Mr Hobby, I am pleased that you have been able to come to give evidence to the Committee. May I ask you a couple of favours? First, before we open the question and answer period, would you present yourself and your CV? Secondly, because this is a terrible room for acoustics—you are not supposed to admit to things like that in Parliament, but it really is not very good at all—would you raise your voice a little bit? It would help the Members. We will not be in this room in future—you have been unfortunate, as we have, to land here today. Without further ado, will you present yourself to the Committee?
Since time is very short and we do not have the pleasure of your company for long, can you tell us, as succinctly as possible, what you think about the Bill and what you would do to amend or improve it?
Russell Hobby: Okay. In a spirit of constructive criticism, the first issue is whether the Bill genuinely defines what we would normally regard as coasting schools. I think there is potential within the definition for some schools at the secondary level that we would normally regard as fitting the definition of coasting: those with affluent or privileged intakes who manage to achieve over the 60% hurdle but do not make adequate progress on that. It seems to me a better definition of schools that have been average for a long period of time rather than what we would normally define as coasting.
There is an issue in that we are already raising the performance standards while we are still waiting for new standards to be implemented. There is a risk of that being perceived by headteachers as more pressure being added to that. That is magnified by the fact that two of the years over which this is measured are retrospective—they have already delivered their performance for those two years. People complain a lot about not being able to predict what is around the corner in education and they also cannot predict what has happened in the past, to a degree, as a result of this.
We reckon that there are about 700 primary schools and perhaps 400 secondary schools that would fall within the definition of coasting and probably 60% of those—certainly at the primary level—have got a good inspection rating. They will have thought that they had done everything that had been set for them, but now they have a new bar to climb over.
Russell Hobby: Not if the definition of average keeps shifting as schools improve themselves over time. It is particularly hard at secondary level, where the exam results are re-normed year on year to ensure that a similar balance of results comes out, so secondary schools can find themselves in a bit of a rat race on that front.
It is right that we should raise our standards from time to time and we should reset that bar. The difficulty is, if the level of pressure on schools is too high—let us face it, they have dealt with five years of quite extreme pressure on that front—some of the effects on education can be negative. Rather than just raising standards, you get narrowed curricula, teaching to the test and people leaving the environment, so you find it harder to recruit headteachers to work in the most challenging schools.
A final question. Could the whole issue of coasting schools be dealt with in the inspection regime? Is there a danger that there could be confusion about accountability if we have two separate regimes running side by side?
Russell Hobby: That danger does exist. We now have two separate systems with no read-across between the Ofsted categories of “requires improvement”, “good” and “inadequate” and the new definition of coasting. You will find schools in every Ofsted grade that will fit that definition—in fact, I think you will find slightly more “good” schools than schools in “requires improvement” meeting the definition.
There is a risk that schools will feel that they are working towards two distinct and different sets of criteria. We have always thought that schools should be accountable, but it is helpful if they are accountable in one direction and have one set of standards so that they can focus their efforts on that.
If having a good headteacher is the best indicator of success in a school, what would you like to see in the legislation to increase the numbers of good headteachers?
Russell Hobby: We have taken the first step, which is to move away from vague generalisations of what a coasting school is to start to define what coasting schools are. One of the risks was that a lot of schools were looking over their shoulders, wondering whether they were coasting and, therefore, a lot of people were thinking, “That’s not the sort of school that I would want to go and work in” if there were extra pressures arising.
In favour of the legislation and the regulations being provided, although I have my concerns around the definition, we have now got a more graduated response to those schools that are judged as coasting. Rather than the default assumption being that you will sack the headteacher and academise the school, it is now proposed—at least as written—that you will look for a credible plan of improvement within the school and look to partner the school with other good local schools or national leaders of education. Only then will you move down into forced academisation. I am not sure that that message has reached many school leaders yet. If it does, that might reassure some of the people working in these coasting and challenging schools.
At the same time, some of the checks and balances have been removed or are proposed to be removed. The regional schools commissioners now have a great deal of discretion in determining whether the plan of improvement is credible and who the school should be paired up with. A school’s ability to represent and defend itself is not particularly enshrined within the regulations. School leaders will be wondering, “It’s all very well having the challenge, but do I have the chance to make my case or will I be rushed through a change?” I would look at strengthening those aspects, if possible.
Russell Hobby: Yes. It is essential that you use a progress measure. If I have understood it correctly, it is an either/or—a school can demonstrate either high attainment or high progress. If it reflects the approach to the current floor standards, that is good. It is possible for a school to exceed the floor on attainment alone, as currently proposed, which means that a school with a high-attaining intake could benefit from that. For example, I believe that a few grammar schools fall within the definition of coasting at the moment. The balance between those might need to be looked at. I understand that you switch entirely to progress as a measure at secondary level in three years’ time, when we have the new progress 8. In primary, it remains a balance.
I should emphasise that none of us are entirely sure what the progress measures will look like. They have not been used or tested. The level at which the bar is set remains to be defined and is, in fact, defined in retrospect for each of those years. The very structure of the primary progress measure and how it relates to either the reception baseline or key stage 1 has not yet been explored either. There is a lot of uncertainty on what progress looks like when used, but it is the right measure to use.
Russell Hobby: If we can agree on a fair definition of a coasting school, it is appropriate that every school should stretch itself and all its pupils to the full extent. Challenging coasting schools is the right thing to do. Whether legislation, academy orders and the process of academisation are the right way to provide that challenge is more open to debate. I have said that I feel you have inserted a few layers before academisation, which is reassuring. That is the right way, but academisation is still there as a backstop.
We do not know for sure how quick the regional schools commissioners might be to say, “I don’t believe in your plan of improvement. I don’t believe in your capacity to improve as a school and therefore I’m going straight to academisation.” Indeed, as I understand it, the Bill permits that to be made as a very quick decision. The evidence that the structural change to academy status will stop a school from coasting is not as strong as the Government might wish. Other interventions might be more appropriate.
Are you not happy that we are using national leaders of education as part of the intervention process, before any decision has been made about academisation, and that that cadre—many of whom are, I presume, members of your association—will be at the forefront of challenging, tackling, helping and supporting coasting schools?
Russell Hobby: Yes. Those first two layers of the intervention are the right ones to have—so, “First of all, prove to me as a school that you can do it by yourselves. If not, work with someone else and then I will look at converting you.” But that is very much what the Government has described will happen, rather than there being any protections to ensure that it happens. I do not believe that there is anything to stop a regional schools commissioner saying, “I don’t believe you have a plan of improvement and I think the most appropriate solution is academy conversion.”
We know that they also have performance indicators around the numbers of academies in their area, or at least they used to. There is a suspicion that it is their preferred solution—it is more than a suspicion; it is their preferred solution in many instances. Sometimes they will be right, but sometimes it will not be the right thing.
I am not clear what chance the school has to make its case. What does a credible plan of improvement look like? How quickly does it have to put the case together? I am sure that the current generation of regional schools commissioners will handle it well, but people change and it would be nice for the Department to be clear on its protocol for how it will happen. Mistakes were made with the academy brokers; they operated somewhat under the radar, without clear agendas and without due process. That alienated a lot of school leaders and tarnished the academy brand. The Government have talked about the urgency of change, but sometimes provoking conflict and suspicion can delay change. You have schools that might otherwise wish to convert to academies digging their heels in because they do not like the way it is being handled.
All the Ministers have made it clear that they want a real approach to school improvement, using national leaders of education and looking at the plans of the schools. You should be reassured on that front. Thank you for your evidence.
Mr Hobby, there may shortly be a vote and two Members have indicated that they wish to ask a question, so I will take both questions together. Could you sum up quickly, because I think we will leave shortly?
In a follow-up to the shadow Minister’s question, you expressed concern about the confusion in the framework for monitoring and evaluation that could result from this. How would that play out in a school and what impact would having different authorities responsible for different areas of monitoring, evaluation and standards have on the leadership of the school?
Russell Hobby: Two quick responses. Headteacher boards are a good idea in principle, but I agree with one of the previous witnesses who doubted the capacity of the current framework to meet all the schools required. You probably need more regional schools commissioners and more boards to support and advise them, and in the long term, see how that plays out. You have to be really careful about conflicts of interest on the headteacher boards though. These are leading academy chief executives and headteachers who may have an interest in some of the decisions being made. I am sure that they all do it from the principle of what is best for the children, but they need to ensure that the perception is there as well. There is a lack of transparency in some of their deliberations and I think that they will need to ensure that they protect themselves against that.
In terms of the multiple overlapping accountability frameworks, I think that is one of the most difficult parts of the system. When you are getting different messages from different people—one inspectorate tells you that you are good, another group tells you that you are coasting—it damages the legitimacy of some of the accountability measures in the eyes of school leaders. What am I—a good school or not a good school? Who is right? One phenomenon that you get in the education system is an amplification of other people’s accountability. Knowing that, for example, as a “requires improvement” school you have three years to improve—it is a fair timescale—but your local authority, knowing that it will be held to account for your performance, may come in after two years and say, “That’s no longer good enough.” Your governing body, knowing that it will be held to account by the local authority, may come in after one year and say, “That’s not good enough.” What often eventuates is that otherwise reasonable timescales—because three years seems to me to be a reasonable timescale in which to demonstrate improvement in a school—get truncated because the same people are accountable to each other. We never chart the different pressures and how they are magnified coming through the system. A streamlined approach to accountability, where schools knew that they had one set of targets, one group of people judging and a right of appeal, would allow heads to concentrate on improving their schools rather than reporting to stakeholders.
Thank you very much indeed. We will examine your remarks thoroughly and digest them. We may come back to you either on that or other questions. One or two other Members from both sides of the Committee have indicated that they would like to ask questions, so you might get a response back from the Committee. We thank you for your attendance. Members need to be aware that there is likely to be a vote any minute.