What do leeches, the Godfather and a snake oil saleswoman have in common? They were all mentioned in the Commons debate about forced academy conversion.

Janet Downs's picture
“There are some, quite a few…who recommend academisation as a solution to all educational ills — it is rather like the old medics prescribing leeches for everything—arguing that it is a sure-fire way of improving educational results,” said John Pugh MP at the start of the debate about forced academy conversion.

But the evidence didn’t uphold this view, he said: “Academies are not the only way to improve results, and they are not necessarily the most efficient way to improve results in this cash-constrained world.”

Several MPs related constituents’ complaints about the heavy-handed approach* of some academy “brokers” who were trying to persuade schools to convert. Pugh described these tactics as being from the “Vito Corleone textbook”. He added, “To sweeten the pill, cash is sometimes promised.” (See here re Independent article claiming bribes have been offered).

Rosie Cooper MP explained how academy conversion was being opposed in Lancashire, by “head teachers, governors, teacher unions, Members of Parliament and even the Conservative-controlled county council”. She described an aggressive press release which preceded a visit by the Schools Commissioner, Dr Liz Sidwell, who was described by Cooper as “peddling the Education Secretary’s ideological wares as if she was some kind of snake oil saleswoman.”

Schools Minister, Elizabeth Truss, agreed with a previous speaker that successful schools had “good leadership, a good ethos and parental involvement”. She added that increased autonomy given to academies was a crucial factor and cited OECD findings**. But she didn’t say the OECD had found the UK was one of only four countries which gave a high degree of autonomy to all of its schools**. Neither did she say the recent Academies Commission report found that non-academy schools could do most things that academies can do.

Andy Slaughter MP accused the Minister of not addressing the question of enforced conversion or allegations of bullying by brokers. At the end of the debate Truss said:

“….the schools that we seek to intervene in and that are suited to a sponsored academy solution are those that are underperforming.” (But we know that isn’t true: Downhills was improving; Roke primary was “Outstanding” at its previous inspection and its results have never fallen below the benchmark. MPs spoke of heads who were astonished to find their schools were on the hit list*.)

Truss said that these “underperforming” schools might find conversation with brokers “challenging”. This implied that the heads concerned were over-reacting when they described meetings with brokers as intimidating.

“According to Ofsted,” she said, “2 million children are in schools that are not good enough, and no one should be willing to accept that.” But that figure of 2 million can only be arrived at by applying the new measure of “requires improvement” retrospectively to any school judged “satisfactory” at its last inspection. These schools may or may not have improved since then. In any case, academy conversion is not the only intervention.

It’s not even one of the most effective ones.


*The BBC reported claims of intimidation by heads whose schools had been targeted for enforced conversion in February 2012. Many heads were incredulous that they were being forced to convert but were given no reason why they were singled out. Further details here.  To listen again to the 28 minute programme click here (over a year left to Listen Again).

**See faq above Is it true that schools with more autonomy tend to achieve better results?

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