One chief executive, two different schools of thought

The head of the largest academies chain in England also presides over a dozen independent schools. The two sectors have plenty to learn from each other, he tells Richard Garner

Jon Coles has been a high flyer for most of his career. He was still the youngest in the higher echelons of the civil service when he quit his job as director general at the Department for Education at the end of last year. Now, aged 40, he is running the biggest academies chain – United Learning – which at present has 21 academies under its belt and is expecting to expand in the near future.

Significantly, it has recently changed its name from the United Learning Trust to bring all of its academies and the dozen independent schools it runs under the control of one organisation.

Coles has some forthright views – both on the what the future holds for his academies and for the academies sector in general. He believes the United Learning academies will benefit from the close links they now have with the independent sector. Already there are plans to obtain teaching status for one if its academies and one of its independent schools, so that in future, trainee teachers could train in a leafy suburban independent school and inner-city academy. Not bad for the CV.

"We're the leading provider that has brought together independent and state education," he says. "When you share professional development between staff working in academies and independent schools, it can be an incredibly fertile and productive area.

"Some of our more selective independent schools have teachers with incredibly deep subject knowledge – whereas some in our academies have pedagogic skills that are on a par with anyone in the education system. It's not just a one-way process. How fantastic it is to see staff from both sectors working together."

Similarly, one of its private schools – Surbiton High school, which produced a number of gymnasts competing in this summer's Olympics – staged a gymnastics event for all its schools earlier this year, which was heavily oversubscribed.

United Learning is still what one might term an old-fashioned academies chain in that most of its schools were born out of the Labour government's academies system – where academies were set up with private sponsors in mainly disadvantaged inner-city areas.

Most have seen a dramatic improvement in GCSE results – although there was a hiccup a few years ago when three of its academies were given notice to improve by Ofsted. They now have.

"Our history from the beginning is that we've done lots of good but there have been some mistakes," Coles says. "I think the organisation tried to do too much and therefore a couple of academies went wrong. People were trying to do the right thing and we have transformed education prospects in Manchester, Paddington and now here [we are talking at the Lambeth Academy in south London, which has just been given an outstanding rating for its English teaching]. In terms of exam performance, we have outstripped the national improvements in performance year after year – although that's not to say there isn't more to do."

More controversially, he believes there will have to be changes in the way academies are held accountable as the movement expands. Currently, just over half the country's secondary schools are now academies or are converting to become one. In addition, hundreds of primary schools are in the same boat.

"I think if you look at the evolution of this, it started with "Excellence in Cities" [a Labour government blueprint for improving standards]. It was originally thought of as about 12 schools and wasn't run out right across the country. I suppose at some point the system gets so large that you have to establish the way you are going to make it accountable. What works perfectly well when you're thinking about something that's just affecting a minority of schools doesn't when you expand. If we get to the point where there is a major increase among primary schools in particular, you can't have a system where 18,000 to 20,000 schools are monitored from the centre."

Controversially, he would like to see local authorities given the task of monitoring local schools, in spite of the ambivalence shown by national politicians of both parties to the local authority sector.

His argument runs like this. As councils increasingly give up their role as providers of education, with most of their schools opting out, they become more suited to the monitoring role. "It is no longer a question of monitoring what they are providing. That, in the past, has given them a conflict of interest. They could be given the role of ensuring there is sufficient provision in the area," he says. "It makes no sense for the department to decide whether one primary school is enough to provide all the places in a particular rural area of Somerset."

Giving back this role to the councils could overcome the fact that 450,000 new primary school places will be needed by 2015 but the main mechanism for providing them is through the free schools initiative, and these schools are not necessarily sited in the areas of most acute demand.

Just because the councils have responsibility for ensuring enough school places does not mean they have to be the providers. Similarly, he believes councils could set minimum targets based on current performance. "Where they fall below high minimum standards, they [the councils] should be able to challenge them," he says. If they fall short, they could then be placed in the hands of a different sponsor.

Jon Coles started his career at the Department for Education working on the Blair government's first landmark education legislation – outlawing class sizes of more than 30 for five-to-seven-year-olds. "There were 500,000 children in classes of more than 30," he says. "Then there weren't."

During 15 years as a civil servant, his fondest memory is of setting up the London Challenge, which introduced the TeachFirst scheme, whereby high-flying graduates were encouraged into teaching in disadvantaged schools for at least two years. Many stayed. It was highly successful in improving performance.

One of his first acts on taking over the mantle at United Learning was to arrange for a separation between it and the four academies of the Emmanuel Schools Foundation. They had attracted criticism for teaching creationism in science lessons in their academy in Gateshead – although this was denied. The reason for the split, says Coles, was because they came from two different cultures. "They promoted a kind of biblical Christianity – whereas that was not our ethos." United Learning may have a Christian charity but it has a strong commitment to inclusiveness.

Coles is already in talks with groups about expanding its academies network, but it will not be done at a rush. His new role, though, will make him a powerful player in the development of the expanding academies system.

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