider community of governors, the National Schools Commissioner and a trade union leader regarding the purposes of education?

As governors, we’re expected to engage with the communities of learners around our institutions effectively. We’re expected to listen, to respond, to understand and to work things out while remembering that the outcomes for learners should be how we are measured and motivated. Even if this isn’t a u-turn (and no, I don’t believe it is), it does present challenges. It feels at least partially hypocritical for us to react to the DfE in a crowing manner. Were a group of parents, staff or even pupils to react in a similar way to a change we made as a governing body, we would wonder if it was worth it. Russell Hobby of the NAHT makes a similar point:

They have an idea. We point out a few problems. They adapt their ideas. This is actually the way it is supposed to work. If we want a constructive dialogue between profession and government it is going to involve challenge and adaptation on both parts.

But Russell, I’m stuck. I want to believe the good, that this could be a dialogue, but right now my experience as a governor is trampling over my hope. I don’t believe that Ministers have a understanding of school governance – either through ignorance or deliberately so as to achieve their pre-set aims.

So what else might ‘change’?

These are clearly just the musings of a weary cynic, but it wouldn’t surprise me if in some way that the DfE stepped back on the issue around parent governors. I’ve no evidence that they will, but it’s another chance to say we listened, while at the same time imposing something else – or maybe nothing changes, and elected parent governors remain in those few schools who are ‘good enough’ not to be academies. The government gets to say “well, those schools good enough not to be deemed as ‘failing’ could have kept parent governors… but now they’re academies… tough. Remember, his is an example of the purest devolution, and you’re now in control…

Meanwhile, any principled governors who can’t stomach the new system with its faux version of local democracy leave – and maybe those are the thorns in the flesh that Mrs Morgan and Mr Gibb would quite like out of the way. Personally, I don’t know if I want to give them the satisfaction of my leaving  – it feels like the Secretary of State would describe me as being opposed to rising standards and say that schools were better off without me – or remain and be subject to their spin, doubletalk and deceit to the bitter end. It’s not much of a choice.

And, as I finished writing this, guess what a think tank (no, not Policy Exchange – they seem to set the agenda, not respond to it…) reported? You won’t be surprised…

You’re welcome to claim that Friday’s gear-change was indeed a U-turn – after all, no government department would ever use that phrase about itself through choice – but please don’t expect me to agree with you. I agree with Mike.

Image: directions twist by Christian Koehn – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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