Policy Exchange report on Primary schools warns of a looming ‘perfect storm’ and urges reform


All maintained schools, both primary and secondary, should be converted into academies in the next five years, according to a report by the centre right think tank  Policy Exchange .

More than half (56%) of secondary schools are now academies; among primary schools, the figure is just 11%.

The report ‘Primary Focus’ states that one in five Primaries (3,000 schools) are at risk of failing from 2016 because of the introduction of tough new minimum standards in reading, writing and maths.

It says that English primary schools face “a perfect storm”, with a fifth of head teachers approaching retirement age, continuing cuts in local authority funding, and the introduction of a rigorous new national curriculum and assessment systems, which will put additional pressure on teachers.

The most effective way to address the considerable challenges, say the authors, Annaliese Briggs and Jonathan Simons, is to convert all primaries into academies in the next five years, encouraging them to join existing academy chains by 2020 so teachers can be properly supported and can focus on teaching and learning in the classroom, rather than administration.

While acknowledging that Academy status is no panacea in itself, the greater scale of a chain represents the best way to allow teachers and heads to focus on teaching and learning in the classroom rather than on form filling and other more administrative tasks. This will particularly benefit the significant number of small primary schools in England – there are currently 1,975 schools with fewer than 100 pupils and 113 schools with fewer than 30 pupils.

The report argues that moving all primary schools into being part of a formal (academy) grouping represents:

“The best way in which to drive greater strategic capacity and capability in the primary sector. It achieves this by establishing collaborative practices around teaching and learning, by supporting teachers and individual school leaders to focus on what happens in classrooms, and by supporting a culture of continuous improvement and development. In turn, these actions improve outcomes.

Although, under these proposals, primary schools would become separate from local authorities, LAs could  choose to set up their own arm’s length chain or learning trust, which provides an interesting avenue for LA re-engagement with schools.

Other recommendations include:

All remaining local authority secondary schools should also become Academies over the same time period, as should special schools. While these schools would not be obliged to join chains, they should be encouraged to partner with others as part of a wider move towards a school led, self-improving system.

Individual schools should, for the first time, be able to switch between chains providing they are rated Good or Outstanding and given a year’s notice. This will allow for greater competition and fluidity in the market, and prevent any academy chain building a local monopoly of offering a poor service for a long period of time.

The role of Regional School Commissioners or Directors of School Standards should be beefed up. They should have responsibility for overseeing and approving the emergence of these new chains as well as existing ones. They should also be able to split chains up and move schools in the case of underperformance as the DfE currently does now.

Primary chains should think about how they can work closely with early years providers to support continued improvements in quality in the early years sector. Greater co-operation offers the chance of more effective working between early years settings and graduate teachers in the primary phase, as well as co-ordination on curriculum, and the opportunity for more location of early years settings within schools

Sir David Carter, the newly appointed regional schools commissioner for south-west England, enthusiastically backed the report and called for a fundamental change to the way we approach primary education: “An entirely autonomous, academised system is a vision I wholly endorse. Not because of a statistical quest to have every school an academy, but because the academy in which you work will be part of a wider family and the independence this brings creates opportunity for innovation and choice.”

Sir David  writes in the preface ‘ Collaboration works well in a variety of contexts but the common thread that  runs through this report is that working in isolation is no longer an option.  Working together is an enabling act especially when the volume and scale of the challenge is hard.’

The Department for Education defended the changes facing primary schools. “The new national curriculum and more rigorous floor standards will match the best in the world and equip every child for life in modern Britain. As a result of our reforms and the dedication of teachers, 80,000 more children are reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and maths than five years ago.”

There has been a reluctance ,among  some Primary  schools,  for a number of reasons  , to become academies.  With the political agenda moving away from structures, to what happens in the classroom,   and the quality of teaching,  its interesting to see that Policy Exchange is now  seeking to refocus the debate on structures, against the backdrop of what they see as a looming crisis. Collaboration between schools and groups of schools, of course , remains vital to help  improve student outcomes , but what could stick in the craw,  with  some, is the element of prescription  implicit here. Rather  than   developing a range of incentives, to foster meaningful collaboration, across the system, bottom up , this all looks a bit like  top down  prescription. Maybe thats what is needed now, but it  will be against the grain for  quite a few Heads .

Primary Focus- The next stage of improvement for primary schools in England ,Annaliese Briggs and Jonathan Simons-Policy Exchange-September 2014


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