Is it wise of the Government to make all state schools into academies? Evidence of the superiority of academies over local authority schools for improving standards is proving inconclusive.
A growing chorus of disapproval with regards to forcible ‘academisation’ extends from the educational establishment, the ‘blob’, as far as many Conservative Party loyalists. Now, the cross-party “County Councils Network”, representing 37 County Councils and Unitary authorities, has expressed concern. Its chairman, Kent County Council leader Paul Carter, has warned the government that it is acting with “undue haste”.
Although Councillor Carter is, himself, a governor of a multi-academy trust, he has told the BBC:
“My concern is that the change will lead to a poorer education system operating across Kent, and more broadly England, because the value that local authorities generally provide to schools will be removed.”
Of particular concern is the fate of around 700 small rural primary schools with under-sized classes. They may be the heart of local communities but, often, they make little financial sense. Many are struggling to survive and, not least, because they are disadvantaged by the current funding system. Understandably, there are genuine fears for their long-term sustainability when they become part of a multi-academy trust that strives for financial savings and efficiency. It is difficult for parents to see the attraction of academy status if it places the future of their village school in doubt.
Before rushing to man the barricades in defence of local authority schools, we should, perhaps, look more closely at the context for the academy programme.
To some extent, at least, recent governments have been panicked by the poor performance of our pupils on international comparisons. The complaints of employers and, indeed, of universities, about the ‘skill levels’ and knowledge deficiency of school leavers has added to the panic.
Responsibility for this educational under-performance lies, to a considerable extent, with local authorities. For some decades their advisory and inspection services, now more commonly called ‘school improvement services’, have operated as an educational Stasi in our schools. The enforcement of flawed notions of ‘best practice’ teaching methods, such as ‘real books’ in place of phonics for teaching reading, had a disastrous impact on educational attainment. The government’s new National Curriculum, including the full restoration of phonics, and the revision of GCSEs and A-Levels, is a further recognition of the educational failure presided over and promoted by local authorities in collusion with the rest of the ‘Blob’.
Something had to be done! Labour started the academy process as an emergency measure for the least successful schools – “to improve pupil performance and break the cycle of low expectations”, according to education secretary David Blunkett back in the year 2000. Eventually, the Tories understood that the ailments of under-performance afflicting our state schools were fairly universal and that they all needed converting.
Around two-thirds of secondary schools are, now, academies but only about 15 per cent of primary schools. This is understandable because for small schools it is difficult to ‘go it alone’ in the absence of sufficient bursarial and other administrative support.
Academies are, largely, independent of local authority control and receive funding directly from the DfE before the local authority skims off its share – up to 20 per cent in the past. Larger schools benefit financially from academy status and that is the attraction. They should, also, benefit from being free to set their own curriculum and their own teaching methods. Sadly, these freedoms do not seem to have interested them. Reliance on the National Curriculum and on failed local authority notions of ‘best practice’ remains. Small wonder, then, that the capacity of academies to raise standards is inconclusive.
Government can take schools out of local authority control and, even, provide extra funding for small rural schools, as it is now promising. It cannot, however, take addiction to local authority educational ideology, the ideology of the ‘Blob’, out of the schools.
Changing administrative structures and names is the easy bit of educational reform. Changing mind-sets is rather more difficult.