The basic question in my report for Policy Exchange on school chains, out today, is simple: we’ve got a big education problem in this country and what can we do about it?
Here is the problem. We know that England is only a middling country when it comes to the international league tables. The cause of this disappointing performance is the large group of schools where the education on offer is no more than satisfactory. Estimates vary, but according to Ofsted the quality of teaching and learning is no better than satisfactory in 40 per cent of schools, and 6,000 (out of around 20,000) schools only reached 'satisfactory' in their last Ofsted inspection.
As every parent knows, satisfactory is anything but – it is a classic piece of Orwellian jargon invented by the education establishment to cover up the mediocrity of much of what goes on in the classroom. At the turn of the year David Cameron took the brave step to call out this mediocrity, complaining about what he called a 'hidden crisis' in coasting schools. Together with the tough new head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, they declared that satisfactory will no longer be good enough and that those schools which had been bumping along as satisfactory for years must improve or face the consequences.
So at last the long tail of underachievement has been exposed, but what can the government do about it? The good news is that the New Labour-style academies, where an outside sponsor takes over the schools and turns it around, have been effective. Education Secretary Michael Gove has doubled the number of these schools in the last two years, but there are still only 500 of these ‘sponsored’ academies compared to potentially thousands of schools that we now know to be underperforming.
This is where academy chains come in. These are groups of three or more schools bound together under a single educational vision, often under the leadership of a great head or a dynamic philanthropist, and the emerging evidence suggests that they can be even more effective at raising standards than standalone academies. So, I argue in my report, if turning a school into an academy doesn’t improve standards then it should be turned over to a successful chain.
My sincere hope is that, between them, ‘sponsored’ academies and academy chains will have the capacity to deal with the big rush of schools that Ofsted will have identified as requiring improvement. But my research suggests they won’t, on their own, be enough. There are only around 50 chains now; perhaps there will be 100 by next year. Clearly the government can’t just say to the parents of children in these weak schools: 'Sorry, you’ll have to wait until we can find a sponsor or a chain'. That is totally unacceptable. And this is where we need to be open-minded and ask if the private sector can help. My belief is that it can, not by selling off the school or its assets, or any of the horror stories the left would have you believe, but by inviting education management organisations from every sector – profit or not-for-profit – to run these schools on behalf of their governing bodies, with payment related to whether they improve standards. This kind of practice is commonplace now across the public sector, from welfare-to-work to the NHS to prisoner rehab. Anyone objecting to the private sector trying where the state and voluntary sectors have failed is suffering from ideological prejudice. What matters is what works, as Tony Blair once said.
James O'Shaughnessy is a former Downing Street head of policy. His report, 'Competition meets Collaboration: Helping school chains address England’s long tail of educational failure', is published today by Policy Exchange.