The RSA has a long history of innovation in education. Becky Francis who runs its education team, explores changes in policy direction and the issues and opportunities this presents.
Education policy has developed rapidly under the coalition, with school autonomy and diversification of the state sector driving government thinking. Academies and ‘free schools’ - independent state schools no longer falling under local authority control - are central to the government’s vision, which aims to reduce bureaucracy and release creativity. Many head teachers have seized this opportunity through application for academy status.
The RSA needs to be involved in debating these changes, as well as adapting to and exploring opportunities that arise. The change in policy direction has been controversial. Whereas the original academies programme instigated by the last administration had focused on underperforming schools (which were reopened as academies with new buildings and sponsorship), the government’s initial approach was to invite all schools rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted to become academies. While the RSA recognises the value of autonomy in helping institutions to meet the needs of individuals and local communities, further advantaging already-thriving schools risks reintroducing the damaging division and isolationism that is widely accepted to have been a feature of the grant maintained school era.
More recently, the government has diversified its routes to academisation in a number of ways. This includes extending its offer to schools rated ‘good with outstanding features’ by Ofsted and returning attention to underperforming schools (which can now opt to become academies if federated with an ‘outstanding’ school, or which can be taken over by another school).
These policies raise a range of important questions. Many educationalists were concerned at the individualism and faith in market solutions reflected in the original academies policies developed by the last government. These issues are arguably exacerbated by the current proposals. Debate remains as to the effectiveness of diversification as a method of improving education systems. There is evidence to suggest that the new mechanisms for academisation may undermine equality of opportunity, as ‘outstanding and good’ schools are disproportionately represented in affluent areas (although as Ruth Lupton has highlighted there are exceptions). There are concerns about accountability, and that there will be fewer resources to provide for schools remaining under local authority control as funds are redirected to individual academies. Moreover, although the inter-school collaboration, which has shown to be fundamental to school improvement, is encouraged under the new arrangements, it is not a mandatory pre-requisite.
These questions will continue to be argued over and the RSA needs to be part of that debate. However, what is certain is that – after a shaky start – academisation has taken off. Academies are rapidly becoming a substantial feature of the English education system and we are experiencing an explosion of change, as schools opt for academisation, and existing sponsors and organisations rapidly increase the size of their chains and federations.
Within this environment the opportunity arises for further RSA engagement with individual schools. While some have argued that we should embrace and engage with the academies programme, others believe that the RSA should remain an external commentator rather than participant. We recognise some Fellows’ opposition to the RSA’s engagement with the original academies programme via our sponsorship and establishment of our academy in Tipton.
Whatever one’s opinion, the RSA Academy has exceeded expectations. It has improved attainment rapidly: since its opening in 2008, GCSE attainment at the RSA Academy has risen from 58% of pupils gaining 5 A*-C grades, to 95%; and from 29% pupils gaining 5 A*-Cs including maths and English to 45%. Its iconic buildings, state-of-the art equipment, innovative curriculum and extraordinary extra-curricula offer, have provided a point of inspiration for students, parents and the wider community in an area of significant disadvantage. The academy has provided an exemplar and a driving role in the growth of RSA Opening Minds, and facilitates innovative practice to improve the life chances of young people.
RSA Trustees are now keen for us to establish a ‘family’ of schools: in order to ensure that these are underpinned by a genuine pedagogic offer aimed at school and social improvement, we will base these on Opening Minds and on principles of social justice. This means that all RSA schools will practice Opening Minds and be expected to make a contribution to its best practice. We will work with schools in areas of disadvantage and participating schools will subscribe to a progressive, socially just ethos. This could include: narrowing the socio-economic attainment gap; working with other local schools to collaborate in best practice; and ensuring that the actions of RSA schools are not to the detriment of others in the area. Our model will be based on the RSA entering a partnership with outstanding schools, and using this as a foundation for sponsoring academies based on schools in need of substantial improvement. School improvement will be a fundamental aspect within our family of schools. A number of highly impressive schools, including those from areas of disadvantage, with an outstanding rating from Ofsted and National Support School status, have already expressed an interest in collaborating with the RSA.
The RSA staff team have been tasked with developing a potential model, and liaising with interested schools. Our next stage is to refine the model, including financial aspects, and risk management. A substantial annual sum will be contributed by the RSA to support this work.
We are very keen to hear from RSA Fellows. We want to draw on your views in informing the direction of development and welcome offers of support. It is hoped that this is the beginning of an exciting new phase in which the RSA is directly linked with inspiring state schools to work for educational innovation, social justice, and the realisation of young people’s potential.
Becky Francis runs the RSA’s education team. To contact her about the academies programme, please email Janet Hawken