The 'Messy Middle Tier': Part 2

Part 2: Rebuilding the English education system by winning hearts and minds.

By Julie McCulloch, ASCL Director of Policy

In Part 1 of this blog, I shared examples of the confusion about the roles of different players in the English education system and talked about why we need more clarity about who is responsible for what. 

Here, I’m going to talk about what the government is currently planning in terms of the middle tier, whether this heading in the right direction, and what else I think they need to be doing. 

The Schools White Paper
Let’s start with the Schools White Paper. It’s not entirely clear, given the carousel of Education Secretaries and ministers we’ve been subjected to since this paper was published just eight short months ago, how many of the ambitions it includes are still shared by the current ministerial team. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument and our own sanity, that at least some of it still represents current government policy. 

By far the strongest section of the White Paper is the fourth chapter, which focuses on building a stronger and fairer school system. 

There’s lots here which is specifically designed to address the confusion and uncertainty I highlighted in Part 1 of this blog post. 

The White Paper recognises that it’s problematic to limp on forever with a dual system of some schools in trusts and others still overseen by local authorities. 

It recognises the need for different parts of the system to have clear roles and goes some way towards mapping out a future in which there’s a coherent set of bodies, working together in a strategic way at a local level.  

It recognises the need for a single regulatory approach which is much clearer about what’s required of schools and trusts, how we’ll assess whether or not they’re meeting those requirements, and what we’ll do about it if they aren’t. 

And it recognises the role that trusts are increasingly playing in supporting and challenging schools, and providing a coherent structure for them to operate within. 

The importance of ownership 
There’s not a lot of detail behind some of these aspirations. But’s that’s ok. The detail needs to be worked through with the different players in the system, to ensure they feel ownership of the new system that will emerge and – even more importantly – that their expertise is drawn on in order to make that system as good as it possibly can be. 

Unfortunately, the signs so far aren’t great that ministers are serious about undertaking that engagement. 

Exhibit A: the dog’s dinner that was the first version of the Schools Bill – the legislation needed to enact some of these changes. For those of you who have better things to do with your time than pore over draft legislation, the most problematic aspect of the Bill as originally drafted was the very first clause, which set out no fewer than twenty ‘matters’ about which the Secretary of State might set standards in relation to academies. 

These included huge issues such as “the nature and quality of education provided”, along with weirdly specific, operational matters like “the procedures and criteria for appointing staff and assigning them particular roles”. 

Not only was this list incredibly comprehensive, it was also open-ended. These were just ‘examples’ of matters about which the Secretary of State might choose to set standards – with the implication that they could add anything else they fancied to this list at a later date. 

Good intentions
I’m being slightly facetious. I know there are mechanisms in place to limit a Secretary of State’s capacity to go off-piste. I’m also confident that this wasn’t the intention in drafting this list. The intention was the good one of trying to rationalise all the requirements and expectations under which academies currently operate, which are currently scattered across a range of different Acts, regulations and individual funding agreements, into a single place.

However, despite these good intentions, this clause landed incredibly badly when the Bill had its first reading in the House of Lords. Former Education Secretaries and ministers on both sides of the house lined up to criticise it, describing it as “a real grab for power by the Department for Education” which presented the “jaw-dropping” solution of “making the Secretary of State effectively the Chief Education Officer for 25,000 schools”, and warning that it “increases the powers of the Secretary of State and the DfE in a way unprecedented since 1870”.

There was a similar backlash out in the real world, with leaders and teachers wondering what on earth the government was playing at, and conspiracy theories abounding. 

The DfE has recognised these concerns, and appears somewhat chastened by the experience. Their intention is to replace this clause with a much shorter, tighter and – importantly – bounded set of powers for the Secretary of State over schools, based almost entirely on powers which already exist in other legislation. 

What we don’t yet know is whether this version of the Bill will ever see the light of day, caught as it is in the rapid rethinking of priorities by our third Prime Minister in as many months. The mood music isn’t looking good – partly because this Bill is seen as both dry and unimportant but also, rather impressively, toxic and distracting. 

It would be incredibly frustrating if a Bill which actually has the potential to improve some of the confusion I’ve been talking about ends up being ditched because it was shoddily written, and the government didn’t engage properly with stakeholders before they published it. 

‘We know best’
We’re worried that this same attitude of ‘we know best’ risks further draining goodwill, and scuppering some of the other positive proposals in the White Paper. 

For example, the White Paper treads a careful line around academisation. No doubt conscious of former Secretary of State Nicky Morgan’s failed attempt in 2016 to force all schools to academise, neither the White Paper nor the Bill go that far. For the vast majority of schools, there’s no compulsion to join a trust – at least not yet. 

Instead, the governing is focusing, through its Regional Directors, on creating a landscape of strong trusts across the country through which school improvement will increasingly be driven. Essentially, the intention is to make it more and more attractive for schools to be part of a trust. At the same time, it will become less and less feasible for schools to survive either with dwindling local authority support, or as a standalone academy trust. 

Pros and cons
There are pros and cons to this approach. Leaders and governors – understandably and rightly – don’t want to be forced into a change if they don’t think it’s the right thing for their school. But there’s also a lack of honesty about it. In some ways we’re back to those non-statutory expectations I talked about in Part 1 of this blog. The government isn’t going to tell schools that they have to join a trust, but they’re making it harder and harder for them to take any other path. 

Or, to look at it more positively, they’re focusing on building the infrastructure needed for the system they want to see, and winning hearts and minds. 

Winning hearts and minds, as every leader knows, is likely to be more successful in the end than simply telling people what to do – but it’s much harder. You have to work systematically to win everyone’s heart, and engage everyone’s mind. 

The jury’s still out on whether the government can do that. Can they find a way to draw on the knowledge, expertise and experience of everyone working across our system – including leaders and governors who know their areas inside out? Or will they retreat to their own echo chamber?  

Difficult decisions
There are going to be some difficult decisions over the next few years as we start to build the new system we need, and particularly as we start to reimagine the middle tier. Some of these are very much on the government’s radar, others not so much. 

They are, in no particular order: 
  • How we move from an approach to trust development which, initially at least, was based on letting a thousand flowers bloom, towards one which is carefully structured to ensure every school and every child is properly supported.
  • Who defines what a strong trust looks like, how we make sure that definition evolves as we learn more, and how we use the definition in an appropriate way. 
  • How we build a structure which takes into account demographic shifts – both in pupil numbers (as the bulge which was working its way through primary now shifts to secondary) and in teacher numbers (as the number of people entering and staying in the profession continues to fall).
  • How we can avoid overloading schools with more and more responsibilities, particularly as the cost-of-living crisis deepens, and ensure schools are part of a broader local ecosystem of support for families. 

These are big questions. But thinking them through is essential if we’re to build a system fit for our post-pandemic world. And – crucially – the answers to these questions need to be developed with the leaders in the system, not imposed upon them.

Julie McCulloch is ASCL Director of Policy. 

Posted: 10/11/2022 11:32:23