The purposeful advance briefing of an announcement, to be meshed into the budget that all schools must convert to academies should cause hearts to sink. Not because of the partisan, blunt and blanket nature of the instruction – but on account of the contradictions and short-comings of the policy.
The key criterion –surely – is academic prowess. But academies do not automatically make successful schools. Ironically given that the first wave of academies was directly aimed at rescuing failing institutions, it seems increasing numbers of that academies are under-performing. But local authority schools rated by Ofsted as Outstanding are prevalent, which is not bad for an organisational model allegedly so irreparably flawed.
What other advantages will mass conversion bring? Academies do not have to follow the national curriculum. This is the same national curriculum introduced to raise basic standards. I readily acknowledge the risk of concentrating so much on data that teaching can suffer – but surely we need some measurement, some national yardstick to see if the education system is delivering against key performance indicators – how will we do that in an entirely fragmented system?
There is also a contradiction and perhaps deception here too. What will happen to the government’s currently much–vaunted standards-raising talisman, the EBACC, which schools have been heavily encouraged to adopt as a standard suite of GCSCE subjects? Admittedly there would seem to be few tears to be shed if this is to be its demise – but will non-EBACC subjects be regarded as inferior qualifications? If such a situation does arise, the government will be guiltily of willing the ends but not the means.
And mass conversion is reportedly to mean the end of national pay bargaining, and fairly universal terms and conditions. Really? Has anyone costed the new reality – thousands of localised pay negotiations? Resources of both employers and unions bogged down in the process instead of focussing on making schools better and working collaboratively to meet the many other challenges they have – from Prevent to crumbling school estates.
This is a key practical argument in my view. Money is tight. Time is also at a premium according to teachers I talk to. But the conversion process will be ravenous in resource terms – from the national political row to the local tricky detailed negations. Given the benefits – described above – are so much in doubt, how can this be justified?
The pre-budget briefing talks about academies being free to join the “chains” that have already been formed (we are due to have three institutions run by the same group in my borough alone). You can see the logic in terms of providing common back-office functions like HR, finance and facilities management. Hmm, just like local authorities do at present.
But I also see a strong likelihood that in the near future, compulsorily converted schools who are struggling with their new “independence” will be forced to seek refuge and rescue by being joined to such chains.
What the price autonomy then? And some chains make it clear that they have a particular philosophical viewpoint – one that is not to everyone’s taste. So forced unions would be hugely problematic.
And here’s the problem. The government’s plans are, in reality, a straight transfer of resources and responsibility. These move away from local authorities, and the democratic control that they are subject to, in favour, ultimately, of private organisations who are not accountable in anything like the same way. And who must as a reason to continue to exist, turn in a profit.
This is not in any way a straight-forward issue – but the budget announcement is audacious for all the wrong reasons.