To the credit of his teacher, my six year old son is learning and loving The Odyssey at school (in English, I’m afraid; Apologies, Messrs Gove and Johnson). With all the talk of Trojan horses in Birmingham's schools, I am wondering whether there’s an education story to go with every Odyssean adventure. I am not sure who the Cyclops could be – there are a few candidates out there. The many tales involving his boat leaking between a rock and a hard place could be any number of education quangos, but Ofsted is currently the front runner. My son’s current favourite story is The Sirens, those alluring sea nymphs whose seductive singing tempt sailors to their deaths. Does this sound like any academy sponsors you know? Odysseus himself is obviously the national curriculum – returning home unrecognisable from when it set out.*
The story of governor entryism to some of Birmingham’s schools has actually revealed very little about the Coalition’s approach to education (apart from demonstrating that the two cabinet ministers involved probably lack the personal and professional qualities to ever become headteachers post-politics). The situation itself is a culmination of twenty five years of confused, shifting approaches to school accountability and governance, best summed up by a 2006 Daily Telegraph editorial arguing that “power in education is everywhere and nowhere”.
The Trojan Horse story further destroys the myth that local authorities ‘control’ any school. Since Local Management of Schools was introduced in 1988, Governing bodies have always been able to exercise significant power, often in the face of local authority opposition. The schools involved in Birmingham are a mixture of community, foundation and academy schools, and in reality there appears to be no substantive difference between the powers of each governing body, or the potential of the local authority to intervene in each school.
Michael Gove’s strange comment in a speech last weekend that Free Schools and Academies are "more accountable than other schools” adds further confusion. More accountable to whom? More accountable for what? It might also explain why these schools’ innovative capacities and use of freedoms appear more limited than policy intended. Former Number 10 policy Unit Head James O’Shaughnessy’s excellent blog, reflecting on a Free School bid, mentioned “the tension between innovation and limiting risk in the Free Schools programme”. Free Schools and Academies are generally not yet the 'true pioneers' government intended them to be, and it’s refreshingly possible to find pockets and philosophies of innovation throughout our education system, regardless of school type (See my 2011 pre-RSA blog on whether Free Schools are ‘true pioneers’ or land grabbers here).
Whilst their first and most important responsibility will always be holding schools to account for performance, school governing bodies cannot merely be part of a governance supply chain that only goes upwards via Ofsted to the DfE. Accountability should go outwards, to parents, local communities, and to Local authorities too (even if, as an Academy, your funding agreement is with a politician in a building in London). The RSA’s beliefs in democratic curriculum design, first articulated t in our Area-based Curriculum project, and now in our Grand Curriculum Designs CPD programme, is that any school’s curriculum (which the national curriculum is just one part of) should be created about, for and with a school locality – a curriculum created only by teachers is as flawed as a curriculum created only by politicians.
In this respect, if the governors in those Birmingham schools have applied pressure to pursue certain Islamic customs, they may partly be doing their job, in ensuring that a community’s ethos influences a school’s ethos. When I worked for the Arts Council, people frequently called for arts organisations to persuade as many artists and arts administrators as possible to join school governing bodies. Others, from business representative organisations to sports bodies, try similar tactics. This might appear a form of enlightened self-interest, but in reality is another benign form of entryism, using governing bodies to mould a school to a particular agenda.
There is of course something more distressing about the alleged demands made and tactics used in the Birmingham schools. If, under pressure from governors, any school did follow policies such as putting girls at the back of the class or excluding learning about a variety of faiths, it would be encouraging segregation, denying curriculum breadth, and preparing pupils inadequately for the challenges and joys of modern British life. Park View Academy’s powerful rebuttal to Ofsted’s report demands that we continue to reserve judgement about what is actually happening in these schools. The verdict of an independent Ofsted, with stable success criteria, could possibly be trusted, but Ofsted have, on this occasion, failed on both counts.
Whilst allegations will build on claims and counterclaims, and inevitably lead to proposals for various structural and regulatory ‘shake-ups’, the answer might already be out there. Schools already have a duty to promote the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of their pupils (SMSC). Thankfully, this can now be done without the 1990s mandate for a ‘broadly Christian act of collective worship’ (In 1997 An Ofsted inspector criticised my flamboyant and, though I say it myself, brilliant Year 5 assembly performance of the Jarrow Crusade because it didn’t include an act of collective worship).
Schools with Soul, our recent report into SMSC across the UK, found that that despite schools’ legal commitments, too many schools took a ‘scattergun approach’ that risked provision being ‘everywhere and nowhere’. Ofsted was part of the problem; one of our nine recommendations was that “Ofsted should develop a more consistent and rigorous approach to the inspection of SMSC provision and outcomes.” A re-prioritisation of SMSC might benefit from its inclusion in a possible fifth Ofsted criterion that could capture a range of broader outcomes.
We also found excellent practices, especially in our six case study schools, plus a genuine willingness from school leaders and governors to take a deeper, more intensive approach to SMSC, and from external partners to support their ambitions. The ten design principles and strategic frameworks we developed can hopefully help schools along this journey. We are currently planning a ‘leadership with soul’ programme for middle leaders in 11-19 schools, colleges and UTCs. Interested schools should get in touch, and also come to the Schools Linking Network/RSA conference in Bradford in October.
Those of us who wish to support and extend the already-excellent strategies that so many of our schools lead as beacons of tolerance, harmony and morality, often in tension with the competing values of communities and policymakers, may wish to take inspiration from those irresistible singing Sirens - without the murderous part of course – rather than the Trojan Horse.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education
*Thanks to my friend Mike Owen for this curriculum metaphor. If people have others, keep them coming @joehallg.