Academies lessons from a London Borough

Bola Ogun's picture
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.
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Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 06/05/2011 - 16:19

These are very important points. Changing school structures and governance arrangements does not automatically guarantee improvement and long term, sustained success. Governors need to hold their schools to account regardless of whether they are in maintained or independent state schools.
My immediate reaction, hearing Cameron utter that phrase in the Commons, was was to shout back at the TV :"Yes and you have given all that extra money to schools that were already doing well". At least Labour tried to help those that were struggling in areas of high poverty and disadvantage even if in some cases it didn't work.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 06/05/2011 - 16:37

This hits the nail on the head; if there's too much focus on structures and not on getting great teachers into our schools and fair admissions, then things just don't work. The huge worry is that "edu-chains" like Harris and Ark, as they take over more and more schools, will become unwieldy and centralised bureaucracies, creating a "cover-up" culture which means it looks like standards are rising and they aren't at all. I genuinely worry that the authoritarian approach of certain edu-chains leads to "robot students"; reading Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks was salutary in reminding me just how destructive this approach is.

Mark Parsons's picture
Sun, 08/05/2011 - 11:21

This is an excellent analysis of the academy situation. From the Primary Education point of view, one has to ask only one question when it comes to Grant Maintained Status in its new incarnation: "Why did so few schools take up GMS and why have so few willingly applied to become academies in spite of the financial inducements?"

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 08/05/2011 - 20:14

This is an excellent post by Bola Ogun and Fiona Millar is right that “changing school structures and governance arrangements does not automatically guarantee improvement and long term, sustained success” even though the rush to “academisation”, encouraged or even threatened by the government, creates the impression that Academies are here to solve all our educational woes.

Academy advocates can point to cases where local authority schools have nosedived,
but recent official figures revealed that a government quango, the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA), paid out £7m last year to bail out five academies in financial deficit. One of these – a flagship Academy – was awarded £5m.

This Academy, created out of the closure of two local rival schools, was opened very quickly despite teachers’ leader urging to delay the opening of the school and was the first to be run by someone without classroom experience. The “Chief Executive”, a former NHS manager and the principal left after parents demanded an emergency Ofsted inspection, got one, and had their fears confirmed when the school failed the inspection. At the time, there were accusations that the academy experiment had failed and that this school should be reinstated under the control of the local authority, which had the knowledge and expertise to run schools.

The Academy has had another Ofsted report and has been now deemed “satisfactory”. What is not to satisfactory are the remarks of the spokesman from the YPLA who said many academies had taken over schools that were in "long-term educational and financial failure". "Putting this legacy right will take time, often several years. During that period, the YPLA, on behalf of the Department for Education, works with academies to support them in their recovery." He said academies were not allowed to run with regular deficits, unlike state schools under local authority control.

It will be interesting to see how these financial resources might stretch to bailing out new Academies which fail from scratch, if they are not permitted to run with deficits and can call on the government to be bailed out every time they go into the red. Will the same sympathy be so forthcoming to schools under LA control or will it be one rule for Academies, another for maintained schools? Prop up Academies and Free Schools so as not to be left with an embarrassing legacy?

The YPLA figures come after 23 councils in England filed a claim in the high court for a judicial review against the government in protest at funds that are being diverted from town halls to be used to expand academies. The government has reduced local authorities' funds because councils no longer have control over as many schools as they used to. There are now 600 academies – three times as many as last May. But councils said that the cut of £148m has been calculated wrongly and that they will now have to deliver services to state schools with less money.

The claim is expected to be heard by the summer.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 12:39

Here is an interesting set of tables from the Anti Academies Alliance, which shows that "the number of schools that are not becoming Academies remains the vast majority in most local authorities in the country. This is the evidence that the government don't want anybody to notice."

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