"Educating Yorkshire" is a great advert for Gove’s education reforms, says DT. But saying that diminishes the work of the head, the teachers and pupils not just in Yorkshire but in schools everywhere.

Janet Downs's picture
Educating Yorkshire is a great advertisement for Gove's education reforms.”

Toby Young, Daily Telegraph, 6 September 2013

Educating Yorkshire is the fly-on-the-wall documentary in the mould of the successful Educating Essex which featured Passmores School and Technology College and made stars of head, Vic Goddard, and his ever-patient deputy, Stephen Drew.

Young uses the airing of the first episode, shown last week, to extol the virtues of academy status. It brings autonomy, he writes:

1 Autonomy to devise a curriculum. But only 1/8% of academy heads (Schools Network/Reform survey) gave freedom from the National Curriculum as their main reason for conversion. And the Academies Commission said it was likely that many of the alleged “curriculum freedoms” didn’t require academy status.

2 Autonomy to employ staff. This includes “freedom” to employ unqualified teachers. Qualified Teacher Status is not a union-endorsed piece of paper but a requirement set by the Department for Education for employment as a teacher in a non-academy school. Parents should have the right to expect the same standard to apply in academies.

3 Autonomy to set their own pay and conditions. Non-academies have always had freedom to recruit their staff and decide what pay to offer, say, to heads of departments. And now that Gove has scrapped the teachers’ pay scale in favour of performance-related pay, all schools in England have the “freedom” to set pay.

4 Autonomy to set their own admissions. The Academies Commission found many academies were manipulating their admissions in order to attract particular pupils. And this “freedom” can stymie attempts by local authorities to increase the number of school places if there’s a shortfall – academies can simply refuse to take more pupils..

5 Autonomy to vary the length of the school day. Schools have always been able to do this. The only difference is that non-academies were expected, quite reasonably, to consult with parents first. And varying school term times could lead to chaos.

6 Autonomy to… etc. Perhaps Young didn’t go further because the Academies Commission debunked the Education Secretary’s previous claims that academy conversion brings innovation, more remedial education and personalised learning. In short, the Academies Commission said that while heads may perceive they’ve got more freedom, “the reality is that the increased freedoms are not nearly as substantial as is often suggested.”

As far as autonomy is concerned, the Academies Commission found that non-academies can do most things that academies can do and UK schools had considerable autonomy before academy conversion was promoted as bringing “freedom”.

But is Young right that academy conversion is responsible for the success of Thornhill Academy, the school featured in Educating Yorkshire? The answer is No. Thornhill only became an academy in December 2012. Before that it was The Community Science College at Thornhill. The head, Jonny Mitchell, arrived in September 2011 and, as the positive Telegraph review pointed out, “focussed on standards, behaviour and teaching”. In 2012, The Community Science College was “the most improved school in Yorkshire and Humberside.”

That was before it became an academy.

True, the seven weeks filming took place after the College became Thornhill Academy. But it doesn’t need academy status for “teachers to perform acts of minor heroism every day”. As the positive Telegraph review said, this happens “every day in schools across the land”. It doesn’t need academy status to put limits on pupils and set boundaries. It doesn’t need academy status “to cajole and persuade challenging students …not to let themselves down.”

Academy status is not necessary to provide a good education – to claim otherwise diminishes the efforts of both academies and non-academies.

Good schools have common features, said Ofsted, and academy status isn’t one of them.

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