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Chris McGovern: Local authorities have a lot to answer for. But academies U-turn was right


In case you missed it, the Government has done a U-turn on it plan to force all schools to become academies. While our attention was supposed to be focused on the various election results around the country, the Education Secretary announced the climb down. Friday was a great day to bury bad news. The change of policy on academies had to be squeezed into broadcasts after the ‘big’ political stories of the day had been covered.

Local authority control of schools has long been a concern for me. For some decades they have used their own subject advisers and inspectors to promote fashionable ideologies in schools. As an example of this we should consider the case of the late Martin Turner. Thirty years ago he was the educational psychologist for Croydon local authority who broke ranks and published the truth about reading standards in schools. They were declining. He placed the blame on the demise of phonics-based teaching methods.

The new method that largely replaced phonics was called ‘real books’. It is based on the mistaken and very adult notion that leaning the sounds of letters and combinations of letters, phonics, is boring. Instead, ‘best practice’ was to ask children to learn the shape of whole words from so-called ‘real books’. Superficially, this led to some impressive results. Young readers seemed able to remember quite a lot. Reading difficult nouns such as “hippopotamus” or “rhinoceros” were ‘eazy peazy’. The problem came when a child did not recognise or remember a word. Unable to break down a word into its phonic parts (decode) or build up the correct spelling of a word (encode) they were stumped.

Education ‘experts’ at the time seemed to think that children learnt to read by a process of osmosis triggered off by the ‘real books’ methods. Martin Turner, the ‘whistle blower’ on this nonsense, lost his local authority job. If other local authority educational psychologists shared his concerns, they stayed silent in order to preserve their livelihood.

The consequences for many average ability and less able children have been disastrous. If the intelligence of brighter pupils and parental support could offset some of the damage, this was not true for less privileged youngsters. Their progress was, at best, retarded by the absence of a structured phonics course. The new National Curriculum has recently restored phonics to pole position in the teaching of reading but too late for many older children and for younger adults.

Bottom of the literacy league table for 16-24 year-olds across the developed world, small wonder that employers bemoan the unemployability of many of our school leavers. And much of the responsibility for this state of affairs lies with local authorities. As in so many areas of our educational failings it has been the local authorities that have acted as the ‘enforcers’.

This an aspect of local authority influence that governments have never really understood. And, of course, most schools that have converted to academy status remain ideologically tied to the local authority mind-set, the mind-set of the  ‘Blob’, the educational establishment. The motive for conversion is, invariably, financial gain. The freedom an academy has to set it own curriculum has little to with the decision to opt out of local authority control. It is all about the ‘lolly’. ‘Freedom’? Most academies have no idea what to do with it.

There are few financial incentives for smaller schools to convert to academies. Most would not be able to pay for the required bursarial support and local authorities can offer attractive economies of scale. And who wishes to see village schools, the heart of many local communities, absorbed into anonymous academy chains? Nicky Morgan is right to have drawn back from her original proposals. Choice is usually preferable to compulsion.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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