Gove has gone and it now appears his academy programme is losing the plot.
At a recent Westminster Forum event – The future shape of England’s school system ‐ academies, free schools and accountability and policy options – speakers from the Department for Education, Local Authorities, schools, academies, Multi Academies Trusts (MATs) and campaigns aired a number of contentious issues.
The failure of academies to become the ‘norm’ was evident when the Schools Commissioner for England – the opening speaker – presented data showing that less than a fifth of all schools are academies. Rather than creating a ‘norm’, the education policies, pursued since 2010, have created a more divided and fragmented system of education than for decades. Interestingly, the Schools Commissioner seemed to emphasise the introduction of Trusts – as alternatives to Local Authorities – rather than the creation of academies that then require Trusts. A twist to come?
A number of speakers broached the lack of accountability of academies and free schools. A row almost broke out between a journalist, at the event, and an academy Executive Head, speaking at the event, over excessive pay for academy heads. The Regional Schools Commissioner, who spoke, seemed unsure if his powers would be robust enough to limit the over generous and lax freedoms that have been given to MATs. Confidence fell further when the Director of Education at the National Audit Office (NAO), who spoke at the event, seemed unsure whether the Education Funding Agency was an Arms Length Body (or not) and unfamiliar with the NAO’s own 2012 report into Academies.
Oddly, one speaker from a MAT suggested that being a primary academy trust meant more bureaucracy, more accountability and not enough funding! As someone murmured from the audience: well why become an academy then? Others pointed out that all schools are underfunded but local authority schools at least choose to collaborate with each other to share resources.
The role of Regional Schools Commissioner was also criticised for being interested only in academies and free schools. One delegate asked why his school, an outstanding local authority maintained school that had chosen not to become an academy, was being excluded from the Boards established by the Regional Schools Commissioner to improve standards through partnership. A good question not really answered.
Speakers, from the platform and audience, wanted explanations from the Department for Education over the willingness to spend millions of pounds on free schools that were simply not needed – and embarrassingly almost empty in a number of cases – when many local authorities face a shortage of school places. Department for Education speakers suggested that the new criteria for free schools would take into account school place planning data but they sounded less than convincing.
Inevitably, an audience concerned with education will always agree on the need to provide the very best education for children and speakers mentioned the importance of improving the achievement of pupils, closing the achievement gap or raising performance. The rhetoric has been easy but as more data becomes available – and is shared at events like this one – it become apparent that the academy programme is no more able to meet these ambitions than local authority maintained schools.
One left the event wondering: so, other than the privatisation of schools, what exactly is the point of the academy and free school programme? The answer wasn’t forthcoming from the event – interesting and informative as it was.