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Academy alarm

As Tory education secretary Michael Gove pushes through legislation to 'put the boosters' under Labour's school academies programme, Fiona Millar explains her concerns

August 5, 2010
6 min read

It may come as a surprise to many people, but state schools aren’t failing. You won’t read that in the papers, or hear it from the mouths of the new coalition ministers. But most are much better than they were 13 years ago when the Conservatives were last in power. Fewer fail their Ofsted inspections, under a much tougher regulatory regime; achievement is higher; more young people, including those from less well off backgrounds, go to university; and – guess what? – most parents are happy with the education their children receive, according to recent research from RISE (Research and Information on State Education).

It is important to hang on to these facts just now, because we are facing a wall of propaganda from both media and politicians claiming the opposite is true. It is a dangerous game, as it unsettles many parents. But it has a driving purpose: to pave the way for and justify the most ideological and reckless set of ‘reform’ proposals for a generation.

No one would deny, least of all me, as the chair of two school governing bodies in inner London, that the status quo is not good enough. The gaps in attainment between the best and worst off pupils are still too great. But that is also an issue for society in general, as around 80 per cent of a child’s life chances are determined by influences outside the school. Without action on poverty, income inequality, poor housing and neighbourhood renewal, schools will still struggle with their most vulnerable, needy pupils. However, the sort of changes being set in train risk undermining the good work schools can do, and may undo much of the recent improvement.

Cuts will invariably affect the most vulnerable children because non-statutory services such as extended schools, Sure Start and parenting programmes will suffer. The shameful decision to axe the Building Schools for the Future programme, leaving 700 schools without the new buildings they had been promised, will have a similar effect.

Clear agenda

Meanwhile, the ‘review’ of school capital spending has a clear agenda: to bring as many private, and profit-making, providers into the state education system as possible; to build ‘free schools’ for individual parent groups; and to encourage a massive expansion of academies – independent state schools that are answerable directly to the secretary of state, not their local communities, via a commercial contract.

These plans risk several things. Creating surplus places in areas where they are not needed will damage existing schools, which may lose pupils (often taking the most challenging in their place) and revenue funding, which in turn usually leads to cuts in staff, difficulties in recruitment and a downward spiral. The Tories like to describe this sort of ‘competitive’ pressure as healthy because it leads either to improvement or closure. The reality is very unhealthy. Schools die slowly, and being a pupil while that process takes place is not a pleasant experience.

They will also increase the number of schools with ‘freedoms’ in areas such as admissions, special educational needs (SEN) and exclusions. There is evidence of academies already operating unofficial quotas of SEN pupils and very high exclusions. And wherever you give schools more freedom over their admissions, they inevitably find ways of admitting the children who are easier to teach and somehow lose the ones who are the hardest, usually to the local maintained community school.

Even if the new funding agreements – commercial contracts that govern academies and free schools – do include requirements to have regard to SEN legislation and the admissions code, they will be impossible to enforce with thousands of schools run from the centre and no role for local authorities.

The new proposals will lead to more profit-making companies involved in state education. Most parents won’t actually be able to set up schools on their own, which is why the New Schools Network, run by a former adviser to Michael Gove and already given £500,000 by this government, is pointing them in the direction of private ‘partners’. This fits neatly with the avowed aim of the coalition to ‘reduce the size of the state’. But the Gove plans will be divisive and create ill will in communities across the country where some parents and children will see others benefiting at their expense.

Radical reform

The risk for those who oppose the current direction, and did so when the last Labour government set it in motion, is that we will be characterised as anti-reform and anti-school improvement. We are not. There are many radical reforms that would work in favour of a high quality, equitable and democratically accountable schools system, if only politicians on our side had the courage to articulate them.

The first would be to bring all independent state schools back into the maintained system, where the rights of pupils, teachers and parents are properly protected. ‘Independence’ is not a magic bullet that will guarantee success. The patchy record of the existing academies makes that clear.

The second would be to champion the role of local authorities, not in ‘running’ schools, which they haven’t done for several decades, but in ensuring fair funding, encouraging collaboration, holding the ring when it comes to special needs, admissions and exclusions, and as providers of high quality early years provision.

Then we could promise a complete overhaul of school admissions, abolishing selection by ability and outlawing other forms of social selection that continue to discriminate against the poorest children.

Heads and teachers should have more autonomy over what and how they teach, but every child should also have an entitlement to a broad, balanced curriculum and a simplified system of qualifications, not the hotchpotch of different exams we have now.

Schools are not businesses. They have a wider function in society. Many of the things they do, like inclusion, community cohesion and looking after children with special needs, are hard to quantify and don’t lend themselves to a profit-and-loss approach.

But it is standards of teaching and leadership in schools that really matter, not structures. If there is spare cash around, it should be invested in staff, IT and the sorts of facilities that our new political leaders were able to enjoy in their elite fee-paying schools, not diverted into the pockets of private companies.

Most parents want some choice, not of schools that are radically different, but of good local schools with balanced intakes, well-resourced buildings, good behaviour, teaching and leadership. The good local school, offering a high quality education to children from all backgrounds, is a simple, powerful message. If you want to fight back on behalf of local schools, rather than new, or free ones, get in touch on truthschoolsat]googlemail.com or via my website [www.thetruthaboutourschools.com

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