Forcing all schools to turn into academies is not education’s biggest problem

Out of the classroom and onto the streets. The Weekly Bull/flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

Nicky Morgan faced a grilling from MPs on the House of Commons Education Select Committee on April 27 to answer questions – some positive and intended to be helpful and some hostile – about the government’s recent education white paper. The secretary of state for education had faced an earlier bruising Commons encounter with backbenchers, and teacher demonstrations against compulsory academisation.

The greatest opposition to the white paper is to its proposal for the compulsory conversion of all schools in England to academy status by 2022. Some, including members of the Conservative party, are asking for a reversal of the compulsory element of the programme. Others, such as those on the demonstration, just want it reversed.

But it is worth considering just how significant compulsory conversion is and whether it is the most important matter facing English schools.

No one model

I have argued elsewhere that six years after the 2010 Academies Act there is no longer one set of arrangements – successful or otherwise – that constitutes “the academies model”. Despite this, Morgan continued to refer to such a model in front of the select committee – and much sterile discussion followed.

According to Morgan, there are already 973 Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), non-profit organisations which run groups of academies. The vast majority have fewer than ten schools, but this can vary enormously.

Different MATs contain different combinations of primary and secondary schools, and run schools with a different geographical spread. The trusts also vary in the amount of autonomy they give to schools. And that’s leaving aside the free-standing academies, some of which the white paper said would remain outside a trust for now.

Some trusts, including ones where I have conducted interviews, are centrally managed. This means there is one governing board in charge of all the trust’s schools, the performance of principals at each school is managed centrally by an executive team, and staff are moved between schools, often to their benefit.

Other MATs pride themselves on retaining the individuality of their schools. Each of the schools in these trusts retains its local governing body and the central board just oversees strategy and the performance of the central team where there is one.

Some academies I have visited, including convertor academies (those good or outstanding schools choosing to convert from 2010 onwards) in loose local arrangements, have not changed at all since conversion. They have the same governors, name and continuing commitment to the communities they serve. The people who I have encountered leading and teaching in these schools have exactly the same passions and commitment to children as those in schools still maintained and run by local authorities.

Democratic deficit

There are good reasons to oppose academy status, such as the lack of local democratic oversight that comes with the system change. Some chains are remote, with their offices further away than the local council HQ, making local input from parents and the community potentially harder – though not impossible. And academisation only “works” if it enables good leadership with a focus on what is important – good teaching leading to good outcomes for children.

But in reality, this lack of any real oversight is also the case now for maintained schools. The old local authority system (never really one of “supervision”) is passing away, through a combination of budget cuts, strategic choice by local authorities and now central direction. If schools need support, they look to other schools in their networks, local MATs or more widely still.

So if the critics of the white paper have their way and the government decides not to force all schools to become academies, schools that remain maintained and run by a local authority would face an uncertain future. They will be isolated with diminishing support and disappearing local arrangements.

Things are moving very rapidly now. Many schools – who had waited to see the result of the election last year – resumed discussions about becoming academies and forming MATs before the end of the 2015 summer term.

The bigger question: reducing inequality

Under pressure. Nick Ansell/PA Wire

But MPs on the select committee also asked a really significant question of Morgan: how can academy conversion help schools that are already good or outstanding? The answer has to be the same: only in what it enables them to do. And that includes addressing a much more fundamental problem: how low attainment remains inextricably linked “to life chances in England” and remains a principal mechanism for the transmission of poverty between generations.

There have been successes in reducing attainment gaps, but the era of nationally imposed education strategies and solutions is also slowly being superseded by moves towards a self-improving schools system that holds promise for reducing such inequity. The deeper reflection required on what happens in classrooms – and how learning is sometimes organised in ways that limit children’s potential – depends on much more routine relations of mutual trust between schools, heads and teachers. And the government and parents must trust them more, too – reducing external burdens that get in the way of their passions and commitment.

This includes Ofsted – our education should rely less on data from the schools inspectorate. There have already been some timely reductions in inspection requirements for good schools and they have earned our trust. More are to come. The white paper proposed, for example, that schools with new heads or those implementing improvement plans will face no inspections for three years.

All of this goes some of the way towards achieving what the head of a MAT said to me recently: that we should be “avoiding quick fixes”. Instead, how all schools – including good and outstanding ones – address inequity must be our key focus.