Education Mar 5 2010

Independent state schools and accredited providers

The government today announced a list of accredited providers who can take over the leadership and management of schools if the parents believe those schools are are failing. Parents would be able to vote for a change of management and the accredited provider would come in and run the school as an academy, trust or as part of a federation of schools, possibly leading to chains of independent schools across the country.

In one sense this is an admission that the early academy experiment  in which almost anyone could become an academy ‘sponsor’, hasn’t worked. So out go the dodgy businessmen, tax exiles, wacky religious groups and private sector companies with zero experience of running schools and in come an altogether duller more worthy list of educational trusts, charities and foundations.

Will it work? Only 4 % of schools in England were officially failing, according to last years report from the Chief Inspector of Schools and most parents are satisfied with their children’s schools so the chances of parents rising up and calling for change may be slim. But in the small number of cases where everything else has failed, should alternative management and leadership  be considered? The answer is probably a heavily qualified yes.

Neighbouring successful schools may have something to offer a school in difficulties and their help may be something that the governing body of the struggling school might welcome, although one wonders how many successful schools want to take on the extra management burdens of a second, third or fourth school? Other education providers, FE colleges or universities may also have skills they can bring to local schools but the risk of allowing them to ‘take over’ existing schools should not be inderestimated. We could end up with thousands of ‘independent state schools’, with remote and undemocratic governance arrengements, which are not accountable to their local communities and have freedoms in areas like admissions, special needs, exclusions, teachers pay and conditions that other neighbouring schools don’t have. If the Conservatives win the election , those schools could  be quickly allowed to make a profit.

The trick must be to harness the expertise and energy of outside bodies, if that is what is needed , while keeping schools within the maintained system, not owned lock, stock and barrel by a sponsor, with governance arrangements that embrace  local people. There is little evidence the ‘independence’ alone is the magic bullet that will improve a school. Some of the existing academies are already failing and most of the objective research suggests that the improvement in results in academies is no better than the improvements in other maintained schools, in similar circumstances and starting from a very low base. So why create more independent state schools?

Co-operative models of public services are the current buzz words among politicians, David Cameron launched his plans for co-operative public services last week and Children’s Secretary Ed Balls has already invented something called a co-operative trust school. But the essence of the co-operative model is that ownership and governance are rooted in the staff and users. The politicians should put their money where their mouths are and end the concept of ‘free’ or ‘independent’ schools which float freely into the orbit of private business, with the inevitable commercial pressures that will bring, Instead they should promote a role for accredited outside bodies, with real expertise in school improvement, in schools that still belong to their local communities and with governance arrangements that reflect that.


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