Academy conversion: tragedy, farce or a necessary evil?

Francis Gilbert's picture
I spoke at Northumberland Park Community School last night on academy conversion. It was somewhat farcical because I'd been booked by a member of the governing body to speak against the concept of academy conversion but, as some people know, I've written in defence of academy conversion in some cases, although I'm not a huge fan of it as a  country-wide policy. Luckily, another member of the governing body had also invited Alasdair Smith of the Anti-Academies alliance so there was someone there to speak up against the conversion process. Simon Garrill of Heartlands High School also spoke at the meeting about the reasons why his school had converted to academy status a few months ago.

An air of farce surrounded the proceedings. I spoke to the headteacher of NPCS a day before the meeting on the phone and told her I was supportive of my local school becoming an academy; she then said that I should come and speak to the meeting. Yet in the meeting she said some people thought I was speaking against academies -- her wording was careful; but I can't help feeling that she should have told me not to come during our phone conversation and that would have spared us all some embarrassment.

Some people sensed a conspiracy was afoot. Some people had told me that this meeting discussing academy conversion had not been widely publicised beforehand. A delegation of NUT members was waiting outside the meeting when I got there at 7pm, together with Alasdair. No one was sure as to who was going to be allowed into the meeting or who might speak in it; the governing body were already sitting inside their meeting room, looking like they didn't want to see anyone. By now, I was actually hoping that I'd get turned away because the head had told me on the phone that some people might shout at me.

Finally, after waiting for a good twenty minutes, we all trooped into the meeting before the governors, Alasdair, myself and the NUT delegation. The NUT were told by a grumpy member of the meeting that they were there as observers and weren't allowed to speak. I spoke first and said that the academy conversion process (January 2011) had been beneficial for Bethnal Green Academy (formerly Bethnal Green Technology College); the schools has rebranded, it's got a Sixth form, it's got more control over admissions, it's able to buy into more favourable ICT and catering contracts and has seen its budget increase from roughly £7.5m a year to £9.5m, after enjoying a rising roll and an outstanding rating from Ofsted.

Alasdair spoke next and eloquently put the case against academies; they are privatisation by the back door, they suck money away from the local authority, they aren't necessarily proven to raise standards, and they can treat SEN and minority children unfavourably. Simon Garrill followed and spoke well about the very complex matters involved in actually converting, about how a school has to become a company and a trust, and appoint a board of directors. It was all very complicated and I don't think I really understood it, but he provided a good case that academy conversion can give a school more autonomy in a world which is increasingly becoming like the market. He, like me, sees it, in specific cases, as necessary; Haringey is being dismantled as a local authority, the chains are circling upon schools like vultures, some schools are being forcibly converted. It's better to jump than be pushed. This said, I'm not sure that he was the best person to speak either because his school only converted a few months ago, and he really has no proof that conversion has improved standards.

There was quite a bit of shouting and bad temper at the member. The governing body seemed to be at war with each other over the issue. My appearance was deemed to be nonsensical by one member because I'd been booked to speak against academies and then spoke in favour of them! I don't think this was my fault. After speaking, I spent the rest of the meeting looking at the floor and hoping that no one would ask me a question or shout at me. Luckily they didn't. They seemed intent upon shouting at each other.

It made me think about the whole process. Surely, there could have been a better way of implementing the policy? Giving schools to become co-operative trusts would have been much better, as Fiona Millar has suggested here. This said, I don't think that the NUT has done themselves any favours by being so stridently against the policy because many thousands of their members are in academies now, and some must supportive of the policy. It hasn't helped a clear discussion of the issues. Personally, I don't think converting to an academy means you believe there should be a free market in education; it means you believe more independence for your school will help it do what it needs to do to raise standards.
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