When the Prime Minister this week so proudly announced in the House of Commons that “the coalition Government had created more academies in ten months than Labour did in ten years”, it sent a chill down my spine. What a nonsense to purport that there is an easy remedy for delivering good quality schools and that quick fix is ‘academisation’.
Let’s be clear the challenges in our schools, which are immense, multifaceted and deep routed, must be overcome. My borough Southwark has gone for the ‘academisation’ agenda with a zeal that probably surprises even the Government. Interesting given that Southwark is the location of the first academy in the country to be 'shut down' by inspectors. The failed academy was without a single redeeming feature: it was an unsafe environment, it failed its pupils and turned out cohorts of undereducated young people, many of whom were a danger to themselves and society. This school had arguably become worse in its incarnation as an academy, given the money available to academies this was some achievement.
The emerging lesson from Southwark is simple: changing the structure of a school does in itself fix nothing. To my mind the challenge is more than the over obsession with the structure of our schools. The fundamental issue is that the too many LEAs lack a strategic plan informed by a genuine belief that young people in their area can grow to become both economically active socially responsible citizens. They also lack the capability to act strategically and execute the plan. Therefore they are only too ready to adopt the latest policy fad simply to get the DfE of their backs, and avoid too much light being shone on them.
We can only bring about the sustainable improvements to educational and social outcomes by focusing on a school’s ethos, its engagement with parents and the quality of teaching and learning. Rigorous engagement with parents to create a ‘tough love’ educational partnership is critical. This must be coupled with strong governance carried out by those with first hand knowledge of the community the school serves. Governing bodies need to be ‘critical friends’ of their schools’ who are supportive but capable of acting as an independent check and balance on outstanding school Heads. In short, hard graft is the way to build the schools we need. What will be the legacy of this academy grand plan? I have a strong concern that if we rush too far to fast the legacy of academies, the new quangos of educational delivery, could haunt us like the social legacy of the ‘grand plan’ high rise housing of 1960s and 1970s.