I took my own advice and have written a letter to my local MP.
Dear Mrs Main,
It has been reported in the press in the past few days that the Secretary of State for Education will soon be meeting with backbench MPs to discuss the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper. As a governor of a local secondary academy I wanted to take this chance to comment on a few of the issues that are likely to arise.
I apologise at the outset if in parts this reads like a lecture – one of my issues with this whole debate is the lack of straightforward information being provided, on all sides.
Educating the next generation is one of the most important roles that a government is given responsibility for. It is important that they take the time to ensure they discharge this responsibility as effectively, efficiently and as transparently as possible. At the moment I am not convinced this is happening.
Firstly on the matter of evidence. There is only one thing that is clear regarding the evidence on the performance of academies versus the performance of maintained schools and that is that it is not clear, one way, or the other. For every statistic claiming to show that maintained schools perform better, I can source one that shows the same is true for academies. And vice versa. “X% of academies are good or outstanding”. Well, most academies that have converted were already good or outstanding when they converted – it was a pre-requisite. “Sponsored academies perform better than maintained schools.” That’s only true until you compare similar schools, then the relationship is reversed. We could go on.
For me the important evidence is the evidence that we do not yet have. The bulk of the schools yet to convert are primaries. Only 20% or so of primary schools are academies, leaving around fifteen thousand to convert. Here is the problem. There is no evidence available enabling us to reliably compare the performance of primary academies with maintained primaries. In a recent letter the secretary of State herself makes the point the DfE “have not undertaken a ‘similar schools’ analysis for primary schools because there have been a relatively small number of schools with results for more than one academic year” and can only make the claim that “primary sponsored academies are narrowing the gap between their performance and the average for state funded schools.” Which doesn’t even attempt to compare like with like.
No change is without risk. However, given the lack of any firm evidence that academisation per se leads to school improvement, and given the lack of any valid or reliable evidence relating to primaries in particular it would seem to be a considerable risk to push ahead with forcing primaries to convert.
Secondly, on governance. I am a parent governor (and I should make it very clear here that all my comments in this letter are personal and not those of any governing body). Many of my colleagues on our governing body came to the role as parent governors and have stayed to share their knowledge and skills which have become invaluable. Would they all have become governors had the role of parent governor not existed? Would I? I cannot say for certain but I suggest it is less likely that I and many of my colleagues would be working directly with schools in this way were if not for that specific role. The removal of the requirement for parent governors does two things. It narrows the pool of people drawn to governorship and, perhaps more importantly, will change the characteristics of those people who do engage in a way that we do not yet understand. It will also move the governance of schools further away from the schools themselves. They would have less understanding of the local issues affecting those schools and to that extent be less useful to the schools.
The suggestions put forward to mitigate such issues, such as local parent representative boards, would have no powers to effect change and would be purely advisory. The changes remove any legal right for parents to have any strategic oversight of a school. This weakens governance and will consequently weaken the school. A more political point is that it removes the local democratic link between the community and the school. It goes against any localism agenda the government professes to have.
Finally I want to mention autonomy.
We are told that the primary reason academisation is a driver for school improvement is because it frees school leadership from the yoke of LA control and gives them autonomy. Anyone who has been involved in education for any length of time (I began my teachers training in 1994) will know the issue of “LA control” is a nonsense. In 1988 the LMS reforms ended LA control of how money was spent and put it in the hands of the schools. By 1994 LAs were effectively the schools landlord, the school being at liberty to decide most everything else.
So the idea it is academisation that provides freedoms for schools to run themselves is a myth. It is a myth that demeans the schools, the people that lead them and the local authorities that worked hard to support them. You will know yourself how schools in St Albans have thrived prior to academisation and how those who did experience difficulties were supported by Hertfordshire CC (and by other local schools). Predominantly, those schools in the area that have converted have done so as stand-alone academies and have continued to thrive as before. LMS versus Academy status – I’m not sure much has changed.
But academisation goes further than just having the same freedoms under a different name. For many schools academisation involves a reduction in autonomy. Where a school joins a Multi-Academy Trust, and this is the plan under EEE for the overwhelming majority of schools, the level of autonomy within the individual school is inevitably reduced. The National Schools Commissioner has answered the question “Does membership of a MAT reduce autonomy?” with “Yes, it probably does!” As the Secretary of State says in the foreword to the White Paper – “Autonomy will be both earned and lost, with our most successful leaders extending their influence, and weaker ones doing the opposite.”
If the major benefit of academisation is autonomy, then forcing most schools into organisations that actually reduce their autonomy seems to be counter-intuitive. It would appear that the current plan is to replace 151 post-LMS Local Authorities with a thousand pre-LMS Multi-Academy Trusts. This wouldn’t appear to be a step forwards.
I am a governor of a successful local academy attended by both of my children. I am no enemy of academisation. I am no enemy of promise. I want an education system that works. Currently it is facing a recruitment crisis, a looming financial black hole and, to be brutally honest, an under-resourced Department for Education that is currently unable to manage the implementation of the reforms that are already underway, let alone adding the forced conversion of a further fifteen thousand schools to the list.
There is a better way.
Left to themselves it is likely that all secondary schools that are able to, and all primaries that want to will have converted by 2020. Most secondaries are large enough to exist as stand-alones if they desire and consider it bets for their students. By then, on current projections, somewhere near a half of all primaries will have also converted. We will have data to look at and organisational models to compare. We will be able to look and see what works for governance and which models create more autonomy. At that point we can be better placed to offer schools advice on how they should best organise for the benefit of their students , based on evidence and experience from our own education system.
My knowledge of schools and school leaders suggests to me that is all they really want.
Thank you for reading.