Forced conversions of primary schools

Nicola Brown's picture
I've commented on this below, but I think it's such an important issue I've decided to post on it.

In comments on the latest batch of primary league tables, Michael Gove made it clear that he is moving towards the forced conversion of 200+ 'failing' primary schools into sponsored academies.

Almost no primary schools have willingly converted to academy status, but this is an absolute game-changer. Gove has targeted those primary schools whose results have been 'below the floor' (that is, average) for five years, around 200; but he is clearly looking at many more. Crucially, his decisions appear to take no account of the school's ability to improve as assessed by Ofsted.

The school at which I am a parent and governor is vulnerable in this process, not because it is a bad school, but because it has an extremely challenging intake, and many parents who do not support their children's education. Notwithstanding exemplary commitment, energy, imagination and sheer hard work by head and teachers, results remain poor. This is precisely the kind of school that will be vulnerable to a forced conversion, and it would have catastrophic effects.

For me this is a much more serious issue than free schools. Potentially it is about the wholesale privatisation of community schools. But it also targeted where campaigns are vulnerable. It is notable, I think, how many stories on this site pick on success stories of schools where conditions are difficult but parents are committed: but where parents lack that commitment, the school is much more vulnerable.

There are, then, two issues. Firstly, there is Gove's determination to use standards as an alibi for privatisation/centralised control. Secondly, there is the question of how to campaign for local schools where there are not enough mouthy, articulate, informed and determined people to do the campaigning.

Warwick Mansell has an article on this issue here.
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Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 10:35

Nicola - Thanks for posting this. have just responded to your other comment but am going to repeat myself and say again that this is a very important issue. There are many ways to improve schools and no evidence whatsoever that being "independent" (controlled by the Secretary of State) is a necessary pre condition. I notice that the success of secondary academies is used by government sources to justify this "forced academy " approach but a careful look at the DFE's own performance tables shows that much of this "rapid improvement" in league tables is down to the use of qualifications that the government considers to be second rate.
Moreover we are constantly told that parents must have 'choice' but there is no choice whatsoever in the case of a forced academy and the government needs to explain why , if the local community and parents want to continue improving their school within the maintained sector, they shouldn't be allowed to do so. There are many ways that outside support and different models of governance can be introduced within a maintained school model ( trust or foundation schools for example) also many examples of schools that have improved within the maintained sector, including the one my own children attended. I will be speaking about this at a meeting at Downhills School in Haringay ( the school featured in Warwick's article) on January 9.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 13:48

The choice that the Government is offering reminds me of this dialogue in "The Godfather". Michael Corleone is telling his girlfriend, Kay, how his father persuaded an opponent to sign a deal:

Michael: My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
Kay Adams: What was that?
Michael: Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.

Choice? There is no choice if Mr Gove decides a school is "failing" even if its results are due to factors outside its control (eg high turnover of pupils, high number of pupils with little English, parents who don't value education and so on). There is no choice in Lincolnshire where the County Council has recommended that all schools convert to academies. If they're too small to be able to manage the County Council suggests they join the CfBT Education Trust. There has been no discussion or consultation with Lincolnshire parents.

As I pointed out on another thread, "They create a prison and call it freedom."

Guest's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 16:10

If you are going to defend a school against forced academy then you will need to have very strong argument as to why the school has been in special measures or below floor standards.
The excuse of challenging intake is a poor excuse as many schools do a fantastic job with similar intakes.

You will need a clear and coherent plan that shows exactly how the school intends to improve and how it will achieve it this time when it has been unable to do so in the past.

You need to organise a local campaign with current parents. If you bring in outside help such as AAA or other militant organisations it is unlikely people will listen to such an ideoligical protest. Your campaign will need to explain why the current management team are the best positioned to improve the school and why an academy chain with a proven track record in deprived areas would not to be able achieve this.

In Haringey there are 8 primary schools below floor standard, with 5 having been in this state for 4 or more of the past 5 years. This is simply inexcusable and it is unfortunate that these schools have consistently failed their pupils.

Good luck

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 18:39

Guest - see discussion on the following thread about research by the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) which found among other things that the schools they investigated were defined as “below-floor” because of raw exam grades. However, this didn’t take into account the challenges that particular schools faced. Despite not reaching the floor standard, EEF found there were “many well-run and effective” schools in the investigated group: a very high proportion of the secondary schools had been rated Outstanding by Ofsted, and almost a quarter of these secondary schools received a Contextual Value Added (CVA) score significantly higher than the national average. A small improvement would raise performance of many of these schools to above floor standards – around one third of the primary schools and more than half of the secondary schools were within 5 percentage points of the floor standard.

Despite these finding, Mr Gove targets below-floor schools for forced conversion.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies found that league table information based on the percentage of Year 11 pupils who gained five or more A* to C GCSE is “frequently misinterpreted as a measure of the quality or educational effectiveness of schools. The IfS found concluded that such an interpretation is invalid as no recognition is made for intake differences between schools in pupils’ academic abilities: the highest-scoring schools are largely those that already had the highest-achieving pupils when they entered secondary education.” It hoped that the Contextual Value Added (CVA) score would be more properly explained to the public so that parents, the media and others would be able to make a better judgement of a school's effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the Government has scrapped CVA despite the OECD saying it was a step in the right direction towards a more accurate measure of a school. Instead, it uses the crude measure of "below-floor" to force academy conversion on to schools.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 20:44

Have you come out of your dank cave to give good cheer in front of the Christmas lights Guest?

There is a difference between "no excuses" and "explanations". Good luck with trying to get your head around that.

Guest's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 09:14


Your posting deals with issues seen at secondary but ignores the fact that many schools in deprived areas are doing very well. This site has been highlighting how boroughs such as Tower Hamlets have greatly improved in tecent years.

So the question is why the consistent failure of these primary schools despite Labours massive investment. We all accept that Gove's Pupil Premium will help financially but can the current management teams be trusted to improve the schools. Recent history would say no.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 10:40

Guest - if you read my post very carefully you will see that I mentioned primary schools when discussing the EEF report. You didn't even need to follow the links. The EEF report showed that one-third of the below-floor primary schools were within 5% points of the floor standard. It would take only a small improvement in performance for them to reach the benchmark. It is, therefore, a little heavy-handed to enforce academy conversion with, presumably, a change in the senior management of the schools. The threat of being sacked is not going to attract high-quality teachers to work in schools which are likely to be below-floor for factors outside the teachers' control. That's why looking at the context of a school is so important. However, Mr Gove and supporters prefer to bleat, "No excuses! No excuses!"

Marigold Doyle's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 19:52

Guest, it sounds like you read Jonathan Hill's letter in The Guardian today. You're absolutely right - the situation in Haringey is inexcusable. Haringey schools receive £1,500 less per pupil than schools in neighbouring boroughs like Islington and Hackney, as they are classed as 'outer London'. Haringey schools have to pay their staff inner London weighting though, leaving an average 2 form primary school half a million pounds worse off than one down the road in a different LA. That is inexcusable. Also inexcusable are the shocking levels of child poverty, the brutal cuts to useful public services and the 'pricing out' of housing benefit claimants from more prosperous parts of London to the more deprived parts of Haringey.
Lord Hill comments that Gove's 200, then 500 additional schools weren't 'named and shamed'. It seems clear that this was to prevent schools from working together to oppose this bullying and to suppress the information that the very, very great majority of these schools are in economically deprived areas.
Unfortunately, it's the wider society and government - and I include Labour in that - that have failed these children. School is often a beacon of stability in their unpredictable and turbulent lives.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 21:02

Marigold -

I think once we leave aside the politics, the sniping, the ideology, the reports, the statistics and the rhetoric, what we are left with is facing up to the fact that bullying schools and dictating closures on them based on high stakes and one rule criteria is an inhumane and unjust way to treat the students, staff and parents who have invested in the school. As I have said elsewhere, there is a vast difference between no excuses and explanations and I am left with the conclusion that those who insist on no excuses without even wishing to listen to mitigating circumstances betray attitudes that border on totalitarianism.

It seems to me the Self Righteous Right have identified Haringey as easy prey. Instead of providing resources to help a troubled borough, they instead put the jack boot in, confident that they will have the upper hand because no one is going to be allowed to forget the mistakes that were made over Baby P. What I find astonishing is the level of government interference in a vulnerable borough and I can't help but wonder if this is circumstantial or planned.

Guest's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 09:24


The inequality in funding you refer to obviously happened under Labours watch. Gove's pupil premium will help balance this.
You are implying that the schools problems occur because Labour gave them less money. I do not buy that. Schools in similar situations have,and do, produce excellent results.
Unfotunately your argument against being converted to an academy takes no account of the outcome of pupils. An experienced academy chain could take a failing primary school over and quickly improve it. Many of these schools have been failing for too long. No more excuses.

Janet Lallysmith's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 09:38

Yes, it did and it was Labour that started the academy programme.

There isn't any evidence for improved outcomes for pupils at forced primary academies. There aren't any 'experienced academy chains' in the UK at primary level. The evidence at secondary level for educational improvement isn't overwhelming - some converted schools do improve (often with increase in qualifications that the govt now regards as second rate) and some don't. Some are now failing. The rate of exclusions in academies is significantly higher - the pupil outcomes for these children isn't something that Gove boasts about.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 09:43

Trust you to do the dirty work, Guest. Schools may be similar, but they are not identical. And many challenged schools have managed to turn themselves around - Gove doesn't have the monopoly on excellence. Many of the excellent Academies for which he is claiming credit were opened under Labour. There are a number of Academies that are falling - Elizabeth Sidwell herself has acknowledged this - so how on earth does conversion in to Academy equate to, or guarantee, excellence?

Schools forced into becoming Charters in New York and in other American states have made no difference, so what are the chances of these school reforms making a difference here? Experienced Charter chains in America have not guaranteed success, especially those that are not additionally fiscally endowed with philanthropic funds.

Your superficial understanding (or perhaps blind denial) of something so complex as school intake in specific areas is yet another example of how appalling ignorance in the wrong hands can lead to so much long lasting damage. Chairman Mao springs to mind and before your start muttering about Commies under the bed, I am talking about totalitarianism.

Guest's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 10:45

Like most posters one tends to ignore all you daily repetition, Allan. As ever your solution is to do nothing.
Gove's pupil premium plus removal of these schools from their spiral of underachievement is another step in the right direction.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 11:10

Guest: It does not follow that if the mixed evidence about US charter schools is repeated that the writer's solution is to do nothing. You are, however, right about the pupil premium being a step in the right direction - it should increase resources where they are most needed. It remains to be seen, however, whether schools will take all disadvantaged children regardless of ability or will cream off only high-ability ones that will not affect a school's league table position.

For a discussion on the negative impact of socio-economic disadvantage on pupil performance based on OECS evidence see:

Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 13:14

And as usual, Guest, your paltry contribution to the discussion is to stand, puffed up like an overstewed stick of rhubarb, spluttering forth ill considered snide remarks in an attempt to steer the debate back onto the Tory track.

I may be repetitive about Charter Schools failing but until you can tell us how Gove's importing of these expensive and divisive policies can be scaled up and implemented around all schools in Britain, when the system has failed to raise standards in the US, then we will continue to wonder if you have a mind of your own as opposed to being what looks like a wind-bag wind-up puppet of the DfE.

Marigold Doyle's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 19:55

Janet, the new DFE tables with % free school meals are so enlightening. In my LA, there is a very, very high correspondence between position in the League table and % free school meals (in a relatively small geographical area in London, the latter statistic varies between 0% to over 50%). It's what happens in the 18 hours a day and 13 weeks of the year that children aren't at school that is the deciding factor, I'm afraid.

Nicola Brown's picture
Thu, 29/12/2011 - 11:35

This is the factor that really worries me, because the children who lose in all this are those who do not have articulate and informed parents to stand up for them and support them, and whose parents probably had a bad experience of education themselves, and who may well regard school as something that is done to you until you can escape it. In my school a minority of parents support their children's learning at home. They expect the school to do everything (a bit like politicians of all stripes, then). Generations of low achievement (plus other factors such as extremely high pupil mobility, high levels of EAL children, well above average % on FSM) mean that the levels of attainment levels are low. Achievement, that is progress, is good, but attainment is low; and this means that the school is vulnerable despite the superhuman efforts of its staff.

My worry is that it is schools like this, without a critical mass of concerned (and very likely middle class) parents to support the school, will be the ones that will get picked off to be academies, with very bad outcomes for the children. The best teachers and heads will leave, academy chains with little experience of primary will take over, exclusions will rise -- all the things that have been detailed so carefully in discussions here.

Also, I wonder if, in the end, most of the schools targeted will be well out of the London spotlight?

Janet Lallysmith's picture
Thu, 29/12/2011 - 16:54

I completely agree, Nicola. I also think the reason that the 200 then 500 schools weren't identified is so that schools are very isolated and a collective action is much harder. Also to suppress the information that the very great majority - if not all - have exactly the populations that you describe.

The League tables are like some sort of smoke screen to hide the reality of schools who don't notch up the level 4s.

Janet Lallysmith's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 21:17

Allan, both circumstantial and planned, I'd say. There weren't any Haringey schools in Gove's original list of 200 but, since the August riots to be honest, 19 Heads have been in the DFE spotlight.
I agree that Haringey is a vulnerable borough. I think the Right were expecting that it would be a fragmented and disorganised borough who didn't have the resources or capacity to stand up to their bullying. Pleased to have proved them wrong on this one.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 21:31

Curious I suppose that Gove's civil servant/SPAD Sam Freedman is governor at one of the borough's recently converted and outstanding Academies.

Janet Lallysmith's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 22:17

Both circumstantial and planned, I'd say! I don't think Woodside actually fully legally converts until January.

Janet Lallysmith's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 09:30

Guest, you're right. There are lessons to be learnt from Tower Hamlets where there isn't a single academy primary school (and only one secondary). Equitable funding would be a start.
It's interesting that you mention the 'new management' that Gove was making a lot of in the summer but has been much, much quieter about recently. Where are these 200 Super Heads with SMTs? Or maybe that promise was just he grease to oil the creaky wheel of privatisation?

Janet Lallysmith's picture
Sun, 08/01/2012 - 08:59

Pleased to say that some schools which Gove is trying to force to become sponsored academies are fighting back through the courts.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 08/01/2012 - 10:29

The cartoon in the article below sums up Mr Gove and his attitude towards his "opponents":

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