The Independent London Newspaper
1st March 2017

Academies: must it all end in tiers?

    Kevin Courtney speaking at a fringe meeting in Manchester on Monday

    Academies  are seen as a magic-bullet solution to all education’s ills. But who will intervene when things go awry? asks Kevin Courtney

    Published: October 6, 2011

    THERE is a revolution taking place in how our schools are being organised – and it hasn’t been tried anywhere else.

    The government’s ambition is for a very large number of schools to leave local authority control – 40 per cent of secondary schools have done so or are most of the way down the route to do so – and a survey by the Local Government Information Unit forecasts that this figure may get higher. In some local authorities it is already substantially over 40 per cent. If you add in voluntary-aided schools, then there are already authorities with no community local authority secondary schools at all.

    Their advocates have seen free schools in Sweden and Charter schools in the USA as laboratories outside the main system, where new ideas can be tested – and the successful ideas imported into the rest of the system.

    But where we are currently heading in England is for the academy model to be the whole of the system.

    And the idea is due to spread to how we teach younger pupils, with the government saying it wants to force 200 under-performing primary schools to become academies as well. So they say academies are the magic-bullet solution for all phases, all qualities of schools – yet this is highly ideological and highly ambitious.

    And this makes “Hands on or hands off – what role for local authorit­ies?” a burning question.

    I believe the government should have consulted on this before starting the academy acceleration. We believe there should have been some piloting of this programme, and we think that would have been good governance.

    I do understand Michael Gove’s drive – he wants to make significant changes quickly. But rushed legislation can lead to unforeseen and unwanted consequences.

    And this was rushed legislation. The Acad­emies Bill that passed before the end of July 2010 was rushed through Parliament on a timescale not used since the Dangerous Dogs Act  and anti-terrorist legislation.

    So now it is vital that we try to make sense of the new terrain.

    There will be academies that succeed, as there are well-run local authority schools that succeed – many in Tory local authorities.

    But there will also be academies that fail. There are academies with league table scores which, if they were community schools, would make them eligible for intervention and conversion into an academy.

    There will be acad­emies that co-operate with sensible local arrangements – and there will be others that don’t.

    There will be academies that strive to have an admissions arrangement that is fair to all sections of the community, including children with special needs – and there may be some that don’t.

    So what should happen if these things go awry? When parents were protesting outside the Richard Rose Academy in Cumbria under the last administration, Ed Balls famously said that it “was a long way from Whitehall”.

    Will accountability via a route that goes through Whitehall be enough? At a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference, the speaker, David Laws, suggested that a new tier would have to be invented between the schools and Whitehall.

    We say that tier already exists. It is run by democratically-elected councillors – and it is called local government.

    The Local Government Information Unit survey found widespread demand for local authorities to have some mild additional powers. They are:

    • To intervene in a poorly performing academy;
    • Approve an academy’s admission arrangements;
    • Direct that a child not on a schools admission register is admitted;
    • Name an academy in a school attendance order;
    • Charge an academy for pupils attending council-funded alternative provision;
    • Close an academy; and
    • Establish a community school without first considering an academy.

    And surely this could best be done by our councils.

    • Kevin Courtney is deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.