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Is the Structure of the English Education Sector Holding It Back?

There is no doubt that education in England faces complex challenges over the next few years, but are problems exacerbated by the way schools and academies are structured? Do we face a structural crisis in education? 

An esteemed panel of education experts debated this topic at the Schools & Academies Show, which took place at ExCeL London on 1st May. Expertly chaired by Jon Severs, the editor of Tes, the well-attended debate proved lively and thought-provoking. 

Muddling Through? 

It was apt that Severs' first question was put to Tom Richmond, the director and founder of EDSK, a think tank that publishes reports on the barriers preventing learners from reaching their full potential. Earlier this year, EDSK published a report with the less-than-complimentary title “20 Years of Muddling Through”. 

Asked about the fundamental structural problem, Richmond said, "We are wasting a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort trying to prop up two separate state-funded systems using different software systems. There is so much waste, and the current setup is a bit of a mess. It is the disadvantaged and most vulnerable learners who are the biggest losers.   

"There are 200 different admission systems with different schools making up their own minds. Some academies are excellently prioritising inclusion, but others are not listening to what the fair access protocol is telling them to do. They're not taking their fair proportion of vulnerable kids."  

With such a fragmented system, Severs asked Steve Rollett, deputy chief executive at the Confederation of School Trusts, if this was top of the agenda when talking to politicians. 

Rollett acknowledged the scale of the problem but believed that other issues were of more immediate concern. He said, "There are four issues we believe the government needs to focus on:  

  1. The recruitment and retention of the workforce.  

  2. The funding of schools.  

  3. Sensible accountability and regulation.  

  4. The availability of key services for children."  

For PaulGosling, immediate past president of the National Association of Head Teachers, the biggest structural problems are due to a basic lack of leadership. 

"There is a massive crisis throughout education, from recruitment to school buildings," declared Gosling. "In schools, everyone is working really hard, whatever system they're in. The system has some inefficiencies, but we really want leadership, not muddling through.  

Gosling continued, "It's all been an experiment, a Darwinian evolution with small and large trusts coming together. We do need to grapple with this confusion, and clear leadership is the answer. Without this, we will lose more good people. We want clarity for the workforce but also to ensure that children are at the centre of whatever happens.” 

Emma Balchin, co-chief executive officer of the National Governance Association, raised the additional issue of raising governance standards. 

"We must tackle negligent or bad governance, as it can distract from teaching and how we look after the most vulnerable children. The senior leaders and governors must be aligned in their thinking so that everybody pulls in the same direction." 

Richmond pressed the case for pushing structural reform higher up the agenda. "Having an unstable or fragmented school system is going to make solving all the other big issues harder," he said. "My pitch to the Labour Party is to tackle these problems, even if parents will not tell you that this is what you need to focus on. Keir Starmer talks about a decade of renewal. A stable government can think long-term and bring in a stable education system, so I am optimistic." 

Many panellists spoke of the lack of funding and the heavy toll that has taken on disadvantaged and SEND pupils. Gosling believes that education is very low on the government's priorities at the moment, so when an election is called, we all need to ensure it receives more attention. "We need to grasp the mettle and finish some of the uncompleted projects. And at least give people some clarity. I think local authorities have a key role in ensuring that they advocate for children and people working in education." 

Will trusts continue to grow? 

The growth of academies has been rapid and relentless. Severs asked if this trend should continue.  

Rollett emphasised that it was time for academies to demonstrate their value. He declared that the idea of all schools being in a strong, resilient grouping is the right destination. He noted that more than half of schools are now academies, and over 50% of pupils have been educated in academies for some time.  

"We're past the tipping point," he said. "It is not a question of government pushing schools into academies, but it's for the trust sector to make the positive case as to why joining that resilient, welcoming group of schools is the right thing. We're not pushing for a particular size trust. What we are pushing for is a coherent strategy." 

Gosling questioned whether the best needs of a school are always considered. "Is it just about saving money? Is it about trying to serve the needs of a locality? These questions need to be answered by the government and then they need to set the system up to deliver it. At the moment, I don't think we've got any leadership on this; we've got a kind of Wild West. It just looks messy and incoherent." 

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Can schools choose the trust they join? 

"I think it's the school's decision in most cases," responded Balchin. "We haven't had an influx of members contacting our advice line in a panic about the fact that the decision has been taken away from them. The academies that do have less say tend to be sponsored academies. There is less choice because there are a limited number of trusts with the right capacity available. In the interests of children and young people, the trust must have the capacity to be able to support an incoming school." 

Do trusts have the capacity to grow? 

With Balchin raising the capacity issue, Rollett was asked if this is a concern.  

He answered: "Capacity is about having the teachers and leaders, having the funding and investment to retain and develop leaders, and it's about having the capital investment. If a trust takes on a school, it needs to be able to put in an experienced leader, not someone who walks around the corridors with a clipboard for a day, makes a few changes, and disappears for six months.  

"You need to be able to put people into those settings for a sustained period, who can sometimes put an arm around people who might be feeling battered and bruised. We need funding, but we also need the expertise to ensure that resources are deployed really effectively." 

Is poor communication a problem?  

With a fragmented system, there can be a lack of clarity regarding local decision-making. Severs asked the panel for their thoughts on improving the system. 

While acknowledging that there's no such thing as a perfect school system, Richmond asserted that the worst part of what we have is the lack of clarity. "I have a lot of sympathy with local authorities, not just because they've had so many funding issues over the past 10-15 years, but because no one's actually told them what they're supposed to do.  

"We've had three attempts by a Conservative-led government to say we're going to have full academisation, and it's fallen down three times. It leaves some local authorities running the local school system, while in other parts of the country, there are now essentially no local authority schools at all." 

Rollett cautioned against a creeping centralisation: "We need to be able to empower the trusts. There has always been a degree of fragmentation. I've worked in local authority schools where the drawbridge would come up, and there'd be competition between the two schools—that has always been in the system."  

"I'm seeing a move towards more connectivity," added Rollett. Recently, in Birmingham, 300 directors of improvement were locked into a day-long conversation about how they were going to improve education by working together. The challenge is ensuring that head teachers and trust leaders have the expertise and resources they need. 

Balchin joined the conversation. "We all pride ourselves on speaking to our members, looking for examples of good practice that work, and then sharing these. But we're not in the business of telling board members or trustees how they should set their governance structures. What works for one might not necessarily work for another. It's not just a one-size-fits-all at the local level." 

The role of regional directors 

Regional directors have been appointed to work locally across children's social care, SEND, schools, and area-based programmes to improve outcomes for children, families, and learners. Severs wondered if this has been a success? 

Richmond believes that the regions have been given a challenging task, and he has received mixed reviews about whether they can deliver. He added that the commitment is there, but the available resources are lacking. 

Holland also raised the continuity issue, noting that it is still ultimately a set of civil servants reporting to the Department of Education. He was worried that their remit could change very, very quickly and not necessarily in a healthy direction.  

Holland proposed a new independent school regulator, a bit like Ofqual, which regulates the exam system. He said, "It sits outside the Department of Education and has a remit in legislation, not just whatever the current minister says that day. This kind of structure will at least give us some stability."  


The big-picture conversation about the actual education structure can be neglected with so many day-to-day issues around staff retention, building quality, and managing tight resources. Despite coming from diverse disciplines within the sector, the panellists discussed and agreed on many common themes. The debate has gone beyond schools versus academies. The dilemma now is to ensure cohesion within education, with strong leadership essential. Without clarity and clear communication, it is very difficult for education professionals to build better futures for children. The overwhelming conclusion was that the next government must deliver a clear, well-defined, and long-term strategy. 

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