I have a chequered history when it comes to Academies. When I first went into Number Ten I marginalised myself by allowing it to be known that I shared some of the concerns being expressed by the Treasury and the local government department about what was then a new policy. Picking an argument with Andrew Adonis was a fast track route to internal exile.
After the 2005 election I was in part responsible for trying to persuade Labour backbenchers to vote for the Schools Bill which established Trust schools. This time I had learnt my lesson and kept it to myself that I had some sympathy for rebel Labour MPs’ concerns, particular over school admissions.
When I arrived at the RSA, by this time more open minded about Academies, I inherited the Society’s bold (in the ‘Yes, Minister’ sense) decision to set up its own. Following through on the Trustees’ leap in the dark was a tough call but it all felt worth while when the school opened, and my faith is reconfirmed every time I visit Tipton as a governor and hear the great progress being made (and we don’t even occupy the new building until September).
Meanwhile my older son’s school was being given Academy status against the wishes of an alliance of leftists and trade unions, plus a group of middle class parents not wanting to lose the special privileges that their musically talented offspring had enjoyed in the failing predecessor school. For a while I was the chosen scapegoat with it even being rumoured that, in order to legitimatise the Academy take-over, I had used my influence in Government not only to get an unannounced OFSTED inspection of the old school but to rig its dismal report.
So I felt deeply ambivalent about yesterday’s Coalition announcement. What had reconciled me to the Academy policy was, first, the way it channelled new capital expenditure into deprived areas and second, that the extra element of diversity and innovation would be good for the system as a whole. The new policy is different in both aspects. The redistribution element has gone, indeed it must be most likely that it will be more privileged schools and sets of parents who take up the new freedoms and funding streams. Second, rather than putting grit in the oyster of the local schools system the policy is now to smash the oyster entirely.
It is up to those of us interested and involved in schools to make the best of the policy framework set by our Government. This was very much the mood of the very successful launch this week of Whole Education, an RSA sponsored alliance of organisations, interests and schools supporting a more holistic and collaborative approach to learning. But I do have doubts about whether the efforts of those committed to improvement and innovation will be helped or hindered by the new policy.
It is important, first, to recognise how much freedom ‘bog standard’ local authority schools already have. In most places successful schools are left to their own devices and have been gradually getting more freedoms from the centre in areas like the curriculum. Indeed the greatest area of extra regulation recently has been in relation to ‘safeguarding’ which is a child safety, not an education, policy. But local authorities can play a vital role in addressing problems in schools that are not succeeding or in danger of getting into trouble. Getting rid of a weak but stubborn headteacher is, for example, very difficult for a group of part time volunteer governors to accomplish and most rely heavily on the local authority to guide them through the process.
Michael Gove wants an open market in schooling, but markets only succeed if businesses are regularly allowed to fail. Children only have one education so we can’t be as relaxed about failure in schools as we might be about failure in the high street. There is absolutely no question that the combination of encouraging all manner of new entrants into school governance along with residualising the local authority role will lead to many more school failures (this is not scaremongering, it is the logical consequence of the policy). It will be interesting to see how the Coalition deals with this but my hunch is that any solution will see central government effectively taking over the oversight currently vested in councils.
The RSA is seeking to develop a stronger family of schools committed to the approach of our curriculum, Opening Minds. We are pragmatic as to whether this family might one day morph into some form of shared governance. It would be an irony if there indeed were lots of RSA Opening Minds schools, as Michael Gove has made no secret of his hostility to competency-based approaches. To be fair the new Education Secretary has always recognised the tension between his own quite prescriptive views about the curriculum and his commitment to school freedom. Intellectually such openness is commendable, in practice it may prove a harder position to sustain.