St. Leonard’s Catholic Comprehensive School in Durham has now abandoned plans to convert to academy status. The decision was made on November 10th, meaning that now neither of the 2 best performing state secondary schools in the North East of England is going to become an academy. St. Leonard’s governors made the decision to abandon the academy process at the end of the consultation period. Responses from staff had included many impassioned pleas in defence of the principles of a universally accessible local authority accountable education system. At the end of the consultation process a decisive 105 staff voted ‘no’ to the academy, with only 15 in favour.
The whole process revealed interesting facets of how government pressure on schools to convert is impacting, especially in the Catholic voluntary controlled sector. Up until very recently the Catholic Education Service maintained a very strong position of opposition to academies based on principled defence of the 1944 Act system. Unfortunately this position was defied by some schools in some areas, putting pressure on the bishops and the CES to revise its policy. The result was the change in 2011 to sanction conversion, albeit only in certain circumstances and with very firm lists of conditions, but to sanction conversion nonetheless. A classic example of hard cases leading to bad law. But worse was to come. The PR presentation of the changed CES policy was couched in terms calculated to put a positive gloss on the acceptance of academies. And of course in too many quarters this was all interpreted as a positive green light to conversion.
And so we arrived at the situation which pertained in St.Leonard’s where a well-meaning set of governors who had never previously considered conversion started to get caught up in the ‘everyone is doing it so we don’t want to get left behind’ mentality. Every aspect of the proposal to convert was presented in almost apologetic terms. The entire focus was on how little was going to be changed, and on all of the guarantees that were going to be made to safeguard the position of staff. And this was probably going to be true, at least for the first few years.
The challenge to those of us who did not want to see conversion take place was to demonstrate to all involved that good intentions and promises of safeguards could not protect either the school, the staff or local support services from the longer term consequences of the government’s programme. It was important throughout to emphasise that the good faith and intentions of the governors were not the problem. This might not always be the case, but it was the situation at St. Leonard’s and probably it is the same in many more schools. Make no mistake about it; this government is quite content to play a long game to get to where it wants and that is where the focus needs to be kept. The break-up of the role of local authorities in education is a step towards bringing privatisation and competition into education, the few crumbs of additional autonomy given to schools are put in the spotlight, but ultimately the Secretary of State is the biggest winner. Similarly no matter what safeguards are promised for wage rates and conditions of service every academy conversion is another small chipping away at the long term future for nationally determined terms and conditions. These were the arguments that helped us win the ballot.
NUT rep., St. Leonard’s Catholic School Durham.