Unity Howard is Director of the New Schools Network.
According to Deltapoll, education was the third most important issue in the recent general election campaign. The manifesto commitments of the main parties focussed on funding rather than detailed specifics on policy areas: so what should we expect for education reform?
The Conservative Party won this election by targeting seats in areas that had not voted Tory before. As the Prime Minister said, these communities have “lent him their vote”. To keep them he must deliver real change – education must be central to that.
The New Schools Network has analysed the 41 seats in England which switched party to the Conservatives. Thirty-one are in local authorities that have a negative progress score at GCSE level, while only 10 exceeded the national average at end-of-primary testing.
We know that Brexit was at the heart of so many votes, but it was by no means the only factor. Indeed, I see it as merely part of a wider motive – a desperate plea for change from communities who know their local schools are not good enough, and who have placed their trust in the Conservatives to improve their lot.
We need a new vision for this next decade: one with a lifespan that exceeds just one parliamentary cycle. And if that vision is to resonate with those who voted Conservative for the first time, then it must centre on social mobility.
As a first step, the Government should initiate a new wave of sponsors for academy trusts, particularly in the Midlands and the North. We need businesses, charities, and other organisations who can bring their own expertise, and give back to the communities they serve.
For example, the FTSE 100 captains of industry should become school sponsors to play a hands-on role developing their next generation of employees in England. And we saw recently, a private donation to Winchester and Dulwich College, targeted at white working class boys, was turned down on equality concerns. The state sector is crying out for support– and will gladly be the recipient if private schools continue to turn their noses up.
Bringing outside expertise into schools was once central to the academies movement, as organisations like Dixons, the Co-op, the Merchant Venturers, and others sponsored local schools. That is a hallmark of responsible capitalism, but a new generation needs to step into the academy world, and needs to be given enough support to hit the ground running. At NSN, we are well placed to support them as we already do with new school applicants.
However, it is crucial that collaboration is at the heart of this – working with the existing school sector to create a settlement that works for everyone and that will outlast the parliamentary term. This includes allowing local authorities to open up their own multi-academy trusts, paving the way to full academisation.
Next, the Government needs to prioritise targeted investment in initiatives for the most left behind communities. This shouldn’t reinvent the wheel on new programmes, but rather leveraging better incentives to take on struggling schools, thus avoiding the spectre of ‘orphan’ schools with no willing sponsor. This includes more support for new academy trusts in underserved areas based on successful models in the rest of England.
Third, the Government must invest in building talent. Higher starting salaries are always welcome, but practical support is needed to develop the next generation of leaders to reach their full potential – help that goes way beyond just the National Professional Qualification for Headship.
Highly successful trusts should be allowed to replicate the KIPP Fisher Fellowship model in the US to identify and support new leaders. NSN has launched a CEO mentoring scheme but we cannot do this alone – we need Government intervention for every layer of school leadership and, crucially, funding.
Fourth, Onward research during the election found that further education (FE) is another pressing concern for new Tory voters. More funding for this sector is a good first step, but will not be enough of itself. That’s why the Government should use the free school model to bring much-needed innovation into this sector.
Finally, of course, the new Government needs to put its shoulder to the wheel again on the free school programme. New schools are a proven success, particularly in areas broadly untouched by other educational reforms. We must re-animate the original model, allowing charities, community organisations and groups of teachers and parents to establish their own school in the areas of the country which most need them.
The Conservatives started the revolution in education reform in schools, empowering communities to come together in areas otherwise abandoned. Instead of being content with their work to date, we need the new Government to take this even further.
Boris Johnson’s Conservatives showed that they can win the confidence of the country. Now is the time to prove they are worthy of that confidence by driving through the vital reforms that are desperately needed to ensure by 2024 every child can access a good school place in England.