June 2016

The know zone

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    Julie McCulloch looks at three proposals in the new White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, that have particular implications for primary schools. More
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Julie McCulloch looks at three proposals in the new White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, that have particular implications for primary schools.

Don't panic!

The requirement for all schools to have become, or be in the process of becoming, an academy by 2020 has generated by far the most media interest in the education white paper published in March.

This will be felt most keenly in the primary sector. Some 60 per cent of secondary schools have already converted to academy status but only 15 per cent of primaries, leaving a whopping 14,000 maintained primary schools wondering what their future holds.

The DfE has said in a follow-up ‘myth-busting’ document that ‘successful, sustainable schools’ won’t be forced to join a multi-academy trust (MAT), but could convert as standalone academies. Quite what ‘successful and sustainable’ means, however, isn’t obvious. Sir David Carter, the new National Schools Commissioner, has suggested that standalone academies are only viable if they have at least 1,000 pupils – a size that would clearly rule out the vast majority of primary schools.

Whatever the rule ends up being, there is a growing body of evidence that schools, particularly smaller schools, do better in partnership than they do alone. (See the ASCL guidance: Forming or Joining a Group of Schools: Staying in control of your school’s destiny www.ascl.org.uk/ gp-formandjoin). Most primary schools will therefore need to consider either joining an existing multi-academy trust or forming a new MAT with other schools.

For some the choice of partner will be straightforward but many face a difficult, and difficult to reverse, decision. Small rural schools in particular (of which there are many – last year there were 2,144 primaries with fewer than 100 pupils, and a further 3,600 with from 100 to 200 pupils) will need to think carefully about how they can create effective partnerships with other schools, particularly when their potential partners may be some distance away.

‘A benchmark’

In a rather ironic twist, the new National Curriculum, which has been so bitterly fought over for the last couple of years, will no longer be statutory in a fully academised system. Academy status includes freedom over the curriculum as long as a broad and balanced curriculum is taught.

In reality, however, the additional curricular freedom granted to academies may not make much difference. On the one hand, the National Curriculum should never have constituted a school’s whole curriculum anyway. Schools, whether maintained or academies, already have the freedom to identify the knowledge, skills and experience they want their pupils to have, and to design their own school curriculum alongside the National Curriculum.

And, on the other hand, however much freedom schools have over the curriculum, it’s hard to stray too far from the expectations of the National Curriculum when you know that SATs will require your children to spot a fronted adverbial at 20 paces.

Nevertheless, a world in which no school is required to follow the National Curriculum will be an interesting one, and the full implications will probably only become clear over time.

The demise of the parent governor

The likely demise of the parent governor is a change that has been heralded for some time, but that has still taken many people by surprise. In 2015, Nicky Morgan told the National Governors’ Association conference that “what makes your contribution [as a governor] so important isn’t the particular group you represent; it’s the skills, expertise and wisdom you bring to the running of a school”.

The white paper takes this view to its logical conclusion, making it clear that “we will expect all governing boards to focus on seeking people with the right skills for governance, and so we will no longer require academy trusts to reserve place for elected parents on governing boards”. Since the vision is that all schools, of course, will be academy trusts (either single academy trusts or part of MATs), the effect of this will be that no school will be required to elect parent governors.

This proposal has come second only to full academisation in the number of column inches it has generated, and some of the commentary has unhelpfully misrepresented the role that parent governors play. But the unease it has generated reflects a broader concern that the proposals in the white paper may result in schools becoming more distant from the communities they serve.

Primary schools, in particular, play a pivotal role in their local community. Will the white paper strengthen those community links, as the government hopes, through schools coming together in autonomous local groups, or weaken them by replacing local authorities with potentially geographically dispersed MATs and reducing parental representation on governing boards?

Engage with the vision

Perhaps, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-style, the white paper should have been published with the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on its cover. It’s important that school leaders and governors engage with the vision it sets out, and start to consider what this might mean for their schools. It’s equally important, though, that you don’t rush into a decision which might not be the best one for your pupils, parents, staff and community.

Take your time, arm yourself with the facts, avoid the scaremongering, talk to other school leaders, think about what you want for your school and, as Ford Prefect would say, never forget where your towel is…

Julie McCulloch is ASCL Primary and Governance Specialist