Tucked away at the back of this week’s TES
is a short article written by Nick Gibb, Minister of State for Schools. It’s the same old stuff: academies benefit from increased autonomy, are free to innovate, tailor support, spend their budgets, change the length of the school day and so on. These claims had been made by Mr Gove at the Conservative conference - a Freedom of Information request revealed that most of these claims had no foundation.
Mr Gibb says that “governments of all persuasions have sought to interfere too much in the day-to-day management of schools”. Well, he’s right there and it’s been going on since 1988 with the first National Curriculum. However, Mr Gibb gives some odd examples including prohibiting certain coloured pens for marking. Perhaps Mr Gibb could explain which piece of legislation made it illegal for teachers to wield a red pen. If such a clause is indeed included in an Act of Parliament, then I broke the law during my entire teaching career.
Despite constant interference by successive “we know best” governments, English schools still manage to have a large amount of freedom. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD
) found that in 2009 the UK was among four countries which allowed the greatest autonomy “…not only in allocating resources but also in making decisions about curricula and assessments.” So what extra autonomy is given to academies? First, academies have “freedom” to spend that small part of their budget retained by local authorities (LAs) to provide back-room services. Academies use this extra money to buy those same back-room services while having to shoulder the extra burden of the associated administration and legalities. Second, academies have the freedom to set teachers’ pay and conditions which has resulted in a modest increase in the average gross salary of teachers in academies but has also resulted in some academies requiring less-favourable contracts
. And Mr Gove approves of taxpayers’ money being spent not on education but on providing private medical insurance for academy staff.
Mr Gibb writes that the OECD supports the Government’s reforms because it supports more autonomy for schools. But English schools already have this. He says that the OECD favours “rigorous and objective external accountability”. That is true. But what he doesn’t say is that the OECD warned there was an excessive emphasis on raw exam grades in England which could lead to grade inflation, teaching to the test, “gaming” and neglecting other important skills. This view has been endorsed by the Conservative chair
of the education select committee who condemns league tables because they risk denying pupils a “rounded education”. He told the TES that “the accountability system they [the Coalition] have put in place virtually ensures that attention will be focused not on the lowest performing, but will instead divert attention away from them.”
Finally, Mr Gibb wrote that he wanted outstanding academies to partner schools in challenging circumstances. But Mr Gove admitted that only 18 of the 1194 converters are sponsoring other academies. So it appears that “outstanding” converters aren’t particularly willing to help other schools.