Education and Adoption Bill

Written Evidence  submitted by Christopher Curtis (EAB 11)

1. This evidence is submitted by Christopher Curtis. Until I took early retirement in 2014 I was Headteacher of a large, successful Church 11-18 school for 18 years. Before that, I was Acting Head in a school in difficulties, where I had previously been Deputy Head. I have well over 30 years of successful teaching experience, in a range of subjects and a variety of schools. My views are based on long experience in leading and improving schools.

2. I am strongly opposed to sections 1 -12 of the Bill, in principle and in practice, and believe that these provisions should be rejected or radically amended.

3. In principle, it is self-evidently wrong to vest unlimited power and authority in any person, even the Secretary of State for Education, especially when such power is exercised without meaningful scrutiny or accountability. As drafted, the Bill allows the Secretary of State to define which schools should be eligible for intervention; to decide, without any other criteria or accountability, when to intervene in those schools; to appoint anyone she wishes to take control of those schools and to impose changes on those schools as she wishes. All this without any consultation with those affected by her decisions, and with a duty imposed on anyone involved in the governance of the school to follow her wishes and timescale, whatever their view of the intervention.

4. Politically, this has been justified as a need for speed. I am sure the Minister for Transport, or Business, or Health would like the power to define the criteria for "intervention", to appoint whoever he would like to implement plans, without consultation and with a duty on anyone involved to support his actions and timescale. I am sure there is a case for every minister to be given such powers. They are not given, and I hope never would be, because that would be the end of democracy and because hard-won experience is that powers of this kind inevitably lead to bad decisions and failures. Building consensus, agreeing plans and winning support from those most affected and involved can take a little more time and effort, but is much more likely to lead to sustainable and effective change.

5. The need to build consensus is particularly important for a Government which does not have majority support in the country, even if it has a narrow majority in the House.

6. We avoid giving unsupervised power because, sooner or later, it leads to corruption. There are vast sums of public money, huge assets and powerful influence involved in intervening in schools. As the committee has noted, impressive careers and salaries are already being carved out within Academy chains and by individuals. In order to access this field of opportunity, someone has to "sign up" to a particular ideology of education and leadership: faith in Ofsted, the EBacc, quick fixes and targets - perilously close to a party political position. It is inevitable that a Secretary of State and key advisors will appoint people who echo their views and approaches, who may not be the best qualified or most appropriate people to make a real difference to pupils and their families.

7. Finally on matters of principle, these sections represent the final stage of a unprecedented (and in my view deeply wrong) take-over of education by central government. I suspect that the committee will simply accept this to be the case, but I would at least urge that this question is asked and properly answered: "What gives the Secretary of State the right to take schools from their current ‘owners’ (whether local authorities, churches or other foundations and the communities they represent and serve) and give them to private companies and individuals?"

8. Practically, the Bill is built on foundations that were never designed to support it.

a. Ofsted judgements are simply not reliable enough, and never will be, to form the basis for radical plans for schools. Any inspection is a snapshot. At best, (and Ofsted is far from this in practice) an inspection describes how is a school is at a particular moment and might identify one or two factors which contribute to that state of affairs (good or bad). Inspection can explore correlation (e.g. between outcomes in particular exams and social deprivation) but inspection can say very little about causation. One of the deepest criticisms of Ofsted is that it (deliberately in my view) confuses correlation, causation and explanation. It currently makes the devastating error of believing that observation straightforwardly determines appropriate response. Genuine attempts to improve schools have to be based in exploring complex causative factors in order to address the real issues.

b. As Ofqual have repeatedly pointed out, the examination systems is not designed to meet the range of uses imposed on it by politicians. I would be very critical indeed of Ofqual, but it has done what it was asked. Systems are now in place that will deliver consistent results from year to year. As schools improve, pass marks will automatically increase to keep proportions at each grade steady, though this will be hidden behind the scenes. Changes in results for an individual school must, therefore, relate to changes in that school’s position relative to other schools. This might be due to improved teaching and learning, but might be changes in the ability of the school’s intake or (as I suspect is often the case) the temporary boost of whatever "gaming" works at present. In the new examinations system, schools as a whole will be "coasting": results across the country will be static from year to year. There might be a case for a school whose performance is falling relative to others to be investigated, but taking drastic powers to intervene in what will be a typical school, where results are basically static, is misguided.

c. Of course, "progress" is simply a comparison of examination results in two exams (typically SATS and GCSEs) so there is no real benefit in measuring progress for these purposes, except that it makes some allowance for the ability of the children being tested. Once results are controlled to be consistent from year, aggregate progress should be static too.

d. Others have pointed out very articulately, the impact of using averages and medians in such a situation. By definition, half of schools will be below, and half above, average at any one time. The Education Select Committee made this very point to Mr Gove in the past. He replied that it was possible for all schools to be above (a previous) average, if all schools were improving. With grades controlled to prevent "grade inflation" that is simply no longer the case.

e. As others have pointed out, there is no credible evidence that forcing a school to become a sponsored Academy has any impact on its improvement. Putting it bluntly, there is little or no evidence that the "experts in school improvement" are any better at improving schools than any other group - some of them do improve particular schools and some do not. The same organisation may appear more successful in some of its schools than in others.

9. I would like to end with some suggestions. Assuming that the committee will not accept my preference to reject outright sections 1 - 12 of the Bill, I would suggest:

a. That the definition of which schools are eligible for direct intervention by the Secretary of State should be made by Parliament and not by a Minister in regulations. This could be a schedule in the Bill or Act that could be amended from time to time without great difficulty. That definition should be written to reserve this power for rare and extreme cases.

b. Retain a duty on the Secretary of State to consult with at least the parents of children and the staff currently at a school in which she proposes to intervene.

c. Impose a duty on the Secretary of State to report all such proposed interventions to Parliament and to further report (e.g. every year thereafter) on the outcomes of the intervention.

d. Impose a duty on the Secretary of State to appoint people and organisations for intervention only from a register maintained for this purpose. Criteria for entry to the register, and the register itself, should be public and reported to Parliament. The register should be maintained by civil servants with an annual round of applications (and removals). One of the criteria for entry to the register should be proper registration of business and political interests and affiliations. A procedure for removal from the register (e.g. in case of wrongdoing) should be in place. Principles common to public appointments should be followed when individuals or organisations are needed for a particular intervention. The reasons why a particular person or organisation was selected for a particular intervention should be stated publicly and reported to Parliament.

e. Entry to the register should be open to a range of people and organisations, not just Academy chains.

f. Where intervention involves becoming a sponsored Academy, there should be a duty on the Secretary of State to protect the assets (buildings, land, budget) of the taken-over school for the benefit of its pupils and community.

g. Similar requirements (e.g. use of people and organisations from the register, transparent criteria for intervention and consultation and a duty to report) should be imposed on other authorities (local and Church) who have the right to intervene in some schools.

July 2015

Prepared 7th July 2015