South of the River – Back to Schooldays

Compass-SouthComment logo 2What does Cockburn School’s decision to convert to an academy tells us about what’s happening in education?

I was one of a select number of people at Cockburn’s public meeting this week when the Headteacher and Governors set out their reasoning for the change. Elsewhere in the country over the last ten years there have been some very vociferous campaigns to try and stop schools becoming academies. Today in South Leeds it doesn’t seem to be controversial at all.

The policy of changing schools from ‘maintained’ local authority schools to academies has evolved over they years. Firstly it was only ‘failing’ schools and it was supposedly a way to shake up the school, bring in new leadership and generally wave a magic wand. Now the government has said that it wants all schools to be academies by 2020.

The common thread is the tension between central and local government. Ministers are on the 24 hour news agenda, if there’s a problem they want to be able to act to put it right. They hate having their actions mediated through a third party – in this case local councils, but the same applies to the police and the courts.

As an academy you are ‘freed’ from the tyrannical grip of the local authority. You are independent, at least in theory. In practice schools are increasingly coming under the wing of ‘academy chains’. For example the Schools Partnership Trust, which runs The South Leeds Academy, now controls 41 schools – that’s the size of a small local authority.

Academies are also freed financially, no more ‘top slicing’ of their budget by the local authority, they are paid directly from Whitehall. As anyone who’s watched All The President’s Men knows, to find out what’s happening you have to ‘follow the money’. If it comes straight from Whitehall then so does control over what you do.

Until this summer I was a governor at New Bewerley Community School and a couple of years ago we appeared on a Government hit list of schools which they wanted to ‘academise’. As governors and staff, we were not happy. We felt we had been working our socks off and that the children’s results had been steadily improving. We felt that we were on an upward trajectory and the only thing being academised would do is cause upheaval and demoralisation.

The Department of Education’s policy changed, as it frequently does, and we dodged the bullet. We wanted to remain masters of our own destiny. The same phrase was used at Monday’s meeting, but now to do that you might have to convert. Another phase used on Monday was ‘jump before you’re pushed’.

The landscape has changed, most secondary schools in Leeds (if not the country) are now academies and increasing numbers of primaries are converting. The council, as the Local Education Authority, has less and less resources and power. The top slicing of budgets was a sensible way of creating services for all the schools to make use of. With fewer and fewer schools contributing to that fund the services have dwindled – it’s a vicious spiral encouraging more schools to leave.

At the end of Monday’s meeting I asked myself which way I would vote if I was a governor at Cockburn. It’s a tricky one. In principle I’m against the policy of academies. It atomises schools and makes a coherent education policy hard to achieve in Leeds. But looking at it just in terms of what they are trying to achieve at Cockburn – an outstanding school that serves its community – it makes sense to convert.

This is the problem, it is a piecemeal privatisation. Formally the academy chains are not ‘for profit’ companies, it’s not like the privatisation of gas or the railways.

In fact it’s more like what’s happened in social housing. Lots of councils ‘converted’ their housing departments to independent housing associations. Each individual decision made logical sense, but look at what a once radical movement is doing today. Shabby deals with government to agree to sell off its stock through Right To Buy, or like Genesis (formerly Paddington Churches Housing Association) who’s chief executive announced this summer they would no longer build social housing.

It’s not what happens tomorrow that I am worried about, it’s what happens in five or ten years time.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.



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