Rachel Wolf: Tests for the delivery of levelling up, and levers with which to deliver it

10 May

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

The Conservatives have won more stunning victories. Why?

First, the approach that drove the 2019 victory continues to deliver.  Second, vaccines and furlough have rewarded sitting governments: they have demonstrated competence, agility, and a willingness to spend.

The next great test won’t come for a while. Boris Johnson is Merrie England: he is the perfect leader for our summer of freedom. The economy will temporarily boom. Furlough won’t be withdrawn until September. Provided it stops raining, everyone should feel good.

But the Government will be acutely conscious that the next six months is also the last window for policies that can deliver by 2024. They will also know that, by Christmas, any lingering effects of what my partner and ConservativeHome columnist James calls ‘furlough morphine’ will have worn off. Some economic scarring is likely.

In other words, ‘levelling up’ now needs to get real. This is clearly the plan in the next few months, starting with the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, and then leading to the Levelling Up paper.

Truth be told, levelling up is a poor slogan. It has never done very well in our focus groups – people find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating. They don’t think they’re ‘levelled down’, they think they’re ignored. Equally, they find the idea that in four years they’re suddenly going to become London and the South East bizarre – it’s not what they want, and they don’t think it’s credible.

But the danger of ‘levelling up’ is not that it confuses voters, but that it confuses policy. Too many seem to equate it with transforming regional productivity, affecting every town in provincial England and Wales, within a Parliament. Obviously if that’s what voters wanted, they would be disappointed.

Of course regional productivity and innovation are vital, and longer term work should begin. But there are also shorter-term gains. Here are some important ones, some obvious levers, and ways to measure progress.

The high street test.

People care deeply about where they live. They ‘measure’ decline by their town or city centre. Here’s what you hear time and time again: shops boarded up; graffiti on the cenotaph; drug addicts; no monthly market; no decent playground.

In other words, it’s depressing to be in, feels mildly unsafe, and there’s nothing to do.

  • Levers: Business rates; soft infrastructure (local museums, libraries, playgrounds); events including markets and protecting green spaces; incentives for lower margin, often civic enterprises from soft play to youth clubs to sports. Decent bus services. Core public services in the town centre.

It is crucial that ‘economic investments’ (many of dubious effectiveness) do not trump these. Yes, it becomes easier to sustain this kind of infrastructure when people are wealthier. But it is worth remembering that many of these things existed when people were much, much poorer.

  • Tests: vacancy rates. Footfall. Number of events. And, of course, what people tell you about their town.

The safety test

Under-reporting of crime is a big problem, and there is reason to believe it disproportionately affects the Red Wall. Burglary, shoplifting and vandalism are particular problems.

Fraud, too, is a national problem with unequal consequences. Pensioners in Red Wall seats who may own their own homes but have very modest savings and no private income are particularly exposed to losing their life savings. Meanwhile, specific estates suffer from low police presence, and deprived coastal communities and small towns are the targets of County Lines.

In other words, crime is a particular issue in particular ways in these places.

  • Levers: the extra police will help. We also need to change the way in which Home Office funding is allocated and put more emphasis on localised funds like the Safer Streets Funds (which pays for things people want like CCTV). We need a massive, revived focus on fraud – it is getting insufficient airtime and attention.
  • Tests: the obvious source is surveyed crime, but the government also needs better ways to measure crime than annual face to face interviews,

The Opportunity Test 1: Skills and Jobs. 

Training and apprenticeships are a huge priority for working class people. They want local training opportunities – ideally leading to local jobs. We know there’s huge untapped demand for technical level skills in the labour market, and that many adults want to retrain. It remains one of the great challenges of our system.

  • Levers: the Queen’s Speech will create a proper lifetime learning entitlement. Now it needs more funding and less bureaucracy (which is already blighting other skills entitlements and apprenticeships).

On jobs, big changes will be long-term. As well as incentives for private sector investment, the public sector is an opportunity. People want trained people to stay or return home. A start – and one of the most popular things universities can support – would be incentivising public sector graduates (like teachers, nurses, and doctors) to stay in areas where recruitment is a challenge.

  • Tests: number of adults in retraining. Reduction in skills shortages in ‘technical’ roles. I’d include reduced reliance on foreign skilled labour in specific areas (such as parts of construction, who are presumably going to see investment, and therefore job opportunities through net zero and transport).

The Opportunity Test 2: Schools

Schools perform less well in many Conservative target areas. In the past, I would have said this was a moral imperative, but not an electoral one – school quality wasn’t a big vote winner. But I think there’s now greater desire from parents (and we’ll be publishing a report with the Centre for Policy Studies on this in the near future). They are more aware of how their children are doing, how far behind some of them are, and how differently schools responded to the pandemic.

  • Levers: incentives for teachers to go to underperforming areas. Renewed focus on academies and free schools. Ofsted inspections with a focus on standards. Continuing the drive on behaviour. There should also be new focus on the most gifted through programmes in schools and more academically selective sixth forms.
  • Test: Ofsted ratings (including number of failing schools); percentage getting five good GCSEs in core subjects (called the EBACC).

Finally, an overall measure: retention of people and inward migration – in other words, do people want to stay and move to the towns of England? It is implausible that this will transform in a few years, but you might start to see a little movement towards the end of the Parliament (and post-Covid home working will accelerate this effect if places are nice to live in).

You will no doubt have issue with many (if not all) of these levers and measures. There are some omissions (most obviously health). But my point is that it is possible to generate and measure progress within a few years. The job won’t be done, but people will see the path. That shouldn’t diminish the importance of the longer-term, even harder job of thinking through regional growth and productivity. But if you don’t get these areas right, Johnson and the Conservatives won’t be given permission to carry on.

Adam James: The Government must breathe new life into the Conservative education agenda

28 Aug

Adam James is Head of Faculty at a secondary comprehensive school in East London. He has an MA in educational Leadership from UCL and trained through Teach First.

Towards the end of the 20th century, nearly 90 per cent of pupils in inner London failed to leave school with five good O-levels. It was deemed that local councils were doing a poor job of running these schools as they believed the situation was so dire that intervention was futile.

The New Labour government encountered issues when it started to remove schools from local council control, as most schools that needed independence were to be found in Labour council strongholds, such as East London.

When Michael Gove became education secretary in 2010, he knew that he had to vastly expand the academies programme to improve educational standards. The Academies Act 2010 began this process, and allowed headteachers to mostly run schools how they wish, much like independent schools, albeit funded by the taxpayer.

PISA has rated this system highly internationally because of its level of autonomy and accountability. School autonomy has hugely widened choice for parents; it has allowed those who are most passionate about leading schools to set-up their own and run them in the way they see fit; it has allowed for multi-academy trusts (MATs) to help improve standards across several schools for tens of thousands of students; and it has shown how fundamentally important accountability is to a school’s success, when done properly.

It has led to the opening schools such as Katharine Birbalsingh’s famous Michaela school, Mossbourne Academy and Bedford Free School, to name a few of the most successful academies. In 2019, 54 per cent of all of Michaela school’s GCSE grades were Grade 7 or above (the old A/A* grades), compared to the national average of 22 per cent. This is remarkable for a school that is fully comprehensive and in one of the most challenging and deprived areas of inner London.

MATs, such as Harris and Ark, have replicated similar successes across hundreds of schools. The Harris Federation has transformed many troubled schools. As of 2019, 19 of its 23 secondary schools were rated ‘Outstanding’ and three rated as ‘Good’.

What is their key to success? Visionary and inspiring leadership and cast iron accountability structures. After analysing Ofsted reports of schools in England, McKinsey found that ‘the performance of a school almost never exceeds the quality of its leadership and management’. It found that ‘for every 100 schools that do not have good leadership and management, only one will have good standards of achievement’.

Academisation has also bred innovation outside of traditional schools. A prime example of this is Reach Academy in Feltham which has set up a ‘Hub’ that provides ‘cradle-to-career’ educational services. In addition to their two all-through schools, they provide support for children aged 0-2 years, and their parents through adult classes and employability workshops. Reach Academy have said that they aim to broaden this programme to support the wider community, not just students who feed into their school. This shows how providing autonomy to the education sector can help enable headteachers to become entrepreneurs and support entire communities.

Where next?

So, ten years on from the Academies Act being passed, what is next for the academies programme? Despite many success stories, there are flaws within the system that have allowed poor leaders to drive schools to failure. There are many ways in which the academies programme can progress to help fulfil its ambition to ensure ‘educational excellence everywhere’. Full academisation, taking into account some lessons from the last decade, will ensure this.

Although there is government support for large MATs, more help must be given to ensure that poor performing standalone schools are supported and, if necessary, join a successful MAT. There needs to be more effort invested into finding these mismanaged and poor performing schools before their issues spiral out of control. This could be done through Ofsted, or through government support of successful MATs to inspect local schools.

Leadership from headteachers and groups of schools was key to London’s success. A good leader can make the seemingly impossible possible and impact thousands of lives. The Government should consider re-launching the National Leaders of Education (NLE) and National Leaders of Governance (NLG) programmes. They recognised outstanding individuals in these areas and allowed this expertise to be shared with schools in need of support.

Overall, ministers must make education a top policy priority again. Gove, the pioneer of academisation, ensured that education policy was a key pillar of the Conservative manifesto. The Government worked with many schools, MATs and other private organisations to drive the education sector forwards. Recently, this funding and focus has diminished somewhat and highly successful organisations, such as Ambition School Leadership, are less effective as a result. Other programmes that could have been implemented nationally, such as the London Challenge, were not pursued.

Academisation should not be a controversial topic. It has improved the life chances of hundreds of thousands of pupils, including the most disadvantaged, by driving up standards and allowing leaders to lead. The government needs to make this a policy priority once more.

John Bald: Academisation does not guarantee higher school standards

28 Jul

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.

West London Free School celebrated the end of the school year with a concert and an announcement by headteacher Clare Wagner that no lessons had been missed during lockdown. Pupils in Years 10 and 12, the pre-examination years, had taken school exams, and six pupils, from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, had received offers from Oxford or Cambridge. The contrast with the National Education Union’s panoply of excuses not to do this, with the Guardian’s article on Manchester Grammar School, implying that state schools couldn’t possibly, and with the “Woke” lobby’s insistence that minority ethnic groups are essentially victims, could not be greater. Like Michaela, West London has travelled a long and sometimes difficult road, but has shown that the ethos of hard work and kindness works, and is the solution to the problems that have beset education since Labour’s botched introduction of comprehensives in the 60s. Like Michaela, West London is not (apart from twelve music places) selective, and, like Michaela, it has shown the difference between a genuine comprehensive school and a secondary modern.

There is a further contrast with Stantonbury International School, a sprawling, oversized comprehensive in Milton Keynes, which boasts of “Proud traditions, wide horizons and high achievement,” and has just received an Ofsted report, that is as bad as those that made headlines in the days of the late Sir Chris Woodhead. Numbers are high at 1,600, pupils are not safe, behaviour is poor, learning is haphazard, and examination results strongly negative from pupils starting points, with only three per cent achieving the English Baccalaureate (West London has 69 per cent). Like most comprehensive schools, it hides the full scale of the disaster behind the screen imposed by Lib Dems during the coalition, which provides an opaque summary rather than the full picture. Gavin Williamson should restore the requirement that schools publish their full results by grade and subject.

Stantonbury, an Academy with the Griffin Schools Trust since 2016, illustrates the difference between mass academisation and the best Free Schools, which are driven by the dynamism and vision of some of the best minds in education, as evidenced by Michaela’s second book, The Power of Culture, edited by Katharine Birbalsingh but written by members of staff. Each chapter is a detailed and intensely personal account of the author’s contribution, as head of department or year group, deputy, special needs co-ordinator, new teacher or school secretary. The result is a complete picture of its contribution to society as well as to its pupils’ education, including, but not limited to, some of the best examination results in history. Katharine Birbalsingh is not the fictional Miss Trunchbull of Crunchem Hall, but a smiling, happy person who uses authority much as the late Cardinal Hume did, in the service of the pupils.

New teachers are told that pupils will only give their best to a teacher if they love them, which comes from understanding that teachers care, and give their best to the pupils. This is not achieved by a raised voice, but by clarity and careful explanation, so that the pupils buy into the school’s ethos and share its purpose. At 380 pages, this is a demanding read, but worth it. It is the best book on school education that I’ve ever read, and better than I ever expected to find.

Back at Stantonbury, the Griffin Schools Trust has taken action to replace the senior team and the governors. But the school has been under its control since 2016, and was identified by Ofsted as requiring improvement two years later. It is fair to ask why it took virtual meltdown to lead to the necessary action, and whether this and some other multi-academy trusts are any better than the local authorities they replaced. Some of the most celebrated are demonstrably worse, and it was not good enough for Jeremy Hunt to tell me at the leadership hustings last year that I should focus on what had gone right rather than what had gone wrong.

An Academies pioneer once told me in private that “We haven’t got enough good people,” and the meltdown at Stantonbury proves the point. Barry Smith, who turned Great Yarmouth Charter Academy from sink to a thriving community in under a year, is now doing similar work in Hackney, and would do so wherever he went. Other distinguished headteachers, like Dr David Moody, formerly of Harris Battersea and now CEO of Academy Enterprise Trust are making a similar impact. But have we got enough of them? And are we making the best use of those we have? Until these questions are answered, the success of Academies as a national system of education will remain in the balance.