Forced academisation by proxy: when schools have little choice but to convert

Schools: pushed into becoming academies. David Davies/PA Wire

All schools in England that remain under local authority control are now living with the threat of being forced to become academies. As the mother of a child who attends a school that chose to become an academy, rather than have its hand forced, it is painfully ironic to watch this happen. Considering the government’s rhetoric on educational choice, freedom and autonomy that supposedly accompanies its academies agenda, parents will soon have little option but to send their child to an academy.

Whether the forced academisation of all England’s schools will actually happen or not remains to be seen. Over 130,000 people have so far signed a petition calling on the government to rethink the plans announced in the recent budget, with teachers set to march in protest against the issue.

Regardless of what legal powers are introduced to make the plans a reality, the existence of the threat of forced academisation legislation is likely to colour all future decision-making of schools’ governing bodies. Under the cloud of such a threat the logical question for schools is: do we academise now on our own terms or wait to be forced under unknown circumstances and conditions?

Act now, or be forced to

I recently experienced this exact form of constrained decision-making with regards to proposals to convert my child’s school – Parrs Wood High School, Manchester – to an academy. In our case, the strongest argument in favour of academy conversion was that of the fear of being forced to do so.

The consultation period took place during the progression period of the recent Education and Adoption bill, which introduced new measures for the government to forcibly academise any school that is deemed to be “coasting”. The lack of clarity about what this term means, coupled with the uncertainty about the direction of educational policy regarding schools’ governance, is likely to fuel rumours and instil fear. This was arguably the case in my child’s school.

The following excerpt from personal correspondence with the governing body at my child’s school in December 2015 exposes the underlying principle of fear driving the decision-making process, when all other arguments in favour of conversion were exposed as weak or lacking foundation. The governors stated:

This government has made it clear that they are going to take all schools out of LA control in the life of this parliament. The greatest danger to schools is that they are forced to academise with a DfE [Department for Education] approved chain. This is currently what happens after an Ofsted report which defines the school as requiring improvement or inadequate.

In the Education and Adoption bill due to be law in January a school can be forced to become part of an academy chain if it is seen as coasting. We don’t know what that is, but it is clear a dip in results or even a lack of improvement could fit this definition. So the choice for a governing body is to wait to be academised or to academise on its own terms.

What is the agenda?

There is still no conclusive evidence to support claims that academies raise standards and any success academies may have had might be explained by increased investment in schools. Add to this uncertainty highlighted by Labour about how much turning all schools into academies will cost, and it is difficult to produce an argument of substance in favour of such aggressive change.

Arguments in favour of academisation are questionable and are increasingly undermined by evidence-based research, yet the academies agenda retains a strong foothold in educational policy. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) recently aruged for the need to articulate a clear vision of the aims of academy policy and whether it benefits pupils.

Lacklustre opposition

The strongest opposition to academisation has so far come from grass roots campaigns. Since the Conservative-led coalition stepped up the transformation of schools into academies, official lines of opposition have been delivered from the National Union of Teachers and the Labour Party, but without any robust campaigning.

Lucy Powell: could do better. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Disappointingly, Labour’s shadow education minister, Lucy Powell, has been somewhat lacklustre in her responses to academisation. In the case of my child’s school in Manchester (which she coincidentally attended herself as a pupil), her response was to refuse to offer her opinion on whether the school should convert or not. She adopted the party line of the school governors – that it is better to take control of academisation than to be forced into it. She later stated that plans to remove the consultation process for schools that the government deem coasting was a problematic development that needed to be avoided.

Yet the consultation process for Parrs Wood High School highlights the redundancy of such a process when a governing body is prepared to make decisions regardless of the opinions of those with an interest in the future of the school. A freedom of information request in relation to the consultation process revealed that 81% of staff, 75% of parents and 71% of outside agencies said no to academisation, still the decision to convert was taken. This gives a whole new meaning to the notion of forced academisation.

Surely there is a better way. The debate on academisation needs to focus on the question of what the benefits are. Academisation leads to increased connection between state education and private sector businesses. Therefore the fear that academisation is another step towards the privatisation of the education system is something that can no longer be ignored.