How schools rig the consultation process in favour of academy conversion

Alasdair Smith's picture
 7
When you have a moment to spare take a look at this letter from a Head teacher and Chair of Governors on the matter of academy conversion. I found it on the schools website. It is presented as part of a ‘consultation process’ which, at face value, appears to be an open and genuine consultation. But the truth is that this is an outrageously unbalanced and rigged consultation.

The only consideration of argument that raises doubts about the conversion process is dealt with in a single sentence:

“There are risks and the governors are aware of those and we are anticipating how best to manage these effectively through a comprehensive risk assessment strategy”.

In a patronising flourish, we are not even told what the risks are, just that there are some and the governors have got it all sorted! Contrast this with the effusive comments made in favour of conversion. The five main reasons are set out in detail over about 15 paragraphs. And the claims for academy conversion are hardly modest:

“As an Academy we will provide a better education for all our students”

“As an Academy we will work closely with others”

“As an Academy we will build on our successes and secure even better outcomes in the future”

Presented in this way, who could disagree with academy status? Which parent or member of staff would dare to question such authoritative opinions of the head teacher and leadership team?

Herein lie the secrets of academy conversion: bluster, grandiose assertion and adept political manoeuvring.

I was recently leafleting outside a primary school in my area that is seeking conversion. Parents had asked us to organise a meeting to consider the issues. The head came out and said we did not need to have a meeting because she was doing a proper consultation. I asked if she was in favour of conversion. She was. I asked who was putting arguments for conversion. She was. I asked who was putting the arguments against conversion. She… She stopped mid-sentence. She could see, in instant, the absurdity of her consultation process.

She scurried away, but the parents meeting was a great success. They heard from a Somali community worker, the leader of the Local Council, a representative of a teachers’ union and a representative of a support staff union. The meeting was chaired by one of the local ward councillors. The parents were so concerned they launched a petition calling for the consultation process to be extended and balanced. Many left the meeting firmly opposed to conversion and keen to do more.

Given that the move to academy status is currently irreversible, includes substantial changes to the structure of governance and accountability affecting both parents and staff profoundly, it would seem reasonable that all stakeholders had a chance to present their views on an equal footing and in an open debate.

A year ago, when Michael Gove published his Academies Bill he knew that, in such circumstances, promoters of academy conversion where likely to fall foul of the that same hostility to privatisation that afflicts the Tories’ plans for the NHS. That’s why the first draft of the Bill had no consultation process at all.

It was amended in the Lords to require only that governors consult ‘who they see fit’ and even that could happen after the decision had been made! Thus Gove set in motion a process in which business minded head teachers, lured by the siren sounds of ‘autonomy’ and the promise of extra cash were encouraged into the wretched conversion process that now debases our school system and local democracy.

In far too many cases, academy conversion has been a coup forced through by a minority. The whole process sucks. I would add that it is bad policy based on fake claims, but that’s another story.

Heads and governors who travel down this route not only damage their own integrity, but more seriously, they disrupt the fabric of our local democracy and with it the security of our family of schools.

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Comments

Ian Taylor's picture
Wed, 08/06/2011 - 14:29

I fear that the lack of any political opposition to the Academy Policy means that the movement is probably unstoppable. Where the current government has changed some of its ill thought out policies, this has happened because opposition has come quickly and loudly. The Academy Policy is just as bonkers, and incompetently created, as many of the other policies, but high profile opposition is invisible, and the policy is now well into implementation. I am at a loss to understand what the Labour Party is doing. Do they agree with the Academy Policy? Are they not bothered? The current Labour policy seems to be "have no policies". The lesson for school leaders is to choose a system where you have as much control in your own hands as possible, because our political masters of all persuasions are shallow, unprincipled, and incompetent. A school leader that takes his/her school into the political minefield would be making a mistake, so don't expect individual headteachers to want full and public debate on these issues. Having a local public debate and hot tempers, leads to a school appearing in the local press in a negative light, and next year's intake numbers plummeting. Not something most headteachers would want. It is for Her Majesty's Opposition to make a principled case against the Academy Policy, and sadly they have so far failed to do so.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 08/06/2011 - 14:42

Many contributors to this site have pointed out that the academy consultation process is a sham. Governors are obliged to consult but then decide who will be consulted and the extent of that consultation. Consultation can be as little as an announcement, often loaded, on the school's website.

Schools who converted before the beginning of this financial year have done so too hastily. Many cited financial reasons but now we find that Capita has been accused of making millions from newly-converted academies who now have to pay for their schools information management systems. What other unforeseen expenses will occur?

http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6086539

And we mustn't forget the warning to the education select committee by an academy supporter that if academies become part of a chain they may find they have less autonomy than they did under the local authority, and find money siphoned off tfrom the education budget to pay for the chain's head office administration.

I wonder if it would be possible to sue the members of any school's pre-conversion governing body if it were found that the decision had negative consequences for the academy. Surely it would be dereliction of duty if the governors "sold" academy conversion and then the promised benefits didn't materialise?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 08/06/2011 - 14:46

The trouble is that the Labour Party started the academy programme - although it was with the intention of turning round "failing" schools. However, it was an ill-conceived project which has opened the door to the present situation.

Sarah Dobbs's picture
Wed, 08/06/2011 - 16:58

What I can testify of LOUD AND CLEAR in the importance of making a loud and vocal opposition early on. If governors can be given both sides of the argument in a clear and reasoned way, and the public made aware of via the local media of exactly what academy status means; the whole process can be slowed right down. My experience of our Louth campaign is that the more people are given time to think, the more the academy option does not seem to be the only option.
But the trick is to start strong and start quick. Do not wait until someone starts the campaign first,
And as a recently elected Labour councillor, I have to agree that the Labour opposition to Academies is little more than shameful.

Alasdair Smith's picture
Wed, 08/06/2011 - 22:54

I think Sarah is right. The key to this is to raise arguments against as soon as possible at a school by school level. Ian Taylor is unnecessarily pessimistic. Many schools are looking at conversion but then backing off once they realise the hostility of parents and staff. I don't know what the Labour front bench are thinking, and to be honest we don't have time to wait for them to make up their minds. But I do know that parents and staff united can stop academy conversions.

Sarah Dobbs's picture
Thu, 09/06/2011 - 05:54

I think we have to make up Labour minds for them Alasdair...!

Mark Adams's picture
Sat, 11/06/2011 - 20:55

The consultation process is a sham.
In Thetford, a consultation was made on joining two high schools into one academy (on two sites). There were also promises of a new joint 6th form/community forum at the centre of town. With over 1000 students and all the associated parents/teachers etc, an FOI request has since shown that just 156 people felt the need to respond. Who would object to more money, no change of location and a new 6th form?
88 were in favour 68 were against. Some of the respondents were Governors from other schools!
Within weeks of becoming an Academy, the Trust has made numerous changes to the schools, cancelled the new forum and now plans to close one of the high schools and move everyone into the other. There is no accountability once conversion has taken place.

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