While all eyes are on the coalition’s NHS reforms, Michael Gove’s schools revolution continues apace with little discussion. Some on the left have raised objections to the creation of “free schools” – those new schools set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities and voluntary groups and funded by the Department for Education – and argue that they will lead to a two-tier, socially segregated system.
But it’s the rise and rise of academies that is the real cause for concern. Academies are, to all intents and purposes, state-funded independent schools outside local authority control and the National Curriculum, which receive their funding directly from central government. As of March 2012, there were 1,635 academies in England, compared to 24 free schools. Most of them opened their doors from September 2010 onwards, with the blessing and encouragement of coalition ministers. More than 1.2 million pupils – one in seven pupils in state schools – now attend academies. Gove has said that the push to increase the number of academy schools “is not about ideology. It’s an evidence-based, practical solution.” Really?Here are ten things he and his supporters don’t tell you.
1 Children’s crusade
To pretend this isn’t about ideology or political dogma is absurd. Under Labour, the academies programme was focused narrowly on transforming “failing” schools in deprived neighbourhoods.
Under the current coalition, however, all schools – primary and secondary, good and bad, rich and poor – are supposed to become academies and compete with each other. Schools rated “outstanding” by Ofsted are fast-tracked through the process.
But will such an ambitious and untested project improve standards? “Many of the academies established so far are performing impressively in delivering the intended improvements,” observed Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, in September 2010. “It cannot be assumed, however, that academies’ performance to date is an accurate predictor of how the model will perform when generalised more widely.”
2 The million-pound drop
Why is it that so many schools are opting to convert to academy status? Follow the money. Academy status brings a cash boost of roughly 10 per cent or more. In addition to the basic funding that the schools would have received from local authorities, new academies also get
a top-up called Lacseg (Local Authority Central Spend Equivalent Grant), which is allocated to them on the basis of how many pupils they happen to have.
In March 2011, a survey of 1,471 head teachers by the Association of School and College Leaders showed that nearly half (46 per cent) had converted their school to academy status, or intended to do so. Three out of four were driven by the belief that such a move would benefit their schools financially, not educationally.
3 Respect my authority!
Despite all the Tory talk about empowering local communities, the academies programme places huge power in the hands of the Education Secretary in Whitehall, while severing schools’ links with democratically elected local authorities. During the passage of the Academies Bill through parliament in 2010, David Wolfe, an education barrister at Matrix Chambers, described the reforms as “undemocratic” because “nobody, apart from the Education Secretary and the governors, will be able to stop the process” of local authority schools becoming academies. There is no requirement to consult parents, or staff, or anyone else.
Protesting parents of pupils at Downhills Primary School in Tottenham, north London, have found this out the hard way. They say the government is “forcing” academy status on the school, against their wishes and those of the wider community. Gove dismisses them as “Trots”. So much for the “big society”.
4 Dunce’s corner
Supporters of academies often claim that they outperform their non-academy equivalents in the rest of the state sector. Yet a recent analysis of Department for Education figures by the Local Schools Network pressure group showed how 60 per cent of pupils in non-academy schools attained five A* to C-grade GCSEs in 2011, compared to just 47 per cent in the (then) 249 sponsored academies.
Writing in the Guardian in January, Michael Wilshaw, the new chief inspector of Ofsted and former head teacher of the much-acclaimed Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London, conceded: “Last year alone 85 schools serving the most deprived communities in our society were judged to be providing outstanding education . . . let me be clear: the vast majority of these schools are not academies. They are simply schools with heads and staff focused on the right things, striving every day to provide the best possible education for their young people.”
5 Vocation, vocation . . .
And how reliable are these fantastic exam results that some academies produce? According to an analysis of league table data by Terry Wrigley, editor of the international journal Improving Schools and visiting professor at Leeds Metropolitan University, the “excessive” use of vocational equivalents has been “inflating” the results of England’s academy schools.
Wrigley’s research shows that two out of three academies (68 per cent) conveniently rely more heavily on vocational qualifications than the average state school, thereby “creating a false impression that they are successful”.
In fact, when these GCSE “equivalent qualifications” are excluded from the results, the proportion of students in academies achieving five GCSEs including English and maths fell by almost 12 per cent – or twice the national average. The fact is that academies, as even the centre-right think tank Civitas has acknowledged, are “inadequately academic”.
6 Squeezed till it hurts
Academies operate outside local authority control and have the freedom to set their own levels of pay for staff, including teachers. Most academy pay scales tend not to vary much from national norms – although head teachers and their deputies in some cases can secure supersize salaries – but conditions can differ. According to a report by the Times Education Supplement: “Some academies require staff to be available during the school holidays, while others put no upper limit on working hours.”
Anti-academy campaigners fear that the freedom to set pay and conditions will become the freedom to squeeze pay and conditions. “You need to study the contract,” says Andrew Morris, the expert on the topic at the National Union of Teachers. “In return for a salary just a little above national scale, you may be giving away some fundamental rights and benefits.”
7 We’re broke – fix us
Are academies value for money? In January, the Financial Times reported that eight academies in financial difficulty had been bailed out by a Department for Education quango over the past 18 months, at a cost to the taxpayer of almost £11m. “Civil servants are increasingly worried about the lack of close supervision and sustained support for the schools – the so-called ‘middle tier’ problem,” wrote the paper’s education correspondent Chris Cook.
The whole point of academies is that the schools should manage themselves without local authority support. Yet as Philip White, chief executive of Syscap, the independent finance company that calculated the bailout figure, has noted: “Schools take the role of the local authorities for granted. Cutting the apron strings is not a simple process and will require schools to adopt behaviours which are not natural to them.”
8 Billy no-mates
So far, despite the fawning coverage that it has received in much of the press, Gove’s schools revolution is not popular with the public. According to a YouGov poll carried out last month, 27 per cent of voters think that turning more schools into academies will raise educational standards. On the other hand, 53 per cent of voters think that academies will either “make standards worse” (24 per cent) or “make no difference” (29 per cent).
Moreover, fewer than one in four voters (23 per cent) think free schools will drive up standards – and fewer than one in three (28 per cent) support the government’s decision to allow profit-making private companies to manage these new institutions.
9 Face doesn’t fit
In January, a damning investigation by BBC2’s Newsnight highlighted the practice of “unofficial exclusion”- that is, the quiet, below-the-radar process of easing out troublesome pupils who might undermine an academy’s stability and all-important position in the school league tables. The Newsnight report cited comments made by Gary Phillips, head teacher of the Lillian Baylis Technology School, a local authority college in south London, which every year has to take in new pupils from academies.
“Many of them are seeking to move because of what I often call ‘the dark arts’,” Phillips said. “They’ve been asked to move rather than be permanently excluded; they’ve been ignored for a few months on study leave, or ignored in a study support centre.”
Education lawyers worry that academies’ much-lauded league table successes come at the expense of their most vulnerable pupils.
10 In detention
We hear a great deal from the Department for Education about the success stories – the oversubscribed Mossbourne, the network of high-performing academies set up by Ark Schools and the rest – but have you, say, heard of Birkdale High School in Southport, Merseyside, which only converted to an academy in August 2011? Last month, it was deemed “inadequate” and placed in special measures by Ofsted because of failures that inspectors identified during a visit in December.
It isn’t an isolated case. In January, Ofsted inspectors told the Sir Robert Woodard Academy in Lancing, West Sussex, that it was “failing” and put the school into special measures – only two years after it opened. The inconvenient truth is that academy status is no guarantee of academic success.