Academies, Free Schools and Maintained Schools

Yesterday Damian Hinds MP, our Secretary of State for Education put this statement on Twitter:

‘And this week we celebrated a big milestone on school autonomy

A majority of state school children are now attending academies and free schools’

I was immediately stirred by this tweet and my response was:

‘Even if that’s a true statement I’m not sure it’s something to celebrate. Lack of NC, lack of accountability and the list goes on. Please don’t kid yourself this is a good thing in all cases. It often isn’t’.

I thought I’d finished there, Twitter’s 240 limit told me I had said enough. During the evening I kept returning to ponder his comments. Here’s my thoughts.

Academies were originally introduced around 2002 under the Blair government in an attempt to improve struggling inner city schools. As we all know there are two types of academies, those who jumped and those who were pushed. Converter academies, the ones who jumped were the good or outstanding schools who had as their main aim a desire to improve performance through controlling their own budget. They opted for academy status to gain autonomy. Sponsored academies are often under performing schools who have been forced to convert and are run by sponsors who will supposedly help them to improve.  Over a quarter of primary schools and most secondary schools are now academies. In my home town of Blackpool of the 33 primaries listed 18 are academies or free schools. In the secondary sector 7 out of the 8 secondary schools are academies. They receive their funding directly from the government rather than from the LA and are therefore free from LA control. This is the autonomy Mr Hinds is referring to.

Holding their own purse strings bring certain advantages. For example they have the freedom to pay higher salaries to teachers and hopefully improve the curriculum.  In some cases this has not always happened. Academies have the freedom to employ unqualified teachers which of course would save money. The original idea was a good one. Bring in experts from industry and other areas and let them pass on their knowledge to the young people. However, no teacher training is required, no safeguarding, no child protection, no training whatsoever, just a desire to pass on your knowledge. Much of this training they will receive on the job as soon as they start but a quick glance at the teaching standards shows that this cannot be learned on one INSET day before starting teaching a class. Also, we are often able to read stories in the press about fat cat academy bosses paying themselves high salaries rather than directing the money to the children. I have no idea if this is true but its very unsavoury if so.

With autonomy comes freedom from the national curriculum. It is only advisory in academies. Those academies who choose to can marginalise the enrichment subjects and the arts and concentrate on maths, English and science in their efforts to improve standards. This can lead to mental health problems for children who aren’t as academic and who can’t shine at the core subjects. Also, narrowing the curriculum will bring problems later down the line when we have a shortage of talented artistic people. There is also a question of what some schools are teaching in RE. Hopefully a visit from Ofsted will attend to these problems.

Academies are also able to set their own term times and the length of their day. In Blackpool I know teachers who are married to teachers with children in schools and all three have different holidays. Their only holiday together one year was a 2 or 3 week gap during the summer break. That made family time very hard for them.

That brings us to improving performance. Where is the evidence that academies improve performance? I have looked and drawn a blank. What I have found is that in some cases standards have dropped because TAs have been cut which has left children without support where they needed it. According to the Education Policy Institute 2017 the first ever league tables of LAs and MATs shows the lowest performing primary and secondary schools are in academy chains. The league table also showed there is a larger number of LAs in the highest performing groups, 7 LAs in the top 10 for primary and secondary schools. The evidence points to there being no real difference between MATs and maintained schools in terms of improved performance. David Laws Chairman of EPI said ‘Academisation is not some sort of magic wand solution that automatically delivers success.’

From a personal point of view I am horrified that some academies are non inclusive. They are allowed to cherry pick their pupils and some go for the highest achievers leaving those with SEND out in the cold. I am aware that schools can’t be all things to all children but turning children away because they don’t have an EHC plan is just wrong.

The last point I will make is that the overwhelming  response from my colleagues on Twitter to Damian’s tweet was one of utter dismay. He continues to bang the drum for the free schools and MATs while LAs maintained schools are achieving some great results. Mr Hinds should remember that he is the education secretary for all children and schools not just the DfEs chosen few who fit their agenda.

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