Friday 18 March 2016

Academies: the not so hidden agendas

Once upon at time secondary schools in England were called either  just that, secondary schools, or high schools,or grammar schools.  Some posh ones (eg Eton) were called colleges.  There were also a few secondary technical schools or colleges, though, unfortunately these never really took off.  After the famous 1944 Education Act unselective secondary schools were called secondary moderns. The nomenclature didn't necessarily mean much.  Leeds Modern School, which Allen Bennett attended, was actually a highly selective academic school.

Scotland, which has a different education system (and examinations and degree courses) to England and Wales, called its secondary schools academies, which has a certain grandiose cachet, though as far as I know they were not necessarily selective. To English ears the title has a certain up-market sound and, when I took a group of boys on a youth-hostelling tour of Cornwall in the early 60s, when we got to Land's End and had a group photograph taken under the signpost with one arm pointing to "John O Groats, 874 miles"we filled in the personal arm with "Walford Academy 279 miles" as a joke because we were actually a secondary modern.

Too many people in this country, not just the government, seem to think that one sure-fire  way of improving something is to change its name.  So when the Windscale Atomic Power Station blew up we renamed it Sellafield. The Labour Government of Tony Blair hit on the idea of taking poor-performing secondary schools in deprived areas into their control and calling them academies.  I suppose their intentions were good: they wanted to give them bit of status.  The Conservative-led government of 2010-15 hi-jacked the idea and bullied all sorts of other schools into becoming  academies, ostensibly to "free them from local government control" and enable them to flourish under the sponsorship of some non-elected, sometimes charitable, often business-orientated, body.

In last Wednesday's budget it was announced that all schools, primary and secondary, are to be forced to become academies.  Why this decision should be made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the finance minister, rather than the Secretary of State for Education, is a mystery, unless it gives a clue to the true motive for the change.

The excuse of "freeing the schools from  local government control" is a nonsense for two reasons.

The first, baldly, is that the powers of local authorities have been so stripped away by this and previous governments that they now have virtually no control over schools, or anything else for that matter: they just provide suitable fall-guys for when things go wrong.

Second, the idea that local authority control was stultifying is a complete myth.  Some authorities were highly innovative.  I was educated by, and worked during much of my career for, the West Riding County  Council, which under its Chief Education Officer, Sir Alec Clegg, was internationally famous, particularly for its work  at primary level.  The Leicestershire authority introduced Middle Schools, which were regarded as the bees knees for many years, were copied my many other authorities and were very popular with parents,  though they seem to have gone out of favour now.

No authorities had anything like complete control of the schools in their charge - they had representatives on the boards of governors who, among other responsibilities, decided on the curriculum to be followed.

All of them administered such routine  tasks as:
  • paying the teachers, maintenance, ground  and cleaning staff, looking after employment conditions, superannuation, sick and maternity pay, thus enabling heads and staff in the schools to concentrate on their true expertise, education the children;
  • bulk purchases of materials for the schools, which probably saved a lot of money;
  • planning for new schools as population movements demanded;
  • providing a supportive advisory service to heads, subject teachers and probationary teachers.  These  were normally genuinely helpful  and without the judgemental bullying ethos of OFSTED;
  • negotiating and administering purchases of land and contracts for new buildings, repairs, extensions and physical maintenance. 
The national government provided most of the money and "guidance."

With the latest move this successful partnership is to be completely destroyed.  There is no evidence that the schools under charitable and private sector "sponsors" are any more successful than those that remain within the local authorities.  There is plenty of evidence that some of these sponsor chains perform very badly and some, not necessarily the same ones , pay their directors and chief executives eye-watering salaries.

At the moment it is not permissible to run schools financed by public money for private profit.  It is hard to avoid the suspicion that this restriction will not last long.

A curious anomaly has emerged since the budget: parent governors are to be abolished.  This is odd coming from the party which since 2010 has made a policy priority of encouraging parents to set up so-called "free schools" according to local whim.

This compulsory "academisation" policy will lead to planning chaos, further downgrade local government and land us with a national education system with no local democratic accountability, more suited to a dictatorship than a mature democracy.

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