The Problem of the Free Schools & Academies “Inquiry”

19th March 2014

But the inquiry has problems.

First, it’s not clear what the group are trying to discover. Labour MPs (& Liberal, David Ward) seem intent on bashing academisation as a policy – constantly opining about lack of evidence, even when it is presented. Tories, like the committee chair Graham Stuart, are clearly nervous about the increasing number of academies entering into ‘chains’. Many successful chains are highly prescriptive, to the extent that one MP even claimed that teachers are being given scripted lessons. This sort of prescription directly goes against the ‘autonomy’ not only promised by the Coalition but also touted by Gove as being “the lesson of PISA”.

Hence, the questioning all too often got into cycles of a Labour MP asking questions where the obvious answer was “Local authorities should do this” and Tory’s then asking questions due an answer of “We need more autonomy”.

Fact is, the reality of what will help schools is likely somewhere in between.

Sadly, this sort of party political baiting is not helpful for teachers. If I teach in a high-performing academy why would I be pleased that MPs are rattling on about me pandering to local authority whim – especially if the authority hasn’t been well managed in the past? Likewise, if I teach in an excellent maintained school it gets really old constantly hearing about academisation as the secret sauce for success (when it clearly isn’t).

The group also seem to forget that academy performance is enormously varied. A lot of the chat was about ‘high-performing chains’, which most people mean ARK. ARK schools are indeed doing very well. But they are one academy trust. On my last count there were 629. And as Henry Stewart pointed out many of the biggest ones are not doing well at all.

What can be done differently?

  1. The committee need to be clear about what they are looking for. Is it political point-scoring, is it a cross-examination of whether the policy is working, or are they actually trying to come up with some recommendations to make it work better?

  2. If it were up to me, the group would decide that their aim is coming up with recommendations to make the policy work better and then they should ask questions with that in mind. 

  3. Assuming, then, the aim is making the policy work, everyone on the committee – at least for the hours they are in there – has to accept that academisation has happened and it isn’t going away. Pat Glass raised several times the point that local authorities used to have various career pathways for teachers. She’s right, they did. People who worked in LEA offices also used to work on typewriters, but we found a better way of doing things (hello PCs!) and we no longer sit around suggesting we should go back simply because ‘that’s how it used to be done’. Likewise, there are good arguments for having local authority involvement in schooling, but this sort of reliance on ‘it used to work’ as a basis for the discussion is tedious. School improvement discussions need to start with the reality now, not where it once was.

(I now feel mean about singling out Pat Glass. Usually she asks the best questions. If more people were as direct and clear on the challenging facts as she is, the Inquiry would be much better.)

So…onto the tweets

That’s just my take on what happened today. To make your own mind up, you can watch it here, read the tweets below or find the transcript on the Hansard site from tomorrow. Is it worth it? It’s a 5/10 for me.