Alan Smithers: Letting schools do their own thing is a recipe for chaos

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The Independent Online

Iam warming to the new Government's policies. Binning academic diplomas, Sir Jim Rose's recommendations on the primary curriculum and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and the General Teaching Council all look good moves to me – provided they are replaced by something better. But I cannot see where the extended academies programme is going. Michael Gove has said many times that he has drawn inspiration from the charter schools in the United States and the Kunskapsskolan in Sweden. Some of the charter schools have impressive records. They have, however, tended to attract the better pupils, leaving other schools worse off. They have also tended to take fewer pupils with special needs and to have higher dropout rates. The apparent success of Swedish "free schools" is linked to home background.

If you give privileges to a small group of schools, they will almost certainly do better than the general run. About half the variation between schools is because of the pupils who go to them. Advantaged schools get good results because of the pupils they attract. It can appear as if the Rosetta Stone of school improvement has been found. But in reality it is rearranging the deckchairs.

This is not to say that leadership, teaching quality and ethos are unimportant. But if individual school improvement is mainly due to pupil redistribution, it cannot scale up to the whole system. We saw this with specialist schools where only the early ones showed marked improvement.

The difference between focusing on the whole system and on individual schools is crucial. Individual schools can improve by claiming a bigger share of the more committed pupils. Raising the performance of the system overall involves bringing out the best in all children. Thus it is possible, as in Sweden and England, for individual schools to be transformed while at the same time the education system as a whole declines relative to other countries.

Schools do better when governments get off their backs, so greater autonomy along the lines proposed for the academies could contribute to general improvement. But this can only happen within a sound framework. Letting a diverse collection of schools go their separate ways is a recipe for chaos. There has to be a structure, a container if you like, which brings everything together.

At the last count, there were 20,300 state-funded schools in England, and it is hard to see how they could all be overseen from Westminster. Ed Balls memorably excused his tardy response to the impending failure of an academy in Carlisle by saying it "is a long way from London". There has to be some intermediate coordination. Local authorities are ideally placed, but the Government seems ambivalent. Or, perish the thought, is it going to set up a new quango? It is not enough to allow an assortment of Toms, Dicks and Harrys to run schools and school chains.

Absolutely key to the shape of an education system is how the children get into the schools they attend. Other countries sort out who goes where essentially by four means: residence, academic selection, enrolment schemes or lottery. The spread of children across schools differs markedly in obvious ways according to which method takes precedence. The Government should tell us what it envisages for England.

Shaping the system also involves big questions about, among other things, the curriculum, testing, accountability and funding. Cutting schools loose without regard to what comes next is a bit like the botched House of Lords reform. If our Government is listening, as it claims, I would say, if you want academies, OK; but, for heaven's sake, tell us what the education system as a whole is supposed to look like.

The writer is the professor and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham