The bitterest pill of all

It is just over three years since I helped to set up the Local Schools Network. Originally intended as a forum to celebrate the successes of local state schools, the LSN has become much more than that. The contributions of parents, teachers and governors across the country mean it has become a place to discuss the implications of education policy, to share experiences and to meet other like-minded citizens.

Many issues have been hotly debated but the one that has probably caused most anger and resentment is the policy of forced academisation, which gives the DFE power to hand over failing schools to academy sponsors, regardless of the wishes of parents.

This policy may have drifted out of the headlines recently, but it still being pursued ruthlessly by academy brokers.

Many of these people are freelance “advisers”, employed by something called the “Brokerage and Underperformance Department” in the DFE. Paid up to £1000 a day, often via tax friendly personal service companies, they are engaged in what can be a lucrative business. Allegations about their “bullying and intimidatory behaviour” and their lack of regard for the civil service Code of Practice are commonplace.

All in all it is a nasty, rancorous business and for what? The original raison d’être was that only academy status could guarantee improvement, Education Secretary Michael Gove has variously described opponents of this scheme as being “enemies of promise” and “ satisfied with failure”

But as with so many of his grandiose claims, the hard evidence proves otherwise. One piece of research, carried out by London academics Steve Machin and James Vernoit into the original Labour academies, was heavily used as justification for forced academies in the early days of this government. But Machin himself was quick to denounce this, pointing out that the two programmes are entirely different and that the inclusion of primary schools by the coalition makes the comparisons even less reliable.

Meanwhile my fellow LSN founder Henry Stewart’s analyses of the DFE’s school data sets have shown a remarkably consistent trend. Sponsored academies do usually outperform their predecessor schools. But in both the primary and secondary sector the improvement in similar maintained schools – starting from a low base and with relatively high numbers of children on FSM – is as good as in academies. And if you strip out the GCSE equivalent qualifications used by many sponsored secondary academies, the improvement in non-academy results appears to be better. In short you don’t need to be an academy to improve

This fact is now being borne out in some of the schools where parents and governors have focused on school improvement while vigorously resisting the DFE brokers. Several have been removed from special measures and are flourishing without the help of the DFE. In a couple of cases inspectors even noted that time spent on discussions about academy conversion had become “a significant barrier to improvement”

And it is the interaction of Ofsted and the forced academies programme that has perhaps been the most destructive part of this absurd piece of dogma. School Inspections are necessary and should be rigorous, fair and productive. Sadly for many heads they are now simply feared and mistrusted, with serious implications for recruitment in the most challenging schools.

The public line is that Ofsted is not politically motivated in its actions, but the NAHT recently found an example of an academy broker contacting a school before the head had even received the draft copy of his inspection report. NAHT General Secretary Russell Hobby has written to Sir Michael Wilshaw, pointing out that this sort of behaviour is unprofessional and may undermine the independence and objectivity of the inspection service. “Ofsted should be an independent voice on school quality, not an arm of the DFE,” he wrote.

Ofsted should also be a genuine spur to improvement. It has never been the case that only one “type “of school has a monopoly on improvement. It is leadership that matters and the arduous task of turning round a failing school is more rewarding and easier if all members of the school community believe and have a stake in it. This was after all the original Big Society idea set out by the Prime Minister. Anything that leaves people feeling disenfranchised, bullied and dictated to from on high, as this very bad policy does, flies in the face of that.

This article was first published in the Guardian on January 14 2014






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