How a Labour government could help our schools

More organisations should be invited to to take on a role in state-school improvement

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The Independent Online

Enormous changes to the structure of English education have taken place since 2010. As the next election approaches, with Labour likely to win, many will welcome the greater policy clarity Stephen Twigg has offered in his recent article for the New Statesman: a fully-qualified teaching force, improved post-16 vocational pathways and a requirement for schools to be part of collaborative partnerships for improvement.

The last of these, whilst a positive commitment from Labour, will require careful thought about how, and by who, such collaborative arrangements should be developed. Traditionally, the task would have fallen to local authorities, but the recent radical overhaul of the relationships between central government, local authorities and schools — outstanding schools can volunteer to forge a relationship directly with the DfE, bypassing their local council, whilst failing schools can be forced to enter such a relationship — has changed the landscape. Many schools are now independent academies, and academy chains such as ARK and the Harris Federation have expanded.

These new arrangements point the way in building appropriate partnerships to improve failing schools. At present, the law requires that if a school fails an OFSTED twice in a row, it must become an academy. This process has been controversial: in particular, the choice of academy provider is decided within the DfE with no published criteria to guide the decision. Moreover, the government appears to be running out of capable organisations to provide this service, as some have over-expanded or shown weak financial management whilst the best — such as ARK, Harris and Thomas Telford —have been cautious about taking on too many schools to ensure each gets the full level of support required.

If Labour were to win in 2015, the two OFSTED failures rule should remain but a new independent body should be established to broker arrangements between failed schools and an Improvement Partner. Such partners should be chosen by open tendering on published criteria, judged on their capacity to improve standards in that particular school — the review body should ensure it has a clear sense of what weaknesses need addressing by examining data and consulting the school’s community; the final decision, though, should rest firmly with the review body.

Good academy chains already run their own school-to-school support within their chains and should be allowed to bid to take on failed schools, but new providers are also needed. If a school has failed its OFSTED twice in a row, it is obvious its own local authority is not capable of providing the necessary support. However, that does not mean other local authorities cannot: Hackney's Learning Trust, for example, has an excellent record in developing effective local partnerships. Local authorities judged "Outstanding" by OFSTED, like Hackney's, should be permitted to bid as improvement partners for failed schools outside their own area.

Moreover, the government must foster a greater diversity of providers. Attempts to encourage universities and private schools to take on a role in state-school improvement have met with some success, but more determination is needed from government. The New Schools Network — charged with assisting teacher and parent groups wishing to set up brand new Free Schools — should have its remit widened to include advising these groups about taking on failed schools rather than necessarily building new ones. Further, all excellent state schools, free schools, convertors or whatever, should be required to take on the role of Improvement Partner to one or more schools in their area.

Labour should refashion the tools it inherits to ensure all schools are in the hands of those with the will and capacity to do whatever is necessary to deliver an excellent education.