Education Jan 13 2012

Why we should support the parents at Downhills Primary School

Earlier this week I went to speak at a public meeting at Downhills Primary School in Tottenham. The school is being faced with ‘forced academisation’ by the government even though according to several external indicators (HMI visit and league tables) it is starting to improve. Between 2009 and 2011 the schools KS2 SATs results increasing by 24%. If this school were already an academy, improving from a low base, it would no doubt be hailed as a great success.

The meeting in the school hall was packed with well over 500 parents, governors, heads and teachers from the school and neighbouring schools. The parents at Downhills are clear – they know their school must improve but they want to continue that process within the local authority family rather than outside it.

At the start of the meeting local MP David Lammy asked how many people in the hall were parents in favour of school improvement – nearly every hand went up. I think it is safe to say that these parents are not happy with failure, as Michael Gove tried to suggest last week.

David Lammy, who made an excellent rousing speech and who will be raising this issue in the House of Commons this week, also pointed out that there are over 20 schools below the government floor targets in Michael Gove’s Surrey constituency yet he is choosing to ignore those and used Labour Haringey Council, which has clearly been through a difficult period following the death of Baby P, as a political football.

I went to the meeting for two reasons. Firstly in solidarity with the parents and governors.

My children’s primary school was named and shamed in the early 90s. No such thing as forced academisation then – even the Iron Lady couldn’t dream up something as undemocratic as this.

But we were faced with a situation where we had to turn the school around in the face of repeated HMI /Ofsted visits and the introduction of league tables (we were at the bottom). I won’t pretend that it wasn’t a long and at times hard struggle because there are no quick fixes in real school improvement.

But we did it –without a sponsor, without changing status, without changing our intake ( in fact that became more not less challenging due to our poor local reputation) but with a strong head, committed governing body , supportive parents and within the local authority family. Downhills is in a much stronger situation – we were on a downward not upward trajectory

So my first point was that schools don’t need to become academies to improve.

In fact in our local authority (Camden) nearly every primary school is judged good or outstanding – none is an academy so it is nonsense to suggest that independence is a necessary pre –requisite for success.

But perhaps the more important reason for attending last night’s meeting was to salute the Downhills community for so effectively exposing the government’s deep intellectual dishonesty on this issue. They are intellectually dishonest for several reasons.

They pretend that only autonomous status leads to school improvement. But in countries where this experiment has been tried in the past the results – like Sweden and the USA –results have been mixed.

Some schools have improved but often at the expense of others or by changing the pupils they admit and getting rid of those that don’t make the grade.

Here the government uses the example of the rapid improvement in some secondary academies GCSE results as justification for its forced academy programme.

But any close analysis of those results will show that much of this improvement is based on gaming – the use of qualifications the Coalition simultaneously argues are second rate – or because they have changed their intakes

Successive annual reports from Ofsted suggest that there are a higher proportion of satisfactory and inadequate academies than of maintained schools. This week’s Financial Times reported that in the last 18 months alone the DFE has spent  £10.7 million bailing out eight academies that have run into financial difficulties since going it alone.

These stories will continue to seep out over the next few years. And we will gradually see that the false polarity of   “free schools academies good/ maintained schools and local authorities bad” is wrong.

The second piece of intellectual dishonesty is for Gove and Cameron to pretend that they believe in parent power or a “big society” where local people determine the future of their institutions and community.

If they were serious about that they would allow the parents, governors, teachers and local people at Downhills  –  a very good and feisty example of Cameron’s ‘little platoons’- to decide how they want to develop their school.

After all they are happy to give entirely new institutions to parent groups who have little or no experience of education. The community of Downhills is already demonstrating that it can make progress yet, unlike the free school proposers, they get nothing but brickbats and smears from the Secretary of State who appears to trust some parents, but not others

The final piece of intellectual dishonesty is to pretend that these ‘independent’ state schools are actually free. They aren’t free at all. Stand alone academies are tightly controlled by central government via their Funding Agreements.

Those that are run by chains – as Downhills will be if it loses this battle – will probably be less autonomous than the average maintained school. Most are wholly owned subsidiaries of  corporate pseudo charities which may well have headquarters in another part of the country, or even the world. Those chains impose identikit curricula and management practices and the actual governing bodies – appointed by the chain – are usually puppets.

As my article in the Guardian this summer explained chains rake off money from the budgets of all their schools – in much the same way as local authorities are condemned for doing. Some pay their executives very handsomely with money that could be invested in the schools and they are now exempt from Charity Commission regulation which means their accounts don’t need to be published so we can’t see how individual schools are funded.

This is the very opposite of freedom and autonomy. It is also deeply un-transparent at a time when the government claims to be putting more information into the public domain

However it is not surprising that so many organisations keen to get into this market. Some chains are raking in over £100 m a year. Think how much more lucrative that prospect will be if a future Conservative government gives them the power to make a profit.

Over time we will see a complex web of networks and big corporations running are schools – a far cry from the localism of the Coalition rhetoric.

Finally the deeply dishonest Mr Gove likes to paint anyone who opposes his autocratic rule as being for failure/against progress and ideologically motivated.  But as one of the speakers last night pointed out – maybe he should look in the mirror. He is the ideologue, presiding over a government that says if a community needs a new school it can have the choice of an academy…or an academy. As Sir Peter Newsam pointed out recently in an excellent letter to the Times (unfortunately behind a paywall)

The defining principle on which schools in England are to be run, according to the Secretary of State and now the Chief Inspector he has recently appointed, is that no elected person, other than a Secretary of State appointed by the Prime Minister, should have anything other than a cosmetic part to play in the English school system.  This is hardly the ‘new thinking’ referred to in your Leader.  The definition of ‘totalitarian’ in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary is ‘a polity which permits no rival loyalties or parties’.  There is nothing new about thinking of that kind.  This country fought a war against it some seventy years ago.

But if we are to oppose this – and this is a more general political point – we must re- assert continuously what it is we are for rather than be forced into arguing what it is we are against.

I am for school improvement, for good local schools, for an active role for local authorities, not running schools but planning places, holding schools to account, supporting the needs of pupils with SEN, ensuring that admissions and exclusions are fairly managed.

Let’s build new schools if they are needed but let’s ensure they are established in co-operation with all local people rather than in opposition to their wishes or parachuted in from on high.

And let’s make sure all schools are funded fairly, without the bribes and top ups that some academies are receiving and with all schools obliged to make public their budgets in the same way.

The parents at Downhills are fighting for all these things. If Gove crushes them he will win a small battle but at the same time expose his contempt and mistrust for the parents he falsely claims to support.

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