Reference has already been made on this site to the narrowing role of the Schools Commissioner
, but I must admit it was quite a shock when I encountered Elizabeth Sidwell at a recent AoC event in London and witnessed her zeal for academies free schools, UTCs, studio schools, etc, etc---in fact anything that is not a maintained school.
The purpose of the event was to persuade FE colleges to become academy sponsors. In fact it was more than this. The purpose was to encourage them to open free schools, open studio schools, sponsor UTCs and begin to directly recruit 14-16 year-olds into colleges (there will be more to come on UTC’s, etc, in a future posting). All this in the name of pushing ahead with academy conversions, or in fact any model that is outside local oversight.
In her opening remarks Sidwell declared that she was committed to academies and free schools and particularly to finding sponsors. As Schools Commissioner she is working with a team of “Sponsor Brokers” at the DfE who are there “to look after sponsors and get more of them”.
She stated her responsibility is to ensure that none of the 1,500+ academies are working badly (ie getting bad results), saying that she “has a team working on that” (whatever that means in practical terms….). She went on to say that we will not be able to move back to the way things were as the academies movement now has its own momentum. She conceded that the snag currently is with primaries, “we cannot have the primary sector maintained and the secondary sector autonomous”.
She relayed to the audience that “the research evidence is strong” that academy conversion generates an improvement in pupil performance, adding that further research shows that “chains make academies even more effective”.
She is looking for more sponsors. They are currently getting between 18-20 per month coming from business, FE and HE. But this is not enough as there are “700 under-performing primaries, but only 100 sponsors found so far for them”. She wants “big business” people involved, adding that they are “especially useful in governing bodies”.
She concluded by saying that she really wants primaries to be on the agenda and an FE college sponsoring primary schools was no problem, exhorting the principals there to “come up with a model and suggest it”, as the SoS wants the “FE sector to be coming up with ideas”.
Later in the day she added that the “Achilles heel of the academies programme in schools is that there are academies that are not succeeding”. Of the 350 sponsored academies, 39 are below the floor level. But fear not because she is “taking a hard line on it” and will change the sponsor if necessary and she may even “buy in a consultant sponsor”.
The event certainly cast aside any doubts in my mind as to how the government are going to get the primaries on board, and, more importantly their determination to do so.
But what did my co-delegates, mainly FE principals, think of it all? Most were resigned to having to go out and persuade neighbouring schools that it made sense to work with them as sponsors, before the schools were pushed into academy status by the DfE and sucked up by chains. The current funding round for FE colleges has been harsh, so sharing back office resources with schools looks like a no-brainer. I am sure that FE sponsors will be cropping up all over the place, as will FE-sponsored free schools, UTC’s and studio schools. They simply have no choice. The unspoken agenda was quite obvious.
And remember, those working in FE have seen this all before. As one principal knowingly remarked “This is for schools the equivalent of the 1993 moment for FE”. How right he is.
(Look out for my next piece on the significance of the “1993 moment” for the schools sector.)