Interesting announcement from the government today: the Academies programme is being accelerated:
The government is to make it easier for private sponsors to take over and run English state schools, in a bid to speed up its academies programme.
Instead of providing up-front funds of £2m, potential backers will now simply have to prove “the necessary skills and leadership” to run an academy.
The Academies model works something like this:
- Take a school which has been failing for years
- Close it
- Fire the head
- Demolish the buildings
- Remove the school from the control of the local authority
- Build shiny new classrooms
- Find a new head
- Find someone Great and Good to act as a ’sponsor’ for the new school
- Reopen the school as an ‘Academy’
Interesting to note a missing step here: while the head teacher is fired when a failing school is turned into an Academy, the other teachers are not. They must all be rehired, under the same terms and conditions as their previous contracts, when the school reopens as an Academy. If you believe (as many economists do) that teachers are one of the most important determinants of a school’s effectiveness, it’s pretty stunning that all teachers from the old (failed) school must be rehired. But I digress…
Academies have been kicked around by Blairites and Brownites like the proverbial political football. Blair was extremely gung-ho on Academies, despite teachers’ unions largely hating them:
NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: “We don’t believe that taking schools out of their local authorities and having them run by people who have no experience of running schools… is a way of doing school improvement.”
Gordon Brown’s administration has been far more in tune with the teachers’ unions, spending much of its first 18 months in office ‘reigning in’ the Academies. Ed Balls, the Children’s Secretary (and long considered Brown’s right hand man) won the praise of teachers unions by announcing greater local authority oversight of Academies, much to the dismay of Academies themselves. The leaders of the Academies programme within government were also ousted.
But suddenly Mr. Balls has discovered his inner Academy-lover:
The Academy programme is going from strength to strength. It has proved to be a genuine revolution in how secondary state education is delivered for those areas and pupils that need it most. GCSE results are rising faster than the national average giving outstanding opportunities for areas let down educationally for generations.
So what’s going on? Why is the government risking a fight with the teachers’ unions just before a general election?
My suspicion is: fear. Some of the Conservatives boldest policies (critics might say their only policies) relate to the supply side of the education system. The Tories have recruited some of the brightest right-of-centre education thinkers – notably James O’Shaughnessy and Sam Freedman, both previously at Policy Exchange. They’ve announced radical plans to open up the supply side of the education system, with parents, charities and co-operatives encouraged to open new schools in their area, regardless of how many school places already exist.
Labour’s response has been somewhat muted. On the one hand, they point to their own Academies as evidence that they, too, are shaking up the supply side. On the other hand, they accuse the Conservatives of going too far:
Schools minister Jim Knight… [said that Tory plans] would put at risk hundreds of school building projects. “As people study the detail they will want to know which areas and which schools the axe will fall on,” he said.
“Stripping local authorities of their role in coordinating education means that the Tories are attacking their own local councils, who would find it very difficult under these proposals to plan the improvement of their schools in a coherent way.”
This looks likely to be a key battle ground in the general election. Balls’ sudden embrace of Academies suggests Labour are shifting their position – actually conceding some ground – in anticipation of the coming battle…