Response to Lewisham Education Commission Report

The Lewisham Education Commission have deliberated and concluded that the council should encourage schools to become academies, shore up the rising demand for scholl places by trying to set up free schools and set up a Lewisham Secondary challenge to co-ordinate good practice.

As we have already noted, the composition of the Commissioners meant that there was hardly going to be any other conclusion. Made up as it is, of advocates for (transparent) academisation and school leadership as the mechanism for school improvement.

Education in Lewisham

For some years there has seemed to be a cloud of despair hanging over councillors involved in overseeing education. No good answers have been provided by the officers for the comparatively poor results in the borough. the council rode the wave of investment in school infrastructure in the Blair / Brown years, schools were pushed together in soft federations then hard federations and most recently we have had the heavy handed intervention at Sedgehill and dabbling with academies, firstly at Haberdashers with very unsatisfactory outcomes and then yes/no/ok debacle over the Prendergast schools.

Primary and Secondary Discrepancies

Many councillors saw the main purpose of the Commission was to attempt to resolve the conundrum of the steady rise in primary performance coupled with the relative decline in secondary performance, and the prospect of trying to cope with a rapidly expanding requirement for pupil provision over the next few years whilst having no power to open new, maintained schools.

Lewisham is the 48 / 326 most deprived local authorities in the UK, but that masks a deeper contradiction.  Lewisham has on average, higher levels of employment than both London and the wider UK, but in positions that are on the average less well paid. A higher percentage of the workforce are employed in managerial and professional job, but conversely a higher number are working in low paid caring, leisure and customer services jobs. The proportion of 18 to 24 year-olds claiming Jobseekers Allowance is the highest of any Inner London borough, and is double the UK average, which is likely a reflection of the poorer grades obtained, certainly of those young people educated in Lewisham.

One of the key weaknesses of the Commission Report is its limited focus and refusal to grapple with these wider, underlying economic, social and demographic factors. On page 5, the report acknowledges concerns about the impact of poverty and deprivation in the borough on results, but then (on the back of a comparison of FSM data) dismisses these concerns in one sentence, without any attempt to consider the complexities of other related factors that might be worthy of investigation e.g. cultural and social issues unique to Lewisham, housing issues, the impact of grammar schools in neighbouring borough of Kent etc :

So, although the challenges of poverty are great in Lewisham, they are no harder than for most other Inner London boroughs. Poverty therefore cannot be offered as a reason for Lewisham’s poor average performance in the secondary sector.”

Not surprisingly for a Commission made up entirely of education experts and chaired by an ex-head of OFSTED, it falls into the trap of swiftly focusing on the performance of schools as indicated solely by government-prescribed data as the sole measure of successful schools. Once in that trap, the Commission makes a series of uninformed assumptions that lead it to it’s bizarre conclusion that more of the same school-led, management-focused collaboration, in an increasingly fragmented and competitive education system, will somehow miraculously result in a positive change in outcomes in Lewisham.

There is no mention in the report of the other key issue for all schools in the country: the worsening crisis in teacher recruitment and retention (nor the changes to teacher training proposed by the recent White Paper). Does this mean that the Commission do not regard classroom teachers as pivotal to good outcomes and performance measures in Lewisham schools? We would beg to differ.

Other notable omissions in the report include:

 

  • the failure to consider and explore the opinions, mindset and attitudes of the secondary pupils who are not managing to come out of the school system with the results the government expects. Why is that? How can these pupils be engaged in a way to help their experience at school and maybe impact on their measured results? It seems that this would be a good place to start in a community with such strong values and sense of community (as noted by the report).
  • no comment or analysis of the context of the Department for Education’s proposed changes to the whole system of education in England, and the widespread oppositions to those changes that forced a retreat from the original Educational Excellence Everywhere White Paper.
  • no consideration of how the narrowing of the curriculum might be affecting secondary school results in Lewisham
  • no consideration of the volatile political situation within which these far-reaching changes are being proposed.
  • no consideration of the various reports and research that have recently been published highlighting the flaws in the MAT system including increased fragmentation, erosion of teachers terms and conditions, increased risk of funds being spent on consultants etc rather than in the classroom, the standardisation of education with reduced local involvement and accountability, the failure of MATs to support disadvantaged children and SEND children as well as LA maintained schools and the essentially competitive nature of the whole system.

 

The bottom line is that children are coming out of primary school with on average better results than elsewhere in Inner London and the UK (the main exception to this is those with special education needs), but after 5 years of secondary education the results are (relatively speaking) reversed.

The report fails to explore the reasons for this and leaps straight to the conclusion that more of the same will somehow make a difference in the future.

This is a conundrum that the Commission fails to consider in a broad and inspired way. The situation is not analysed beyond providing tabulations of comparison to other boroughs, the only new departure is an ‘analysis’ of Ofsted reports, which just looks at the final scoring, rather than trying to identify any underlying or common issues. The only attempt to look at things differently seems to be the proposal to bid for a research project with the Education Endowment Foundation to try to get under the skin of what is happening.

After hundreds of millions of pounds have been sunk into rebuilding and refurbishing BOTH primary and secondary schools in Lewisham (a large proportion of which is now PFI debt which will remain with the borough if schools convert to MAT status), Measured secondary school outcomes have shown a decline, rather than improvement. In relation to this is a question (unaddressed in the Report), of whether paying off the debt has been a serious drain on resourcing front line teaching. The Commission does not contemplate the impact of this diversion of resources from front-line teaching and learning support on the educational outcomes of such schools.

The much vaunted London effect, primarily driven by the London challenge which has injected money to foster collaboration and support amongst schools has barely touched Lewisham. The Report’s conclusion to reverse this situation is to call for a Lewisham’s results. Secondary challenge to provide better leadership through a school-led model of improvement and better continuing education for teachers in Lewisham through teaching schools alliances. These are helpful conclusions but one wonders why if this has been successfully deployed across London why is Lewisham so ‘late to the game’? Will more of the same really make a difference here, particularly now under the current government?

Teachers as agents of change

One statistic which is mentioned, then passed by, is that “of Lewisham’s cohort of disadvantaged pupils, 51 per cent attend a school or college sixth form compared with 36 per cent nationally”.This would seem to suggest that students from less advantaged backgrounds are being encouraged and inspired to continue education. Had the Commission broadened it’s viewpoint, it might haveperhaps seen this as an indication that the ethos of Lewisham schools and the role played by the teachers is apparently underplayed in the Report.

In fact the Report has little if anything to say about the role of teachers in any of this. Evidence to the Parliamentary Education Select Committee that genuine collaboration with the involvement of teachers improves outcome, seems to have eluded their ‘desk research’. The Commission also fails to acknowledge that OFSTED have criticised MAT chains and the Education Select Committee is currently conducting an investigation into them.

There are some very Lewisham specific issues highlighted by not properly explored in the report, for instance, the proportion of pupils in special schools assessed as having Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is 50% higher than Inner London and more than twice that of England, a fact that clearly merits broader consideration than the proposed investigation into how diagnoses are given.

.Academisation

The lack of evidence for academisation has been well documented, by SAIL in our response to the Prendergast proposals, and over the last year, a week rarely passes in the mainstream media, without a damning document being written about how it is local authority schools which are improving and academies which are failing.

In particular, academies have been shown to serve disadvantaged children and those with SEND needs less favourably than maintained schools.

The pressure on schools to game admissions and massage results is huge in this competitive system and is only worse in MATs who have been accused of selection by stealth in many areas across the country. For the Commission to think that a power-less Local Authority can somehow get inherently competitive, market-driven MATs to collaborate with other schools for the good of all, seems terribly naïve.

The academies system is based on a centralised, market-view of education (with all the competitiveness and risk that includes) and this is at odds with the collaborative, comprehensive, local vision for Lewisham schools which the Report puts forward. Community and local authority experiences of MAT chains is at odds with the values of public service, collaboration and integration of the Lewisham communities that the Report describes.

The Commission failed to consider any downsides of MATs and academies, a rather huge omission given that it recommends that schools embrace MAT status.

The headline from the Report, and the one that will have the most profound and long term effect on young people, teachers and other staff in Lewisham schools is the recommendation to embrace academisation and free schools:

“A number of heads and governors are actively planning to establish MATs. We think the council should support these ‘home-grown MATs’ and use them as potential academy sponsors for schools in difficulties and even as promoters of free schools, which is the only way new schools can now be opened.”

Such a conclusion, is not surprise. But, it is somewhat ironic that when the government’s White Paper proposals have taken such a battering, and are widely disbelieved even byConservative Local Authorities , that the Labour Council are considering endorsing the view that they should just roll with the changes albeit a ‘home-grown solution’. The Commission does not seem to realise that ‘home grown’ MATs are vulnerable to take over (particularly if they underperform or coast) and are most likely to be subsumed into large, remote chains driven by economies of scale if they cannot continue to compete as their funding declines.

Even more foolish and short-sighted to take such a stance, in a volatile political climate where the Labour Party leadership is firmly in opposition to academies and free schools, and other Labour councils such as Birmingham and Islington have clearly stated their opposition.

The Commission Report tries to make the case that these won’t be Multi-Academy Trusts (MATS) like other MATS, they will be local MATS, home grown and free from the problems that exist elsewhere. The reality is though that academies are a model of education that is at its heart undemocratic and regressive.

The Report carefully does not begin to address the organisational and financial issues that such a plan would entail, particularly when one considers that Lewisham schools have upwards of £300 million of debts incurred as part of Building For Schools, which would need to be disentangled, with the debt remaining with Lewisham, if they were to be transferred to MATs.

It seems that the Report is also unaware of the land transfer issues related to conversion to MATs. This poses a risk to valuable green spaces in the borough, which would be liable to re-development against the best interests of the community, following the transfer of this public land to private hands which happens as part of the academisation process.

Teaching School Alliances

The proposal to go all in on Teaching School Alliances is fraught with danger. Policies such as Teach First which underpin what is in effect PGCE-lite in schools, have failed to stem the crisis in teacher recruitment, resulted in a high turnover of (in)experienced teachers and consequently served young people in schools poorly in both primary and secondary sectors. The Commission fails to consider the national crisis in classroom teacher recruitment and retention, let alone local staff turnover figures, let alone to acknowledge the crucial role that professional teachers and staff play in educational success stories.

School Led Improvement

The report highlights that a tipping point in education has been reached in a school-led model of improvement. The reality is that in Lewisham, as far as GCSE results are concerned, is that this has not happened. Resources being put into developing better networks and mechanisms to release human capital to improve in Lewisham are to be welcomed, though we would have serious concerns about the current top-down ‘managerialist’ model of leadership being advocated., In practice, this has resulted in increased pressure on teaching and other staff to breaking point is not a route that should be encouraged nor advocated.

The Report is silent on how teachers (in particular) can be part of a democratic discussion and be part of a plan to radically address this perceived crisis in education in Lewisham. This is a fundamental flaw, as without good teachers who can inspire and encourage, there will be no improvement in results for the children and young people of Lewisham.

Absent too, are the voices of both parents and the local community. The Report is quite dismissive of the parents who did manage to find out about and contribute to their public sessions, and suggests (without evidence) that their voices of dissent are in the minority.

Conclusion

The campaigns against academisation at both Sedgehill and Prendergast have shown that there is widespread opposition to going down this route in Lewisham. For the Council to proceed with such an narrowly-thought-through proposal would be a betrayal of the electorate and the children and families of Lewisham who rely on public services to build a better future for themselves.

We urge the councillors who oppose these proposals or have doubts to work with the SAIL campaign, Lewisham NUT and other education unions and the local community to help build a local campaign to find a more broad-thinking, positive alternative to the Commission’s proposals which the local community can supportThe residents of Lewisham have elected a Labour Council and would like to see them oppose the government’s ill-conceived, undemocratic White Paper, defend our schools, support education workers and fight for fully public, well-funded, democratic and comprehensive education.

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