George Osborne used his 2016 Budget speech in March to announce that every state primary and secondary must become an academy by 2022 at the latest. In the absence of any discernible problem to which wholesale academisation might offer a solution, it is difficult not to conclude that the decree was driven by little more than a mixture of ideology and funding constraints.
In common with the scores of local parents that contacted me in the wake of the Chancellor’s announcement, I have serious concerns about this Government’s vision for our education system. There is no doubt that some academies, especially those established in the first wave that targeted poorly performing schools in deprived urban areas, have served their pupils well. However, there is scant evidence that academy status in and of itself – as opposed to extra funding, good leadership and excellent teaching – leads to school improvement.
I believe that the Government’s focus on academisation at all costs and as the only route to driving up standards is wrong-headed. Moreover, I believe that the balance in our schools’ system of wholesale academistaion with little or no local accountability or regard for place has gone way too far in one direction – towards Whitehall. What is needed is greater local government oversight of education to ensure better collaboration, provision of places, fairer treatment of excluded or SEN children and local accountability. Instead, this latest announcement has all the hallmarks of an ill-thought out, top down central reorganisation of the kind that health professionals in our NHS are still struggling to cope with.
Of course, the Government have already legislated to accelerate the conversion of more schools to academy status. The Education and Adoption Act, which has now completed its passage through Parliament, gives the Secretary of State the power to make an academy order if a school is deemed to be “coasting”, removes any requirement to consult on conversion, and strengthens the Secretary of State’s powers to issue warning notices directly to schools, thus making the school “eligible for intervention”. The Government intends the proposals outlined in the White Paper released on Thursday to build upon that existing legislation although it is notable that the thorny issues of how they intend to deliver such a rapid expansion of academies or to fund them remain to be seen.
Throughout the last Parliament, the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s local school improvement strategy, built upon the principles of collaborative working across the local family of schools, helped our schools improve sufficiently so that the challenge from the Department for Education (DfE) for forced academisation was fought off (e.g. in the cases of Foxfield and Morden Mount). The local authority also sidestepped the academy presumption by providing new capacity through expanding good local schools (e.g. Invicta Deptford and the new James Wolfe campus on Royal Hill).
Currently, none of the primary schools in the Borough are academies and very few are at immediate risk, owing to their success, as a result of being judged inadequate by Ofsted. Nine of our thirteen secondary and post-16 schools are already academies and some are potentially at risk of an immediate forced conversion as a result of being judged, or being expected to be judged in the near future, inadequate by Ofsted.
However, the context in which we are now operating brings new challenges. Labour would change that national context if it formed a Government but with little prospect of an imminent election each of our local schools are likely to face a choice in the coming years. They can wait and run the risk of forced academisation without parental consultation, either in the near future if the fall into the “coasting” category under the provisions of the Education and Adoption Act or if the Government are able to pass legislation to force all schools to become academies. Or they can explore alternatives that might ensure that the transition to academy status is at least led by our outstanding local schools, that as many schools as possible stay firmly rooted within the local ‘family’ of schools and that each continues to work closely with the local authority by taking part in a local “multi-academy trust” or local federations to maintain and protect their ethos from a hostile takeover.
It is important to note that there is absolutely no need for schools to act hastily. In my opinion there is no imperative, for example, for the John Roan to make a decision on transfer to academy status at this point in time. However, in the incredibly hostile and unwelcome environment in which they may soon find themselves, I believe that there is a case for Governing Bodies to give serious consideration about how best to manage the transition that is likely to come by looking at ways they can protect themselves, their values, their links with the local community, their relationship with the LA and as part of our local family of schools. To alternative will, I fear, increase the likelihood of forced academisation and the risk, in such circumstances, that our schools are forced into academy “chains” that have no vested interest in local pupils or local staff.
Of course, the ultimate decision in each case, including with regard to whether now is the right time or whether it is best to wait and see, will not rest with politicians or Local Authority officers but with each individual Governing Body. As such, it is crucial that each school’s consultation is transparent, clear, should last for an appropriate amount of time and should facilitate proper scrutiny of any proposed change. It is for that reason that I have made clear that in principle I support parental ballots.
Over the coming months I will be urging the Government to rethink its position on this issue. The wholesale forced academisation of schools is a costly and unnecessary reorganisation of the schools system. It will reduce parent choice and, alongside plans to scrap parent governors, cut parents out of the picture. Government time would be better spent focusing on the real problems currently facing our education system: a teacher recruitment and retention crisis, a broken school places system and a widening attainment gap between poor pupils and their peers.