Jonathan Clifton argues that while the government’s school reform agenda has focused very heavily on expanding school autonomy, it has not paid enough attention to the more important issue of how to build capacity within the teaching profession.

While politicians often get hooked on reforming school structures, international evidence shows that lasting change comes from the slow, patient and less glamorous work of building professional capacity. Teachers need the right mix of resources, skills, incentives, support and challenge to improve educational outcomes.

Building capacity in the school system will become increasingly difficult over the next five years. Money will play a big part of the story. IPPR’s modelling shows that schools can expect a cut of around 7.1 per cent to their budgets in real terms, and sixth forms will fare even worse. For many headteachers, this will be the first time in their career that they have had to make large budget cuts, and they will need support to make the best of a difficult situation.

Teacher recruitment and retention will also be tough as the economy picks up and other sectors start hiring. The government is already missing its teacher recruitment target in the majority of subjects, and it is schools in disadvantaged areas that will struggle most. Once teachers enter the profession there is then the longstanding difficulty of preventing them burning out and ensuring that there are high quality development opportunities available. The Teacher Development Trust estimates that only 1 per cent of CPD in schools actually transforms classroom practice.

So what role can policy play? The government have argued that they want to create a ‘school-led’ system where headteachers themselves have the power to run teacher training, offer professional development, open new school chains, design their own curricula and lead their own research. They argue that by increasing school autonomy the capacity of the system to improve will be ‘unleashed’.

There are certainly some exciting signs of where schools and teachers are stepping up to this challenge. The best academy chains are developing new curricula like ‘maths mastery’. Many professionals are engaged with the latest research evidence through the EEF and ResearchEd. The best school leaders can now expand their reach to sponsor other schools. And organisations like Teach First are using their alumni and innovation awards to drive change. All of this is to be welcomed.

But there is a real danger that these nascent initiatives will bump up against the reality of some big structural challenges over the course of the next five years. They are not sufficient to compensate for a £3 billion drop in school funding, a teacher recruitment and retention crisis and a shortage of good academy chains prepared to support weaker schools.

Part of the problem is that the government has been so focused on increasing the number of academies that it has not paid enough attention to the need to build capacity in the system. It expected a market to flourish where individual academies offered to buy and sell support to each other. But in reality schools are heavily incentivised to focus on their own performance and they do not have a commercial mindset to develop and sell services to each other. Many are becoming isolated from networks of support as a result. The number of Teaching Schools and academy chains (who are meant to provide this sort of school-led activity) has grown too slowly, some areas of the country are barely covered, and the quality of what is on offer is variable.

Even more worryingly, the government has actively eroded capacity in some areas of the school system. For example it has side-lined the National College for School Leadership at exactly the time when there is a real need to train headteachers in how to perform the new (and very different) job of being an executive head of an academy chain. In another example, the government has actively prevented good local authorities from opening or overseeing schools, despite the fact that the best local authorities – like Hackney, Barnet and Haringey – outperform even the best of the academy chains on measures of school improvement and overall results. There is lots of potential capacity in the best local authorities but they are prevented from using it. This leaves the government in the strange situation where it is desperate for mediocre academy chains to expand to take on more schools, but it won’t let high performing local authorities do the same.

The government’s vision for creating a school-led system is a good one. It has the potential to unlock innovation and there are exciting signs of energy emerging. However it will only become a reality if the government boost capacity in a system which is facing immense pressure from structural challenges around funding, recruitment, retention and a profession which is weary of reform. In the short-term, the priorities should be to protect the post-16 budget from further cuts (given this is an area that has been hit hardest); allowing high performing local authorities to sponsor new schools or trusts; developing leadership programmes for heads preparing to take on an executive position in an academy chain; rebalancing the accountability system to be less punitive; and pump-priming new school-led initiatives to improve teacher professional development.

This article was originally published in Ambassador, the magazine of Teach First.