Academisation may not be once and for all

Michael Gove, Secretary State for Education, has raised the prospect that a school’s move to academy status may not be the irreversible decision that it had until now appeared to be, and that an academy sponsor may be removed from control of a school.

From the inception of the academies programme there has been concern that conversion to an academy is a one way street.  Critics have asked what happens if the academisation ‘does not work’ and standards in the school drop or fail to improve.

Currently, once a school has become an academy, either as a converter or as sponsored academy, there appears to be no mechanism to take the school back from the Trust or sponsor if they fail to deliver the improvements they have promised.

It now seems that Michael Gove has recognised this potential problem.

In an article in the Oxford Times today, Michael Gove is quoted as ‘admitting that’ the academies policy was not working at every school. He suggests that in certain cases where a particular sponsor is not bringing about the improvements necessary, they should be replaced and another academy sponsor allowed to take over the school.

It is welcome that Michael Gove has publicly raised this issue.

We wait with interest to see what mechanisms and policy changes he and the government propose as a solution.

Lord Nash urges more academies

Lord Nash urges more schools to become, and to sponsor, academies

Lord Nash, speaking at the Academies Conference in London on 24 April, urged more schools to become academies: he said that ‘the academies programme is the best chance for the future for education’, and that if schools made the step to become academies, they ‘would not regret it’.

Lord Nash, education minister with responsibility for the academies programme, reminded his audience that whilst there are plenty of excellent schools, far too many have fallen behind and have allowed their pupils to fall behind. ‘We have to improve the quality of education substantially and fast’, he said, adding that the best way to do this was via the academies programme.

Repeating what we have heard from other ministers of the present and previous government, he said that the Government believes that headteachers and teachers are the best people to run schools, and that they should be given the freedom to get on and do that job. ‘Becoming an academy gives you 100% control of your budget and freedom to run your school in the best interest of its learners’, he explained, but added that more important was the change in mindset that it brought about. Its not just ‘freedom from, but freedom to’.

Lord Nash specifically urged academy governing bodies to consider using their new freedoms to move to what he called ‘a more dynamic governance structure’ – although he did not say what that involved.

He also said that he believes in school-to-school support and local collaboration between schools, and asked existing successful academies to put themselves forward to take up the opportunity to support and sponsor other underperforming schools near them.

Lord Nash – doubts about paid Governors

Lord Nash, Education Minister, does not seem to be in favour of paid governors.

Speaking at the Education Select Committee on 20 March on the role of school governing bodies he said that he was “not convinced” about the benefits of paying governors. He said:

I think it could be a distraction. There is a danger that by paying governors you could attract the wrong people, or you could open the floodgates.

He went on to say, “voluntary does not mean amateur”.

Indeed – as we said in our last post, just because someone is unpaid does not means that they are not capable or qualified.

Qualifications are no guarantee of quality

Why does Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted Chief Inspector,  think that the best measure of the quality of governors is their professional qualifications and how much they are paid?

No one would deny that there is a real need to improve the quality of school governance. But his statements today seem to miss the point and just rehearse old arguments.

People with specific professional backgrounds can clearly make valuable members of a governing body, but it is not helpful to place all the emphasis on those with the more obvious formal qualifications. And to do so risks ignoring or loosing the valuable contribution that can be brought by people from a wide range of diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Just because someone is unpaid, does not mean that they are not capable or ‘qualified’, or are going to operate at a lower standard.  Across the voluntary sector their are numerous examples of people working in and governing successful organisations at

There are numerous examples in the voluntary sector of people operating to high standards of professionalism, working in and governing organisations without receiving financial reward. The idea that unpaid work is somehow sub-standard flies in the face of what is actually going on in voluntary organisations across the country.

We want people to give their time and energy to being a governor because of a commitment to improving education, not because they will get paid for it.

Attracting qualified professionals to take roles as members of governing bodies should not become a tick-box exercise of counting letters after peoples’ names, or  seen as an alternative to the schools themselves ensuring that they employ appropriate professional advice and support.

Fog lifting on free schools

The fog may be lifting on the Government’s free schools programme.

Mr Gove has at last reluctantly let the Department of Education publish information about the names and religious affiliation of 517 applicants to open free schools.

Mr Gove had been resisting a ruling by Information Commissioner Christopher Graham to release the information and had appealed to a tribunal to keep the information secret.

Both the Commissioner and the Tribunal ruled that it was in the public interest for the information to be disclosed.

Now that a modicum of transparency has crept in to the DfE’s approach to free schools, is it too much to hope that we can see more transparency around the  DfE’s choice of Academy Sponsors, as we raised in our last post?

There should be more transparency

The government stated ambitions are to turn round failing schools and to promote parental choice.  It seems that the only way they want to do this is by imposing an academy sponsor on a school whether they like it or not.

In two recent high profile examples neither the school nor the parents were given any choice over their school’s future.  Downhills school in Haringey, in the face of strong local opposition, was forced to become an academy – under Harris; Roke Primary in Croydon, where governors wanted to join with a local secondary school academy, was forced to become an academy under the Department for Education’s chosen sponsor – Harris.

So who’s choice  is the Government promoting and on what basis is that choice being made?

To identify the best way forward for the school and to allow choices to be made, would it not be better – and more transparent – to set out what is required to improve the school and the criteria that will be applied to choosing the way of achieving that; to invite potential sponsors to tender for the role and state what they would offer; and to openly judge those bids against the criteria? And to give appropriate weight to the views of parents and governors in deciding the future of their school?

If they are serious about promoting choice, then the Department for Education must provide greater transparency in the process, explaining the criteria they use to judge potential sponsors and how their decisions around sponsors are taken – and justify why they seem to believe that the imposition of Harris is consistent with the promotion of parental choice.

Get stuck in or carp from the sidelines?

There are signs of a shift in the debate about academy schools. away from arguing about the merits or otherwise of the government’s academies policy, towards a focus on seeking ways to get the best out of the options available.

In the face of the government’s push to force failing primary schools to become academies, the governing bodies of some of those schools, who would in an ideal world not want to become academies at all, are taking the more pragmatic approach that the interest of their school and its students is best served by them ‘working within the system’ and trying to shape the kind of academy their school will become.

It may not be the game they would choose to play but the game is not going to change and they realise that it would be better to play, rather than just carp from the sidelines.

By parking the argument about academies or not academies, and engaging in the debate about the way their school becomes an academy and its potential academy partners, governors can have a real influence on the future of their school.

And it can be a stark choice, with the DfE seeming to favour a one size fits all approach driven by their favoured academy sponsors.

The better-known academy sponsors impose consistent branding and standardised procedures on all schools in their chains – an approach that has all the hallmarks of a supermarket or retail chain. But this centralised approach runs counter to the way many schools aim to serve their local community and wish to retain their own character and ethos. For them the model of the specialist food market and cooperative offers a better example.

By setting out what matters to them and choosing a local school they would prefer to have as their sponsor, the Governors of a school under threat of forced academisation can have a real impact on the future direction and governance of their school – even if they will ultimately not have a direct role in it themselves.

Conversion update

By September 2012, a total of 2309 schools had converted to academies of which 1808 were converter schools and 501 sponsored.  The majority are secondary schools (1484) with 769 being primary and 56 special schools.

This means that nearly half of all secondary schools are now academies and 48% of the secondary school workforce are working under an academy structure.

Three quarters of academies are ‘converters’ – schools which have chosen to become academies.  Less than a quarter are ‘sponsored’ academies – schools that have been taken over by an academy chain.

The most up to date reports for 1 November 2012, show the total number of academies in England now stands at 2456.

Twigg avoids the question

 

Given the rapidly changing education landscape and the current debate about the relationship between local authorities and schools, it was disappointing that Stephen Twigg, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, failed to set out the Labour party’s position on this key issue.

When he spoke at the Labour Party conference, he acknowledged that all decisions about education should not be made by Whitehall.  He also said Labour will “restore a partnership between local and central government”.   He gave no details about how this would be achieved or what he saw as the local authority role.

Further, he said he wants “every school to have the freedom to innovate”.  Surely this is no different to the current Government’s policy that will lead to all schools becoming academies.

Obviously we will have to wait a bit longer to see how Labour policy differs from that of the Coalition.

 

No one wants to elbow-out local authorities

The role of Local Authorities in school improvement was the topic for debate in David Law’s first education fringe of the Liberal Democrat Conference on 24 September 2012.  It appears that the panel was set up assuming a major disagreement on the role of local authorities, however, what emerged was a general consensus.

Mr Laws set out three areas where local involvement was required: to provide services for small schools who lack the capacity to provide internally; system functions that need co-ordination that cannot be provided by Westminster or individual schools – such as admissions, place planning and exclusions; and finally the delivery of improvement.

We went on to say Ofsted should identify failure or the risk of failure but what it should not do is intervene, because that would be a conflict of roles, but there was the need for an organisation to intervene for example to replace the headteacher or governing body.  Those are decisions that need a local democratic input.

Cllr Derek Osbourne, Leader of Kingston Council said that the most fragmented education system since Victorian times was being created, that there was a danger that the ball would be dropped and that the critical role of local authorities was to ensure that children and families did not suffer from this fragmentation.

Jon Coles, Chief Executive of United Learning, and former Department for Education officer who worked on the London Challenge project argued that there does need to be change because there are local authorities failing to be effective in tackling underperformance in schools and governing bodies who lack the strength to control a rogue headteacher.

He structured his thoughts round three themes: Sufficiency, Access and Protection, looking for a body to make sure there are enough good places available, not just enough to go round; that there is someone to arbitrate if different schools do different things in relation to admissions and exclusions; and that the vulnerable are supported.  Individual schools could not provide all of these services alone.

Looking forward, Jon Coles did not want the introduction of more layers between the school and Whitehall and that much more could be achieved by schools, and local authorities, working more effectively together, on an equal basis.

No speaker called for a new institution or body to handle local educational interests or for the local authority to be elbowed-out altogether.  What is unclear and upon which there is much less agreement is exactly what the role of the local authority should be.