I’ve had this line from the song ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ running round my head. Maybe it was the documentary about Janis Joplin I watched, or maybe it was Education Secretary Nicky Morgan offering schools the ‘freedoms’ of becoming academies.
The freedom offered to schools reminds me of the freedom offered to peasants to become factory workers. Don’t get me wrong it was an important historical step forward, no longer having to work for the lord of the manor. But then the common land got enclosed and people were forced to come in the new factories of Holbeck and Hunslet. Conditions were so bad that life expectancy actually fell. Some freedom, eh?
What does academisation mean for schools? Apparently they won’t have the petty bureaucrats from the council breathing down their necks.
I was a school governor for ten years and we never had any problem with Education Leeds as it was, or Children’s Services as it became. We met with an advisor every term who was a skilled education professional, often an ex-headteacher. I found them helpful and supportive, unlike the people who were looking over our shoulder – the Government in the shape of the Department of Education and their national curriculum; and Ofsted and their inspection regime.
The big advantage of the council was that they were able to pool resources to provide specialist services such as the Gipsy and Traveller Education Service.
As schools were forced or cherry picked into academy status, the resources of Children’s Services dwindled and they found themselves having to charge schools for these services, if they could provide them at all.
I reported on Cockburn’s conversion to academy status earlier this year. It made economic sense, at least in the short term and kept the school in control of its destiny. They predicted, rightly it turns out, that all schools would be forced to change and they didn’t want to told they had to join this chain or that chain.
Supporters of the government policy point to the advantage of joining an academy chain where schools can pool their expertise. This ignores the fact that Councils having been doing just this for decades.
Perhaps it’s all OK, surely we’re just changing from one form of collective provision to another?
I disagree. There are some major differences. Who runs these academy chains? I don’t know, but I know I can’t vote for them, or more importantly vote them out. Local democracy may not be perfect, but at least with the council you know who you’re dealing with and can buttonhole them at their surgeries.
What about planning for school places and organising admissions? It’s not clear to me how this will work once every school is an academy. Either the local strategic overview will be lost as academy chains choose where to build their schools, or local authorities will be left with the problem of ensuring enough places without the powers to provide the solutions.
The details of the shift are still being fought over, but as things stand all the land that schools currently sit on will transfer from the councils to the government. At present academies lease their site from the Council, but the government wants to take ownership. So what? Well it makes a big difference to council finances. Income and expenditure is one thing but the Council’s asset base (the land and buildings it owns) matters to, it affects how much money they can borrow and at what rate.
In other words it’s another attack, another emasculation of local government.
Another freedom that academies enjoy is not being contrained by the National Curriculum. Now this really does my head in. It was a Conservative government that brought in the damned National Curriculum in the first place. Academies were trusted to not need that level of direction. Now all schools will be academies, the National Curriculum will be dead. Or will it? The logic of central control is that it will be reintroduced in the future and this particular freedom will turn out to be a chimera.
So while the government talks of freedom and localism, it is actually taking power and assets to itself. It’s centralising, not devolving. I fear it won’t end well.
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.