Why do people believe our school system is broken?

October 1, 2019 Chris Callaghan

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

Follow us on twitter: @CSTVoice

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