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The Fuss about Academies

If you’re not steeped in education speak, you may have felt nonplussed by the news last week that all schools were to become Academies. You may be aware of people who feel very unhappy about it and others who don’t see the problem. What seems to be lacking in the debate is clear information for parents. As usual.

Like any school, there are good and bad academies. Born out of New Labour, the academy programme was introduced to ‘rescue’ failing schools. The idea was that by bringing in fresh management, often new buildings, and freedom to innovate, schools might turn themselves around. It’s a bit of a myth that academies gain control of the land and buildings when they take them over, or that they are a form of privatisation, free to make a profit. It is written into their contracts that they only have the lease of the land and buildings – usually for 100 years; that they must use those facilities for educational purposes and that they should not make a profit. These measures should protect schools from being sold off or turned into money making exercises. Should. But, there are many ways to turn being an academy sponsor to your advantage of course – I’ll outline a few of these later.

There are two kinds of academy – converter and forced. Converters choose to become academies. In the early days of this government, there were some tempting financial incentives to do so and many secondary schools in particular took up the offer. When Nicky Morgan presents rosy statistics about academies, she usually selects them from the group of converter academies. In most cases, these schools were looking for ways to improve and sought academisation as a way of gaining a degree of autonomy and some financial means to push forward improvement.

The other type of academy, however, is one that has been forced to leave local authority control and be taken over by a sponsor. For the remaining schools – 89% of primary schools and 41% of secondary schools –  who had not chosen to become an academy, they will now be forced to. This is upsetting a lot of Headteachers for many reasons. Firstly, they argue that as a “good” or “outstanding” school already, there is no need for them to convert – what they are doing now is working. They argue that the time, legal costs and energy it will take to convert will take them and their staff away from focusing on what matters – teaching and learning. To put this into context, it costs around £25,000 per school to convert. All of this money goes on legal fees and the time taken to do this for a senior leader is considerable. The total estimated cost for forced academisation is £500,000,000 – equivalent to 20,000 teachers at a time where there is a desperate shortage of teachers. For many teachers and parents the issue here is not whether academies can be good or bad, but whether the outcomes justify the cost.

Furthermore, research suggests that schools forced to become academies do not improve. In fact in many cases, they become worse. This research prompted the Education Select Committee in Parliament to ask the government to desist from exaggerating the benefits of academies last year. In addition, the education watchdog, Ofsted has warned that leading academy chains are failing young people and not offering the improvements they promised. Further concerns have been raised about the salaries of CEOs of academy chains – while the sponsors cannot post profits, there is no limit on the pay they can offer their executives. The head of the Harris chain, for example, earns £400,000 per year – far, far more than an equivalent head of Education in a Local Authority. And there have been a number of unsavoury claims of academy leaders profiting from their position.

Some schools have been happy to convert to academy status and their parent body and children are happy too. They have found partners and sponsors who share their ethos and values and who offer valuable expertise. The RSA chain of academies are committed, for example, to broadening out the curriculum offer for children and ensuring they have access to Arts and Creativity as well as academic programmes. There are many other chains and sponsors with strong altruistic values. But as a parent, you have little choice as to which one to choose. Some are already highly experienced in education, some are couch groups, some have no prior connections with education whatsoever. Chains tend to target a geographical area, so your choices of sponsor become a post code lottery. Curriculum freedoms mean that some may offer exciting, broad learning experiences, but equally they may result in schools narrowing their offer to only that which is tested.

One of the biggest concerns raised from the announcement last week was the changes to Qualified Teacher Status. At the moment, if your child attends a local authority school, they must be taught by a qualified teacher. This rule does not apply to academies. In fact the teacher need not even had a degree. One academy in Leeds last year advertised for two mathematics teachers – their job descriptions did not even demand an A Level in Maths. Of course, unqualified teachers are cheap. But they are also likely to be transient and ill equipped for the demands of a classroom. The reality of unqualified teachers in state schools is far removed from the idyll in some of our leading public schools, where Olympians and experienced academics will visit the school to coach the students. In the state sector, the unqualified tend to be just that. Unqualified.

Even trainee teachers with degrees who would normally have undergone rigorous training either in a university or through a school based organisation, will not have QTS conferred upon them until their Headteacher decides to do so. Moving a teacher from non-qualified to qualified pay scales is very expensive. It will be tempting for senior leaders to defer offering qualified status to their staff in the face of cuts and financial challenges in schools. This is a grey area and a worrying one.

It would be far too simplistic to say that all academies are bad or good. But it’s not too radical to say that this policy is worrying. It removes choice for parents, who up to now may have had the choice of an academy, a locally run school, a church school or other. It claims to offer headteachers autonomy, but in fact is forcing them into a decision few want to make. The hunt for a good sponsor or the work of starting up from scratch a MAT partnership of your own is daunting for heads, and diverting of their attention. As a policy it seems to have little evidence to support it in terms of what the Secretary of State claims it will offer. And it seems to completely miss the key issues facing the education system at the moment – namely a chronic shortage of teachers and cuts to funding resulting in higher class sizes and reduced resources. And what if the school coverts to an academy and then fails? The proposals suggest that the schools will fall under the control of the Secretary of State. That might be alright if you’re based in London. But a parent with concerns in Newcastle is a long way from the DfE.

Most of all, parents of children with special educational needs have additional cause for concern. A recent report found that academies were far more likely to exclude children with SEN than local schools – often illegally – and that some were guilty of modes of selection that meant they were not fully complying with entrance procedures. This is still a matter for concern.

As a parent, I’m worried about what will happen to my local school – the one I would automatically have sent my child too at the age of 11. It is currently the only secondary in the area under local authority control. As a teacher who has worked in some wonderful academies with great vision and leadership, and yet who has seen others crush their staff and pupils with bureaucracy and ideology, I know how patchy and unreliable the outcome could be. It worries me. It should worry you.

 

 


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It Won’t Happen to Me

I’m keen that this isn’t my blog, but one where parents feel they can share their experiences and concerns. So I’m delighted that Nancy Gedge contributed this for the second post. Thanks so much Nancy.

It’s always someone else…

Now that my eldest child is 15 and nearing the end of his school days, I don’t find myself thinking about his babyhood very often. It’s strange, but somehow the teenager I see before me, the one who is always hungry and hates his spots seems to bear no relation to the babe I held in my arms, the firstborn I waited for all those years ago. Together we have travelled a road through time that has not only changed him, but me. As well as asking myself where he went, I find myself wondering what happened to her too.

That woman, the one who excitedly bought teeny-weeny baby socks (you know, the ones that you really buy for yourself because there is no way that you can ever get the damn things to stay on a teeny-weeny baby foot), read her baby book from cover to cover (subconsciously taking in all those lovely, fluffy photos of babies who never cry – except in an attractive way – and who never poop all the way down their legs and half way up their backs) seems like an alien creature.

You see, there’s this thing about having babies of your own, you know, the sort of real ones who keep you up til all hours wailing and generally having tummy aches or other mysterious ailments, that does a very fine job of bringing any rose-coloured preconceptions you might have had about the state of early parenthood crashing to the floor and splintering them into a thousand million little rose-coloured shards. And, as they grow, the destruction of your preconceptions continues.

The chance to go to the toilet on your own? Ha. Siblings playing happily and sharing toys nicely? Ho ho ho. A full night’s sleep? Yeah, right.

Mind you, it has to be said that the vast majority of my expectations disappeared about three days after my firstborn arrived. It’s not a very nice experience, I can tell you. There you are, recovering, and in come a load of doctors and nurses with long, long faces and clipboards with blood test results and there it is. Everything you thought you were expecting isn’t. That moment when you are told that your child doesn’t measure up to the perfect-ometer is a bit of a shocker.

The thing is, I suppose, that we all have expectations of our children. I certainly did before Down’s syndrome came along and knocked them all flying like skittles. We think, when we hold that baby in our arms that they will be the brightest and the best; they will be the next Formula 1 champion, or football star, or whatever it was we wished we had turned out to be. Being told that this will not happen, and instead they will face a future of hard graft, just to get the smallest amount of mastery over the basics, is a hard egg to swallow.

So why am I telling you this? Why am I, a primary school teacher, and ordinary working mum-of-three sharing the destruction of my hopes and dreams in such a way? Because, aside from the fact that March is all about Down’s syndrome awareness for me, I am worried.

You see, being told that your child doesn’t measure up, that they fall short of national expectations isn’t very nice. In a funny kind of way, I am thankful that we received our son’s diagnosis when he was a tiny baby, because by the time he was eleven or twelve years old, those feelings of failure, or grief and disappointment, had faded well into the background. He has never had to deal with them. But now, things are different, and not just for us, the one in however many infinitesimally small number that we were.

Because our children, even if they don’t have a learning difficulty, if they don’t get to the expected standard in Year 6, they’ll have to do all that hard graft, that learning of grammar and spelling and maths all over again in Year 7. On the face of it we might raise our eyebrows in smug self-satisfaction, look at our charming offspring, so lively, so talented, and wonder what all the fuss is about. Of course they ought to reach the expected standard. It’s expected, after all. What a silly little thing to get our knickers in a twist about.

Only the thing is, I look at my daughter. She is ten years old, and bright as a button. She is smiley and giggly, she runs around and gets tangled hair and dirty knees. She has just discovered that she can read an entire novel and enjoy it and she gets cross with maths. She is everything, in fact, that a ten year old should be. Except, according to curriculum measurements, she isn’t. Since the introduction of a new standard, she is below national expectations, and, just at the point when she should be facing secondary school with that butterfly feeling (there are Bunsen burners and art rooms that smell of mysterious concoctions, music rooms and a drama studio, a gym with ropes that go all the way up to the ceiling and a big grand piano tucked away in the corner), she will open her school report and understand that she falls short.

Will all those wonderful things be hers? The art, the cooking, the science and history? Will she have access to a broad and balanced joyful education suitable for the young person she is? Or will she have the constant dry diet of narrowness that she is already experiencing in order to justify her teacher’s continuance on the pay scale? Will she be paying the price of far off decisions made in far off Westminster?

When I write or talk about Down’s syndrome there is always the caveat that these things don’t happen to very many people (as if that somehow makes them less awful). That this knowledge of not measuring up to someone else’s scale affected us, but not so much him. But this. This one affects us all.