Academies are an expensive red herring. Here’s how you really improve school standards

2 February 2015
The Guardian
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How many times must academies be discredited before policymakers look at the proven but less headline-grabbing solutionn but less headline-grabbing solution?

The prime minister’s announcement today that, if elected, the Tories will force “mediocre” schools to convert to academies was important for a couple of reasons. First, it indicated that the government wants to make education an election issue. Second, it shows that politicians never learn. There is now a bucket load of evidence that academies don’t raise standards: a report from the House of Commons education committee last week showed this, as has Henry Stewart’s forensic analysis of academies’ results for the Local Schools Network. Furthermore, we have lots of significant research evidence from the US andSweden where similar “academy-style” schools have been set up. Clearly they are not a good way to invest taxpayers’ money. Common sense should also tell you that just because you make a school independent of local authority control – which is effectively all an academy is – it doesn’t magically turn it into a beacon of learning. I teach in an academy and am a governor of one as well, and it’s not their academy status which makes them effective, it’s the teaching that goes on in them. But there is no causal link between academy status and improved teaching – this is where successive governments have gone wrong. Politicians have been obsessed with structural change rather than addressing the core issue, which is raising the quality of teaching and learning in schools. This is what makes a difference to children’s outcomes: when students are taught well, they achieve more.

Teaching quality is the biggest single factor in raising standards. Significant research conducted by John Hattie for the New Zealand government, Robert J Marzano in the US, and the Educational Endowment Foundation in this country, all show that we have to focus on providing teachers like me with meaningful, ongoing training so that we can become better at our jobs. Academies are a complete red herring. If the billions that have been thrown at this programme had been invested in providing teachers with decent, evidence-based training which is “on-the-job”, then standards would have sky-rocketed and we would be vying with the best education systems in the world, such as those in Finland and Singapore. At the heart of the problem is that much of our continuous professional development has been woefully inadequate. Furthermore, most Ofsted inspectors are clueless, as the increasingly discredited rubric for school inspections shows. Mike Bell at the Evidence Based Teachers Network estimates that 95% of teachersare not aware of which teaching techniques are proven to work in the classroom. The best research shows that good results are achieved when teachers are trained on an ongoing basis and are given the time to reflect upon their practice. This is expensive to do properly, but much more cost-effective than the academies programme: it basically means teachers teaching less and being given more time to study their pedagogy. It wasn’t until I did a PhD in creative writing and education at Goldsmiths College that I became aware of valid, reliable methods of teaching. I had been teaching for 20 years virtually in the dark. We need to become much more like the medical profession, instituting strategies that are proven to work and given the resources to pursue evidence-based research. Fortunately, there is a movement gathering which embraces both traditionalists like TES columnist Tom Bennett, who also runs the researchEd movement, and more progressive teachers like Tom Sherrington, the inspirational head of Highbury Grove school in London. It is focused on spreading the word about the importance of teacher-led research. Sadly, the prime minister would not have hit the headlines today by saying he was going to wheel out more teacher training. But that’s what we actually need. The Punch and Judy politics surrounding education, typified by Cameron’s statement today, has to stop.

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