C10 The Education White paper – a spring offensive.
The proposed forcible academisation of every school in England has captured the headlines following the White Paper announced – by the Chancellor in the budget speech – without warning less than a year after the Election and the Academies and Adoption bill. Whatever the reasons for the highly political propsals and their associated and equally dogmatic proposals to destroy university teacher training and remove parent governors from schools, not to mention the final elimination of local democratic scrutiny, the most stunning piece of an increasingly Orwellian politics is the idea of forced freedom. Some of the implications are spelt out here by one of our most successful Secondary Heads. Trevor Fisher.
Forced Academisation – A view from the Head’s Study
The new educational medicine
A bit like matron prising our reluctant mouths open and forcing cough mixture down our throats, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan is inflicting academisation on every school in England. Freedom, it seems, is being inflicted upon all of us. That’s right. The oxymoron of the day is ‘forced freedom’. The news is a sign of just how tarnished a policy has become, the way in which threadbare pragmatism has replaced the semblance of policy-making.
In the early days – the glimmering Govean dawn – becoming an academy was dangled just out of reach, a prize for the chosen ones. It was intended for outstanding schools, using that most cynical of incentives: do this and Ofsted will leave you alone.
When lots of headteachers reacted as if the academy offer was akin to one of those scam Nigerian emails promising unexpected fortunes, academisation had to be reconceptualised. So it become a punishment for schools in special measures, a darkly threatened consequence for schools deemed to be coasting, and part of the armoury of an increasingly swaggering Ofsted.
Until now, that is, when it’s no longer a treat, an incentive, a perk or a bribe. It’s apparently the new bog-standard, the final breaking up of England’s collective school system, and a final wilful boot into the notion of democratically elected councils taking responsibilities for the institutions where most parents choose to educate their children. Where once academisation was the dish of the gods now it’s to be force-fed to all of us.
Nicky Morgan had the chance to explain all this in person. In March the Education Secretary spoke at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders. I wonder why she didn’t step up to the podium in that cavernous Birmingham Hilton, look delegates in the eye, and proudly tell us of her plan? If universal academisation was the vision we’ve all been holding our breath for, why did she not add it to her brief ASCL speech and then pause for delegates to whoop their joyful thanks?
Or was it that at the time the idea wasn’t yet hatched? Or is it not actually the Secretary of State’s idea but one foisted on her? Is this a last-minute money-saving wheeze by the Chancellor, or a way for certain ideologues to put a definitive boot into local authorities? Or is it perhaps an act of craven marketisation of our education system?
Some relevant recent history
And there is more to this than meets the eye. Back in August 2012 the GCSE English fiasco was raging. Teachers across England and Wales were dismayed at last-minute changes to grade boundaries that left many grade C students with Ds.
One afternoon in September I received an unexpected phone call from one of the big beasts of a large new academy chain. This was no mere headteacher, you understand. He was a Chief Executive Officer. He explained to me that many of the schools in his burgeoning multi-academy trust were situated in disadvantaged areas – where students in many schools were hit especially hard by changes to English grades.
My unexpected caller wanted to talk to me about the scale of the problem, about the number of other schools that had seen their results dip. He then darkly revealed that he had been told that if he wanted to see his chain of academies continue to grow, then he’d better not be seen to criticise the Government. He wouldn’t tell me who was applying the pressure. Thus a man not known for holding back opinions on any matter was being warned to be compliant. He duly kept shtum.
But at the end of our conversation he said something that has stuck with me. He asked whether at our comprehensive school we had considered becoming an academy, and thought about ‘taking over other schools’. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m not really interested in that stuff’. He told me to think seriously about it because – and these were his words – ‘the back office savings were massive’. I had no ideas what ‘back office savings’ meant. Part of me wondered whether it was some vaguely obscene euphemism.
But subsequently we’ve all seen that the criticism of profligate spending by local councils and their armies of advisers is looking increasingly unconvincing. Instead we see even smallish multi-academy trusts with chief executives earning more – sometimes much more – than the Prime Minister. We see chains employing small armies of pinstriped executives who talk of standards but rarely set foot in a classroom to teach a lesson they have themselves prepared or to give back books they have themselves marked. That money for those salaries comes from somewhere. They must be some savings – from some back office.
So forgive me if I don’t drape bunting from the school buildings. I’ve said before that I hope to be the last person in England dragged kicking and screaming to be an academy head.
As I watch 1400 or so students arrive at school beyond my office window, I reflect that this morning I couldn’t be prouder to be teacher and headteacher of a local comprehensive school. This place has been around since 1550. It has seen changes, initiatives and politicians come and go.
I’m proud to serve a wonderful local community, as part of a hard-working local authority. It’s what I and most of our parents thought schools were designed to do.
Geoff Barton is head teacher at King Edward VI school, a 14-19 comprehensive in Suffolk, columnist for the TES and a Foundation Fellow of the English Association. An earlier version of this was published in the TES of March 16th 2016