Academy fictions

Dave Lister on rolling back the years of Tory schools miseducation

Over half the Government’s new Schools Bill, introduced in May, deals with academies. All schools will have to be either part of a multi-academy trust (MAT) by 2030 or in the process of joining one, despite the lack of evidence that academies in general improve performance or anything much else. The National Education Union (NEU) has pointed out that the data produced by the DfE to justify this draconian change is misleading. Academies are listed as having positive inspection grades at a time when they were still local authority (LA) maintained schools, the NEU says.

The fiction peddled by the Tories is that academisation frees schools from LA bureaucracy. The reality is that they themselves introduced local management of schools in the last century, giving school management much greater autonomy. Academy chains are, as Warwick Mansell has pointed out, putting schools into the very position of lacking autonomy. They are run from a bureaucratic centre, often dictating to the school in their chain exactly what their curriculum should be, taking away from teachers the ability to shape the curriculum to the needs of their pupils.

Another issue is that the MAT centre is often a long way away from some of the schools in its chain, thus depriving them of any local knowledge of what is right for that particular school. I know from my own experience that they can ruthlessly dissolve effective governing bodies and impose their own structures without parent and staff representation in some cases, sometimes establishing handpicked advisory boards instead.

There are also cases of corruption and financial mismanagement of MATs. Huge powers can be in the hands of a family fiefdom, such as in the Harris chain, or a husband and wife team, as in the body overseeing Holland Park School, where the headteacher recently stood down after uproar by students and staff over the way in which the school was run.

An interesting development, however, is the provision in the bill for LAs to establish their own MATs. This presents a dilemma for Labour-run LAs. Do they take advantage of this provision and move quickly to set up their own MATs, thus keeping many of their primary schools (most secondary schools have academised) in the LA family of schools, or do they wait in the hope that there will be a change of government by 2024? Even if the Tories go, there is no guarantee that academisation will be reversed.

Another area of controversy is around the National Tutoring Programme (NTP). There was justifiable concern, as schools came out of lockdown, that the achievement gap had widened because less advantaged children had generally had less access to learning whilst they were at home for long periods of time. The Government therefore commissioned Dutch company Randstad to organise and deliver the NTP. This has been yet another private sector disaster. It has been calculated that only 10-15% of students have been reached by the programme so far and the contract with Randstad has finally been ended. Shadow schools minster Stephen Morgan has referred to millions of pounds of public money being squandered with, for example, lessons delivered to empty classrooms.

Perhaps as a smokescreen for the NTP failure, minister Nadhim Zahawi has written to headteachers saying that a list of those schools that have failed to take up the NTP offer will be published. The headteacher unions have pointed out that schools are required to contribute 25% of the cost of the programme from their own highly stretched budgets at a time when, in areas like London, falling pupil rolls are leading to budget cuts, and schools are even ending up setting deficit budgets.

A further issue that has arisen is around Ofsted. All schools, including hitherto outstanding schools, are to be inspected over the next few years. In a recent NEU survey, 86% felt that Ofsted inspections create unreasonable or harmful levels of workload and stress on teachers. Ofsted has also adopted the Government’s insistence on a knowledge-based curriculum rather than a skills-based one when we need both. This is taken to the absurd level of Ofsted inspectors questioning children about information that they learnt some years previously and possibly downgrading schools if they cannot recall this information.

Finally, there are issues around school attendance, which has fallen since the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels. There are requirements in the Schools Bill for LAs to have standard systems for the imposition of fixed penalty notices for parents whose children are persistently absent. There is also reference to setting up compulsory registers of home-schooled pupils. It seems extraordinary that parents have been imprisoned for not sending their children to school when they can say that they are home schooling them.

A future Labour government should, in the first instance, return all failing and unpopular academies to LA control. It would be good to be free of all academies but some are popular and successful, so a gradual approach to de-academisation surely makes good electoral sense.

We also need to address the dreary curricular provisions that originated with Michael Gove. We need a broad and balanced curriculum; no more teaching to the test; no ridiculous grammar tests for primary pupils; teachers given more scope to teach as they think fit within a less restrictive national curriculum; and more creativity in lessons. Attending school should be more enjoyable, not a grind.

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