Making all schools academies imperils children’s life chances

Making all schools academies imperils children’s life chances
Now, following George Osborne’s announcement that every state primary and secondary must become an academy by 2022 at the latest, it is the reputation of the current education secretary, Nicky Morgan, that is in danger of being tainted by the quest for permanent revolution. It could well be that she will now remembered as fondly in the education world as Andrew (now Lord) Lansley is regarded by staff in the health service. The top-down, unwanted reorganisation she will now push forward has parallels with the Lansley NHS reforms. They appear just as ideologically driven from the centre and ill thought-out and are probably doomed to failure. They risk discrediting the entire academy programme.

Organic change will be replaced by very expensive top-down reconfiguration at a time when schools are already being asked to introduce a huge range of sweeping reforms. These include changing the way primary school children are assessed (known as Assessment without Levels), which is already throwing the primary sector into turmoil, as teachers struggle to know what to compare year on year. In secondary education, the GCSE, and shortly the A-level curriculum, has been completely rewritten, with new programmes of study, and A star to C grades replaced by a numerical formula that will make nine the most outstanding and five an extremely good C grade. All this when teacher shortages are endemic and recruiting good headteachers a challenge right across the country. Michael Gove may have moved on but his spirit is still rampant in the Department for Education.

Let me declare an interest. I was secretary of state for education and employment when a policy to introduce academy status for schools in challenging circumstances – ones that needed outside support – was first put in place. I am in favour of the kind of school autonomy that puts emphasis on excellence in leadership and teaching, allows innovation and permits those in charge to draw on examples of brilliance wherever it exists. I was therefore relieved over the last year to find a subtle shift in the way this government was promoting its own version of the academy programme. Namely, abandoning what Michael Wilshaw had called “atomisation”, in which freestanding individual schools went off on their own, often spending money they didn’t have, on non-classroom activity that had previously been provided much more cost effectively by combining in what were called local education authorities.

Making all schools academies imperils children’s life chances

The switch from advocating isolation and fragmentation saw the development of multi-academy trusts (MATs), in effect, mini-education services but without boundaries. The best multi-academy trusts have drawn voluntarily on outside expertise, rethinking how schools can work together, including learning from the London Challenge, when and where they wish to. In simple terms, this has meant schools working with schools to answer local needs, collaborating and sharing, allowing head teachers to work co-operatively on issues such as teacher training, sharing services and, of course, the use of new technology.

So what on earth can be driving the present government to embark on a further, forced top-down and compulsory reorganisation to replace organic reform? It is mystifying why so many primary schools already judged good and outstanding will be forced to conform to new structures, at huge cost, when money is so scarce. In high-performing areas, we appear to be confronting problems that don’t exist, rather than concentrating on using flexibility and autonomy as weapons to tackle underperformance where standards have to be raised to address failure – the original objective of academies.

We also heard last week that parents are to be excluded from school governing bodies in a system run entirely from the centre by politicians. What kind of autonomy is this? And how, we should ask, are local authorities to be expected to fulfil their statutory obligation to find places for all children in their areas when they no longer have oversight over school improvement and planning and do not have the power to determine school expansion?

Just as worrying, though, is the impracticality of the whole project. Where are all these new leaders of MATs going to come from? And how big will those organisations grow? We know that there is an optimum size beyond which such MATs become dysfunctional. There are approximately 15,500 mainly small primary schools that are not currently part of academy trusts and a large proportion of them are judged good or outstanding by Ofsted. It has been estimated that this could cost between £25,000 and £50,000 per transfer. The government has allocated £140m but the true estimate could be somewhere between £500m and £700m.

In addition, diverting school leaders away from the task of improvement, as well as enticing many of them to become trust executives, will inevitably have a chain reaction through the system. Add to this the pressure on legal services currently required to provide advice on the process of academisation, and the wide implications of a wholesale rush to restructure become all too apparent.

But here is another thought. The decision to downgrade the role of local authorities in planning the school places, identifying land and contributing through local assets to additional investment for school expansion adds to the already confused situation. The power of the new regional school commissioners, who are responsible directly to the secretary of state, places them under enormous pressure. They have the job of “brokering” new schools, overseeing the transfer to academisation and, more recently, distinguishing themselves from Ofsted in taking on a wider responsibility for school improvement.