The ties that bind29 March 2012
Almost two years after the Conservatives became the dominant force in the coalition government, schools reform has raced ahead of even the party’s own expectations. Some 1,635 schools in England have become academies free from the stranglehold of local authorities, with control over their budgets, the pay and working hours of teachers and what they teach. Two dozen free schools established by parents, teachers and charities have joined them, and 70 more are due to open in the autumn. Alas for England’s schoolchildren, such structural reforms have so far failed to promote the innovation needed to boost standards in the classroom.
The reasons are depressingly familiar, according to a study published on March 28th by the Schools Network, which counts 5,500 schools in its membership, and Reform, a think tank that supports public-sector reorganisation. They reckon that the powerful teachers’ unions entrench the interests of staff above those of pupils.
Six in ten academy heads said that national agreement on pay and conditions have prevented them from paying effective teachers more or extending the school day to give weaker pupils extra tuition, the survey found. When the education secretary, Michael Gove, drafted plans to devolve power to individual schools, he hoped to chip away at such conventions, and thereby enfeeble the powerful unions. Yet the unions are as uppity as ever: on March 28th the National Union of Teachers staged a strike in London in protest at pension changes that cancelled classes in the capital's schools.
It is not just the unions that stifle innovation: central government is also to blame. In order to discourage schools from entering youngsters for easy-to-pass exams, Mr Gove judges schools by the proportion of pupils who pass school-leaving exams in five traditional subjects. Mindful of their league table rankings, schools were quick to toe the line. A third of pupils are expected to enter such exams this summer, rising to half next year. And schools are loth to deviate too far from the national curriculum, not least because pupils need to pass similar exams.
Many parents seem to prefer a quiet life to an aspirational one. Despite evidence that children forget much of their schooling during the long summer break—and the high cost of holidays outside term-time—there would appear to be little appetite for change. School heads said parents with children at more than one school would be unhappy if they tinkered with timings of the school year.
All of which makes for an unhappy prospect for education reform. Pupils do better in wealthy countries in which schools exercise autonomy than in those in which teaching is tightly prescribed, according to studies by McKinsey, a consultancy, and the OECD, a think tank. Yet autonomy would appear to be a necessary but insufficient condition for improvement. As the performance of schoolchildren in other countries outstrips any gains seen in Britain, the nation needs to flex its educational muscles and raise its game.