UK: To Solve Ed Crisis of Mediocrity, Promote Academies

In a column for The Daily Telegraph, James O'Shaughnessy writes that David Cameron was right to say that Britain stands at a crossroads. In a speech at the Conservative Party conference, Cameron said that unless the country places its focus on improving education, along with reducing welfare dependency and the national debt, this could be the beginning of Britain's long-term decline.

It is no overstatement to say that English schools are mired in mediocrity. On last year's league tables, 40% of schools were ranked merely satisfactory or worse. According to Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, even the word itself is somewhat of a fig-leaf, as the schools marked "satisfactory" often produce academic outcomes that are distinctly sub-par.

The question is, what steps can the Government take to put the country's school system back on track?

The first piece of good news is that the academy programme is working. According to both the National Audit Office and the London School of Economics, failing schools that have been turned into academies under new sponsors are performing better than those that did not. So the expansion of the academies programme will help raise standards, as will the influence of innovative new free schools. But ultimately this policy was designed to turn round a few hundred schools, not for helping the thousands of schools that now need to improve.

O'Shaughnessy suggests that Gove start encouraging academies to organize into groups that will share a single mission and form one legal and financial entity. Recent data suggest that such groups maintain academic standards that are even higher than individual academies and bring a higher quality of education to students at their campuses.

Any government assistance to the academies and academy chains can generate great returns. For example, successful organizations could serve as training grounds for the next generation of educators, says O'Shaughnessy. Furthermore, that could serve as a solution of last resort for those schools that have been converted into academies yet are still failing. The management of such schools can be turned over to a successful chain for further overhaul.

Still, even supporting academy chains might not take the school system all the way from mediocrity to excellence. To do that, the Government must be open to all ideas — including those offered by the private sector. Any school that fails to improve within the boundaries of government oversight, should be thrown open to private sector operators.

 The school and its assets would stay in the charitable sector, but they would be able to access the expertise of private providers who would be paid by results. Any objections to the private sector trying where the state and voluntary sectors have failed should be dismissed for what they are – ideological prejudice. There are countless examples of the private sector delivering excellent services to citizens across the public sector, from the NHS to special educational needs provision. Mainstream schooling should be no different.

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