School rules: Charities and the changing education sector

By Shona Curvers 29 April 2016

As a non-native, I find the education system in England a little bit confusing. There is lots of unfamiliar terminology, many different types of schools that all adhere to difference guidelines, and a barrage of conflicting messages circulating in the media. This is why I welcomed NPC’s proposal to research, and thus to understand better, the school system and how charities fit into it.

The result of this research, School report, systematically considers the different roles that charities play in the education system, looking at the benefits and challenges that they face within these roles. At the launch event this week, the panelists and attendees responded to the report and discussed the important role of charities in supporting the school system at present.

Everyone in the room seemed to be in agreement that the school system is currently going through some significant transformations. The Government’s focus on academisation, the diminishing role of local authorities, and the growing autonomy of schools has resulted in an increasingly fragmented schools system. Not only are these changes impacting the way schools are operating, but they are also having knock-on effects on the work being done by charities in this area.

As explored in the report, a few key questions have emerged from these changes.

One concern is that although charities are being forced to adjust the way they work with schools in order to remain relevant, it’s not always clear what this adjustment should look like. Charities often don’t fully understand the pressures that schools are facing, and are missing out on the chance to meaningfully engage with them as a result.

On top of this, the fragmented landscape has meant the commissioning of charities’ services is now happening on a school-by-school basis. Charities need to better understand the commissioning environment in order to make the most of these opportunities.

There is also work to be done when it comes to improving the ability of charities to scale their interventions. What approach do they need to take in order to maximise their chances of success?

A stimulating discussion unfolded at the event and gave rise to a more systemic question: at what point it is appropriate to challenge the system as a whole and the shortage of resources, rather than focusing on how charities can better fill these gaps? Where are the independent and authoritative bodies campaigning on behalf of the education sector? Whilst the work being done by the Fair Education Alliance to reduce inequality in the school system is a positive step in this direction, campaigning is an area that demands attention.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, and the optimism and passion left hanging in the air after the launch event was testament to this. This is undoubtedly a period of great uncertainty for schools and charities working in education, but there is also the potential to use this as an opportunity to try new things, be creative, think innovatively, and investigate what really works.

An important part of this includes looking to digital technology and considering the benefits that it can provide, and the collaboration that it can facilitate. Indeed, partnerships are essential, not only between charities and schools, but between schools themselves. Now is a time when charities should not be shying away from risks, but appropriately evaluating them and the impact their work might have.

We might be in a period of uncertainty, but the huge potential for progress in our schools is a sure thing.

Download the full paper, School Report: How can charities work best in the school system?