Posted in academy conversion, policy, school business management, school governance, Secondary

The All-out Academisation Debate

On 17 March, the DfE’s White Paper set the course for another wave of changes to crash over the education sector. Now, despite the promise of “significant changes to teacher qualifications which will recognise teachers for the experts that they are, and give teaching the same status as doctors and lawyers”, teachers are gearing up to march in protest of arguably the most major pledge in the paper − “a blueprint for a system of full academisation”.[1]

Last week, Chancellor George Osbourne announced a requirement for every state primary and secondary school to have either converted to an academy by 2020, or have an academy order in place that assures they will convert by 2022. The details of this proposal were reiterated in the White Paper.

In the wake of this, two petitions have challenged the plans, one imploring the government to U-turn on its plans for forced academisation, and another urging the government to hold a public referendum on the matter. Both petitions have now achieved well over the necessary 100,000 signatures in order for the topics to be considered for debate in Parliament. However, the education sector is already in the midst of its own heated debate.

The academy conversion argument

David Cameron has always maintained that his “vision for our schooling system” will improve school standards and eradicate failure. His vision is for all state-funded schools to become independent, state-funded schools, operating outside of LA control, and overseen by charitable trusts, businesses, universities, faith groups, or other ‘sponsors’.

The theory is that the greater autonomy afforded by the permission to set their own term-times and curriculum, and the heightened accountability to sponsors, all under the watchful eyes of the regional schools commissioners, would drive up performance standards.

Mr Cameron criticised LAs for not taking action to improve failing schools, presenting academy conversion as the effective alternative.[2]

Academy chains and multi-academy trusts (MATs) have been flagged as an opportunity for schools to pool resources in order to streamline back-office operations, make savings when contracting providers, and share expertise, resources and good practice.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has been steadfast in her assurance that academisation is the “best way forward” for schools. She recently took advantage of a guest post on Mumsnet to justify her reasoning. She wrote:

“We need to put our trust into the hands of the people that know best how to run our schools – the teachers – and the academy system does just that….It is every parent’s right to know their child is in an excellent school, no matter where in the country they live. I am confident that this move will guarantee a higher school standard with each academy held to account for the performance of their pupils.”[3]

The rebuttal

Ms Morgan’s guest post did not receive the reception she had probably hoped for, with many parents posting links to the petitions in response. This is likely to partly be because parents and school communities were already angered back in February, when the Education and Adoption Bill removed the requirement for schools to consult on the decision to convert to an academy when subject to an academy order.

Members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) are due to stage one of several demonstrations on Wednesday 23 March. Union members will march from Westminster to the DfE offices, in protest of the plans for academisation across the board.

But why are these union members, headteachers, teachers and other education sector workers so against the plans?

General Secretary of the ATL, Mary Bousted, spoke for many when she highlighted a lack of evidence that academies actually improve children’s education as one of the main reasons, referencing Sir Michael Wilshaw’s criticism of the performance of academies, in particular where he stated that the worst MATs are performing just as badly as the worst LAs.

Ms Bousted said:  “Against all logic, and evidence, the Government is promoting its ideology to fragment the education system. There is no evidence academies improve children’s education. All the evidence shows the quality of multi-academy trusts (MATs) is highly variable.”

Teachers have mirrored her concerns about the lack of evidence, while voicing worries that teachers will face tougher working conditions, and that the teacher recruitment crisis will be exacerbated.

There has been a reoccurring belief in voxpops and news article quotes from union members, teachers, and headteachers that the government is blind-siding the real issues schools are facing while pushing forward with its agenda to convert every school into an academy.

Deputy General Secretary of the NUT, Kevin Courtney, said: “The Government should be addressing the real issues facing schools: the teacher shortage, the lack of pupil places, the chaos in the curriculum. The [education] White Paper is a distraction from those central concerns.

“Incredibly, this is all being done despite the fact that there is no evidence that academies improve the educational results of children. We must all speak out to keep education in the hands of our communities and stop this reckless and destructive policy.

“There are serious democratic concerns surrounding the White Paper. Its proposal to convert all schools to academies wasn’t in the Conservative manifesto, and it deliberately cuts parents out of decision-making about their schools.”[4]

Shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell is due to speak at the rally on 23 March; however, no indication has been made about what she intends to say.

A sector united or divided?

One Suffolk headteacher, Geoff Barton, has suggested that the government proposals have inadvertently produced a “greater sense of solidarity across the teaching profession” and that “both [petitions] have galvanised hundreds of thousands of people in just a few days. If the Secretary of State has any sense, she’ll be alert to this strength of feeling”.[5]

However, over half of secondary schools have already converted to academies, so, if that is the case, does this mean teachers and other education professionals are being drawn together, but into two separate halves, creating two opposing senses of solidarity within the sector?

The demonstrations will surely not be the end to this debate, but they are certain to add fuel to the fire, and potentially bring about further changes.

[1] DfE (2016) ‘Nicky Morgan unveils new vision for the education system’ <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/nicky-morgan-unveils-new-vision-for-the-education-system> [Accessed: 22 March 2016]

[2] BBC (2015) ‘David Cameron sets out academy ‘vision’ for every school’ <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-33944203> [Accessed: 22 March 2016]

[3] Helen Ward (2016) ‘Academisation plans provoke anger among parents’ <https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/academisation-plans-provoke-anger-among-parents> [Accessed: 22 March 2016]

[4] Elsa Vulliamy (2016) ‘Teachers to march on Westminster to protest against forced academies’ <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/teachers-to-march-on-westminster-to-protest-against-forced-academies-a6944431.html> [Accessed: 22 March 2016]

[5] John Dickens (2016) ‘Teachers prepare to march against all-out academisation as petitions pass 100,000’ <http://schoolsweek.co.uk/teachers-prepare-to-march-against-all-out-academisation-as-petitions-pass-100000/> [Accessed: 22 March 2016]

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