The academisation of education: watching a slow-motion train crash from the sidelines

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Perhaps the most eloquent response to the government’s decision to turn every school into an academy and destroy, finally, any link with local government, came from the Tory head of education in Hampshire, Councillor Peter Edgar.

He said: ‘In Hampshire, we have 84 per cent of good or outstanding schools and do a lot of intervention work with other Local Authorities. I am a lifelong Conservative, but this statement of policy could lead to the county’s education system imploding. I do not understand it, particularly as there is no evidence whatsoever that the academy conversion of schools is improving standards. Now, with academy chains paying salaries to their chief executives more than the Prime Minister, the whole thing needs to be put on hold.’

Perhaps the most practical resistance has come from the Green party in Brighton, where schools, including most of the secondaries, are opting for a cooperative led by the local council, which wants to be the sponsor of the academy chain.

What of the unions?

What is initially surprising is how muted the response has been from headteachers’ organisations. The ASCL, most of whose members have opted for academy status, has always been compromised into never uttering more than a squeak about the implications of academisation.

Their main reaction now seems to have been to praise the government for giving new heads in challenging schools 36 months’ grace before an inspection. In the face of the authoritarian removal of any local determination of a school’s future, and the complete removal of any parental voice, it seems like myopia on a titanic scale.

The NAHT, meanwhile, came out with the view that, although they didn’t mind academies, they didn’t think it was a panacea and would improve school performance, and what would happen to small schools?

The fact that 85 per cent of primaries have resisted all the blandishments and coercions to become academies and, one then must assume, want to continue within an LA’s family of schools yet will now be coerced into academy chains, doesn’t seem to overly exercise them.

Not a word about parents losing their role in school governance.

Not a word about accountability.

In retrospect, both organisations have always been a little sniffy about the parental role and the whole school governor movement, claiming that they lacked professional expertise and could impinge on leadership prerogatives.

Both organisations have promoted a rather technocratic line – which sums up their whole approach to education politics – that the precise legal status of schools is a side issue to the quality of education children receive.

The Tory belief in magic

In the sense that huge doubt was cast – by School Leadership Today and lots of academic experts – on the main rationale behind the Tory approach to academisation that it would magically improve school performance, the headteachers’ organisations were right. But they never bothered to mention, at least with any force, how the collateral damage of academy status could negatively impact the quality of education in non-academy status schools.

There was a massive imbalance and inequality in funds in favour of academy status schools, which Peter Downes, writing in School Leadership Today, warned for years was unfair and unsustainable.

It delayed the introduction of a fairer funding formula, which would have redirected funds in different ways, and it reduced the ability of LAs to provide support for non-academy status schools by reducing the collective amount available for services and by forcing unfairly large distributions of central government grant monies back to schools leaving Local Authorities.

Shattering the social infrastructure

By breaking the LA role in education, and now too the parental role, the government has effectively demolished the social infrastructure around schools which facilitated progressive and innovative change.

The lessons from history are that when hard-fought-for democratic structures are dismantled, imperfect though they are, it leaves the way for authoritarian regimes to hold sway.

And they never stop at legal structures, but they start to restrict professional and personal freedoms in increasingly unpleasant ways. By being so passive and blinkered, and more than a little self-serving, headteachers’organisations have allowed this to happen. The ramifications are endless – and very frightening. 

School Leadership Today