Three weeks ago Toby Young challenged
Local Schools Network writers to set out the conditions that academies and free schools needed to fulfill to be acceptable. It was an interesting discussion. I argued
that they should be co-ordinated by their local authority, to whom they should be accountable for the quality of their education and who should organise admissions. Toby responded
that he felt this was too onerous, and that his side believed schools should be able to freely compete and act in a "selfish" manner - implying that he saw local authorities as getting in the way. To explain the very positive, indeed vital, role that local authorities can play let me give the example of Hackney (where I live) and the Learning Trust.
Ten years ago Hackney was bottom or close to bottom nationally for its GCSE results. I know many parents who left the borough when their children were 9 or 10, to avoid Hackney's secondary schools. The phrase "our education is as bad as Hackney's" was one of the worst insults that could be thrown around in local government.
All that has changed. The % of 16 year olds getting 5 GCSEs (including English & Maths) has gone from 26% in 2003 to 55% in 2010. Despite having the same levels of deprivation as before, the borough is now 67th (out of 167) in the country for raw GCSE results. Every single non-religious secondary school in Hackney is over-subscribed. Only last week a friend attended a meeting on secondary transition, which was full of Haringey parents trying to find out how to get their children into Hackney schools. Alan Wood, Chief Executive of the Learning Trust, has just been given a CBE in recognition of this success.
Note that it is the non-religious schools that are over-subscribed. In contrast all four religious schools (Jewish and Christian) have spare places. In Hackney you will not find parents suddenly starting to attend church as their children approach secondary age. Instead they will do their damndest to get into the wide range of excellent secular secondary schools. And the Learning Trust, an independent not-for-profit body that has run Hackney's education since 2002, can be very proud of its role in achieving this.
For some LSN readers the Learning Trust's focus on academies is controversial. There are now five newly built academy schools in Hackney (Mossbourne, Bridge, Petchey, City and Skinners) and, with conversions, it may be that all but one of the non-religious secondaries will become academies. But, under the last Labour government, the only way to get funding for a new school was to agree to an academy and so the Trust played the only game in town. Though the transformation is not down to the academies. Hackney first topped the mainland England table for Contextual Value Added in 2007, before any academy had got GCSE results. And even the 2010 results include only one academy (Mossbourne).
I do agree with Toby that competition can be healthy. The phenomenal results of Mossbourne have been a spur to the rest of us. From Stoke Newington School (SNS), where I am Chair, we visit the other secondaries to see what we can learn - as they, in turn, visit SNS for the same reasons. But just as private sector competition works only within a regulated environment, so in local authorities the co-ordination of the local authority is crucial. To enable a system of 'fair banding' primary school students are tested. But they sit just one test which all schools use and the local authority administers admissions for all the secondaries. (Though there is a little wiggle room in the appeals, which are handled by schools.) All the schools are genuinely comprehensive with a wide range of abilities and none are seen as second-class.
So what is the cause of this success and what can other borough's learn from it? I would put it down to the Learning Trust's active intervention: the high and demanding expectations, the refusal to accept excuses and the active intervention. This has meant, sometimes controversially, closing under-performing schools and moving on under-performing headteachers.
As a Chair I know that, if my school under-performs, the Trust will intervene with a mixture of challenge and support. And I also know, because it has happened to fellow Chairs, that if the school were to continue to under-perform then I would get a call explaining that the governors need to take action and change the leadership. I don't know how often this has happened but I would say at least a dozen heads in Hackney have been quietly moved on. This may sound tough but it is an education authority that will take whatever action is needed to ensure Hackney students get the quality of education they deserve.
And this is the problem with Toby Young's picture of individually competing schools, accountable only to the education minister. Will the DfE have its finger on the pulse throughout the country and be able to actively intervene in the same way? Will it spot if some schools are not doing as well as they should even if their raw scores are above average? Will it provide targeted intervention to support individual schools? Will it know when an individual school needs a change of leadership, even if the governors are reluctant to take action?
And will the picture that Toby paints (and that Gove presumably supports) of individual schools competing selfishly actually create the success we need? Or will it lead to many of them administering admissions to get the best possible entries for their own school, and then not co-operating (as Hackney schools now do, though they didn't in the early days of the academies) to take their fair share of the more challenging students, and those with greater needs? Will we see all schools succeeding, as in Hackney, or will we see some schools becoming the ones that all parents want to go to, while others enter a declining spiral as they become second choice?
In Hackney we already have the mixture of community schools and academies that may become the norm across the country. But we have a very active local education authority working to ensure the best education for all, and all schools working with it whatever their status. The result is that all the secondaries are successful and in high demand and that is what we surely want across the country. But it won't happen without that vital co-ordinating role of a strong local authority.
Perhaps it is time to learn from success, rather than diving into a new world of uncertainty and possible chaos.