Jonny Uttley, CEO of The Education Alliance multi-academy trust, based in East Yorkshire, writes for the Commission on Young Lives.
Ministers have relatively few levers to pull to make schools do what they want. Whether we like it or not, and many of us don't, one of the most effective levers is the accountability system. The metrics politicians choose to measure school success, and the carrots and sticks that come with them, can and do influence decision-making at school or trust level.
Look at the increase in EBacc uptake in secondary schools. Did this come from Nick Gibb winning the hearts and minds of teachers and parents that his personal vision of a balanced curriculum was a good one? Of course not! It came from putting it at the heart of school performance measures, along with the stick of Ofsted and the carrot of designations like Teaching School Hub, Behaviour Hub or additional MAT growth funding. Similarly, the most egregious and blatant off-rolling was reined in (to an extent) when Ofsted made it a focus of inspection and primary schools embraced systematic synthetic phonics when success in phonics screenings became a key measure.
Many agree that the next government needs to overhaul our current model, with a growing consensus that graded Ofsted judgements and context-free Progress 8 are two big-ticket items that should end up in Room 101. Some form of "balanced scorecard" would surely be a better way to recognise the complexity of the work that schools and trusts do and to report that to the communities we serve.
If accountability is on the table, then this is a pitch for a tweak to ensure that all state schools offer a truly inclusive education and to create a system in which all schools and trusts do their very best to meet the needs of all young people. In my experience, the vast majority of schools do indeed do their best. We may not always get it right, but we don't say "we can't meet need" when in fact we can. However, the truth of the matter is that some schools say exactly that to the families of some of our most vulnerable young people. There is a minority of schools that put barriers in the way for pupils with SEND or challenging behaviour; these schools say they can't meet the needs of the child but suggest that perhaps the school up the road can. We know this happens because one of that schools in our trust is a school that another school directs parents to - a magnet school.
The motivation of leaders who do this is a mystery to me, but it may have something to do with their desire to win the zero-sum game that sits at the heart of our accountability system. And though the reasons may be difficult to unravel and will rarely be admitted, the evidence of this practice is not hard to find. It is there in published data - the proportion of children on roll with EHCPs when compared to neighbouring and similar schools.
Consider these very real cases:
School A and school B are neighbours. At school A, 1% of pupils have EHCPs, while at school B, 4.1% of pupils do, this compares with 2.1% nationally. In similar sized schools, that is 7 pupils with EHCPs versus 35 pupils. Or perhaps consider School C and school D, again both neighbours. School C has 0.5 % while school D has 2.3% - 6 pupils versus 35 in similar-sized school. Schools A and C belong to trusts that are lauded for their results and have been allowed to grow rapidly, because Progress 8 trumps everything and no questions are asked about why the schools educate so few children with EHCPs while neighbouring schools educate so many.
If we want a truly high-quality, inclusive education system (something the DfE insists it does through its new strong trust descriptors), then we must become much more concerned about this issue and put it at the heart of a reformed accountability system. No school should be seen as strong, and no trust should be allowed to grow, if high proportions of pupils with EHCPs in its catchment area attend other schools, without a really compelling and fully audited explanation. I recognise this is not straightforward and we need to guard against unintended consequences with any accountability measure, but the work of FFT Datalab shines a light on the issue through analysis of the profiles of schools' cohorts and the extent to which they reflect the areas in which they are located. This provides one approach that would allow the issue to be fully explored.
I am yet to meet a school leader who says they do not value inclusive education. The elephant in the room though, is that the data and the experience of far too many families says otherwise.
For better or worse, accountability metrics influence the behaviour of leaders, governors and trusts. If we want a school system where every school and trust take equal responsibility for our most vulnerable young people, then we need a system that holds all of us to account and stops rewarding poor behaviour.
Jonny Uttley is the CEO of The Education Alliance multi-academy trust, based in East Yorkshire. The trust is made up of 11 schools across primary, secondary and alternative provision, serving around 7,000 young people.