Why do people believe our school system is broken?

Since our launch in October 2018, the Confederation of School Trusts has been actively shaping the education policy agenda and speaking on behalf of Trusts.  Bringing together school trusts in England from every region and of every size, CST has a strong, strategic presence with access to government and policy makers to drive real change for education on the big issues that matter most.

I am proud of what we have achieved – and pleased to be working with the Schools and Academies Show. The show is always a good place to meet and network with colleagues – educators, leaders, governors and commercial partners.

In 2018, I did a keynote presentation in the MAT summit on the state of play – I argued that those who think that our education system is broken are wrong. I put forward an argument for why our education system is better than we think.

For those who think our education system is broken, here’s an alternative fact-based world view:

  • At the end of August 2017, 89% of schools were judged to be good or outstanding at their most recent inspection.
  • There are 1.9 million more children studying in good or outstanding schools since 2010.

So what causes people to believe our school system is broken? Hans Rosling’s excellent book, Factfullness, gives us a way of understanding this worldview and challenging it.

Firstly, in Rosling’s terms, it is the ‘gap instinct.’ This is the belief that the world is divided into two – us and them. In the English education system, this translates as academies versus local authority schools, where it is claimed that academies are broken, or indeed breaking our education system.

The debate over the last eight years is about whether academies do better than local authority schools. Because we have been trapped by the gap instinct in this binary thinking, we have lost sight of the real success – that our education system is improving.

Secondly, the view that ‘English schools are broken’ falls prey to the ‘negativity instinct’ – the belief that things are getting worse. This stops us from recognising actual improvements.

Rosling argues that the negativity instinct is fed by stories all around us, but he warns that for journalists, good news is not news. Gradual improvement is not news. And he is not blaming journalists. He points to our basic human dramatic instincts (our need for stories) which sometimes leads us to reach an overdramatic worldview.

Rosling also teaches us to beware of ‘rosy pasts’ – the claim that things were much better in the old days. So let’s beware of this single, dramatic perspective, this un-evidenced view that our schools are broken.

Another dramatic claim about our sector is that academies turn schools into businesses. The claim has been made in multiple ways in the media.

So here’s another fact-based worldview: academy trusts are charities. And all have a single legal and ethical purpose at the heart of their governing document: to advance education for the public benefit.

As charities, academies cannot make a profit. Academies (like all schools) should be financially sustainable and efficient. This is a requirement of schools in almost all education systems. But this does not make them businesses.

Businesses have a single purpose – creating profit. Academies (like all schools) have a single purpose – the education of children and young people. The value proposition of businesses (profit) is fundamentally different from schools (education).

The view that academies turn schools into businesses is not fact-based. It is fear-based. The reality is that the vast majority of academy trusts do indeed advance education for public benefit.

Of course, there some exceptions which attract big headlines – “Collapsing academy trust ‘asset-stripped its schools of millions” (The Guardian, 21 October 2017). This could lead the public to believe that all academy trusts behave in this way. This is the ‘generalisation instinct.’  Rosling warns us to beware of vivid examples – often, as in this case, these are the exception. It is a sad truth that one can find a very small number of examples of unacceptable behaviour in all types of schools – but they are the exception, not the rule.

A new narrative

So instead of dramatic stories, unnecessary negativity, rosy pasts and generalisations, let’s focus on the good in our system. Let’s abandon the horrible terminology of SATs and MATs. Instead let’s talk about school trusts.

A school trust is first and foremost an education charity – an organisation set up purely for the purpose of running and improving schools. And what is wrong with this? Canada, one of the most liberal education systems in the world organises its schools into boards. School boards are not part of municipal authorities. They are organisations set up purely for the purposes of running and improving schools. This is a good thing.

And now I’d like to take this one step further. I believe school trusts are new civic structures, civic trusts if you like. I believe trust leaders are civic leaders with a duty and responsibility to work with other civic partners, including local authorities, to advance education in the locality as a public good.

Let’s look up and out. Let’s work together in civic partnership to ensure the value of the child, so that our collective actions protect high-quality education in our towns, cities and localities.

At this show, in Birmingham 2019, I’ll be taking up this theme. I very much look forward to meeting and talking with all of you and continuing to advocate for the power of school trusts.

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Leora Cruddas, Chief Executive of CST

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