POSTED BY BECKY FRANCIS:
Diversification of state schooling, and schools’ autonomy from Local Authority control, have been the Government’s flagship education policies, and the speed of academisation for previously local authority schools has exceeded all expectations. ‘Academies’ now include a variety of different models, including sponsor academies, convertor academies, and free schools.
The academies programme has been controversial, both in its New Labour and Coalition government guises. Removal from local authority control, governance arrangements including the role of the DfE and Secretary of State for Schools, and the involvement of private sponsors, have all sparked debate. And the coalition government’s focus on Outstanding schools, in contrast to the previous focus on underperforming schools by the New Labour administration, provoked further controversy.
Nevertheless, academisation has become a mainstream feature of the secondary education sector. Indeed we are currently experiencing an explosion of change, as individual schools opt for academisation, and existing sponsors (including the RSA) rapidly increase the number of schools within their chains and federations, and develop their modes of governance and service support offers. Within this unprecedentedly fast-moving terrain, much of the debate has been retrospective, focusing on debates about principles when the metaphorical horse has long bolted; and there is an occasional impression of operational policy being created ‘on the hoof’, such is the speed and scale of change.
This latter point is particularly illustrated by recent stories of sponsors pulling out of academies that continue to struggle – and indeed sponsors that are failing to secure school improvement. Does the government have any plan for the management of withdrawal – voluntary or forced – by individual sponsors? It seems unlikely they can return to the local authority, given the withdrawal of funding. But a situation where individual academies are handed from one sponsor to another in an open market (with a possible lack of takers if a succession of sponsors have failed to effect school improvement in the academy concerned) seems deeply problematic. A failing academy represents a significant reputational risk for many sponsors, and where at present the glamour of taking up schools may distract from such risks, they are likely to loom increasingly large for those involved, as challenging schools that fail to respond to sponsor innovation for improvement turn from PR assets to PR problems. Yet a situation where struggling academies are offloaded with little ‘say’ in their new sponsors raises a series of issues both concerning quality assurance, local democracy and accountability, and – crucially – experience and impact on young people. (In)security, resourcing, and a school’s reputation, all impact directly on pupil educational experience and outcomes.
The Government needs to address these issues urgently, to ensure due diligence and best practice, and ensuring that some of the very schools and pupils that the academies programme originally sought to help are not subject to further turbulence and deprivation.