Education Sep 10 2010

Why did the rush for academy and free school status fizzle out?

By Guy Dixon 0 comments

Almost the first thing the Coalition government announced after the May election was the urgent need for legislation to enable the mass creation of academies and so-called ‘free schools’. The rationale for the urgency being that there were several thousand local authority-maintained schools desperate to break away and hundreds of groups who wanted to establish and run their own schools. For this reason the Academies Act was rushed through Parliament to enable a vast cohort of schools to become academies by the beginning of the Autumn Term and the establishment of hundreds of free schools – many as early as September 2011. This the Secretary of State intimated was only the first wave in a great tsunami of applications which he hoped would eventually lead to all 20,000 local authority maintained schools in England becoming academies.

There was always an aura of artificiality about all this. The 1567 schools listed on the DFE website as being interested in becoming an academy turned out to include many who had simply ticked a box requesting further information (including where the headteacher had done so without consulting anyone). There were even one suspects cases where a school applied for further information just so they could have the satisfaction of announcing to their local paper that having received the information they had no plans to proceed any further. No list of the groups allegedly wanting to open some 700 ‘free schools’ was published.

What is also interesting is that two of the cases cited during this period turned out to reflect very particular local circumstances. One was Oldfield School in Bath and North Somerset LA the subject of an uncritical BBC report on 25th May on its quest to become an academy . What this report failed to mention was that the school in question was due to close as part of a much needed and much consulted-upon re-organisation of secondary school education in the area and this was a strategy was to keep the school open (and hence throw the whole re-organisation process back into the melting pot).

The second was in Birkenshaw in Kirklees LA in West Yorkshire where during the election 400 parents marched with Michael Gove and David Cameron in favour of being able to open their own ‘free school’. But this too has its own story- in this case the proposal by Kirklees to end a anomaly left over from local government reorganisation in 1974 when it inherited a small number of first, middle and high schools in part of the north of the authority from the old West Riding LEA (this tri-part system has long been abandoned in most of the rest of England). This reorganisation involves closing Birkenshaw Middle School and offering secondary school places in existing schools (which have spare capacity) outside the area. But Birkenshaw (which more sensibly should have been included in either Bradford or Leeds in the 1974 reoganisation) is cut off from the rest of Kirklees by the M62 and parents object to their children having to travel outside the area.

In the event Gove had to announce that only 32 schools would transfer to being academies in September 2010 with another 110 later in the academic year (this is likely to be an overestimate since some of these applications are likely to be withdrawn as a result of consultation with parents during the Autumn term) and only 16 ‘free schools’ will open in September 2011.

So why has there been so little take up? For academies the press is reporting that Gove is blaming this on DFE officials and militant teaching unions. His relationship with his officials is unknown territory, but what has this union ‘militancy’ consisted of? – strikes?, works-to-rule?, mass demonstrations?, the burning of effigies of the Secretary of State outside Sanctuary House? Well no – Gove’s complaint seems to be that various unions adopted the obviously underhand tactic of writing to schools drawing attention to the disadvantages of becoming academies as well to as the provision the Academies Act that governing bodies ‘should’ (but unfortunately not ‘must’) consult before agreeing to apply for academy status.

In fact the reasons for the lack of enthusiasm should be sought elsewhere and are likely to be a combination of the following:

1)      Schools are more wary than they were about change of status since they know though the Grant-Maintained experience of the 1990s that what can be established by one government can be undone by the next.

2)      The political situation looks fragile. There is scepticism about how long the Coalition government will last and uncertainty as to what will happen if it does not.

3)      As noted in a previous blog academies are not GM schools revisited in that the amount of extra money available once a school has ceased to be local authority maintained is smaller than was available for GM schools (and much smaller than was available for the GM schools that opted out first). Moreover this extra money will have to be spent mainly on services previously provided by their local authority.

4)      Many headteachers and governors (particularly those who are not conservative voters but also many that are) are opposed in principle to academies or at least to academies outside areas of deprivation. This is likely to include many who voted for the Liberal Democrats – whose manifesto in the last election included making existing academies local-authority maintained – but who have now signed up for exactly the opposite – a policy to encourage all schools to leave their local authority.

5)      A distrust of Michael Gove because of his early actions in relation to other aspects of education. This includes the cancelling of the Building Schools for the Future programme and the cancelling of the new Primary Curriculum – the latter by email.

The ‘free school’ programme was never likely to appeal much beyond those with a particular grievance (as in the Birkenshaw example referred to above), certain religious groups and a small minority of middle-class parents with too much time on their hands. And even its appeal to profit-making organisations would seem limited for the simple reason that schools do not seem to offer many opportunities for profit. This is because the majority of school expenditure is on teaching and support staff which means that (assuming free schools are funded on an equal basis to other schools) that the only way substantial profits can be made is by reducing staff salaries or by reducing staff numbers or both. But why would staff want to work in such schools or parents want their children to be in large classes? (the talk in the press of some ‘free schools’ having classes of only 15 or so is strictly for the birds).

So what happens now? It is quite unlikely that Gove will accept these setbacks as signifying his whole strategy is mistaken and will no doubt be thinking up ingenious ways to tempt schools down the academies path. These will be reported and commented on here as and when they happen.

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