Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Investment in our community schools; no to an Academy

The following blog entry represents our response to a set of questions addressed to us this week by the local press.

Our evidence is drawn from a range of reliable sources including peer-reviewed academic research papers by Farnsworth (2006), Hatcher (2006), Wrigley (2007) and Titcombe (2008) and books by Ball (2007, 2008); the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (2007) and the MPs’ Committee of Enquiry into Academies & Trust Schools (2007); the 2006 PricewaterhouseCoopers Academies Report commissioned by the Government.

Investment in our community schools; no to an Academy

Academies are schools runs by sponsors on the basis of a ‘funding agreement’ – a kind of contract – drawn up with the government. They are outside local authority control. The sponsors have control of the governing body, and some freedom to shape the curriculum. They do not have to comply with national pay and conditions regulations over how and whom they employ. This first rural Academy may seem like a ‘bold experiment’, but it is not in the best long term interests of its guinea pigs – our children.

The Academies programme remains untested, but such official evaluations as there are, such as the National Audit Office and House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reports cast serious doubt on Academies’ success in achieving results, the role of sponsors and Academies’ cost effectiveness.

1. Are Academies selective in their admissions?

There has been lots of evidence to MPs about Academies’ overt and covert admissions and exclusions practices which have enabled them to skew their intakes in favour of those from higher-achieving backgrounds. Much of the evidence in this area emerges over the longer term: those Academies which have been in existence longest have the most unrepresentative admissions. Many Academies have a significantly lower proportion of children receiving free school meals than their predecessor schools.

2. Are they accountable?

Only eight inspectors lead OfSTED inspections for all Academies. Under a 2004 protocol, OfSTED have a more supportive role for Academies than for other schools, compromising their independence. Academies do not have to publish their results by subject. They are answerable only to Secretary of State, not local communities, and exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, and, whilst we can choose not to elect councillors with whom we disagree, we’re stuck with the sponsors indefinitely.

3.Are they democratic? ie Is the community represented on the governing body and do communities get a say in the decision to set them up?

By law, the sponsor must have a majority holding on the governing body. For this new school of 1500, we would have only one teacher, one support staffmember and one parent who would not be ULT appointees. Those ‘community-members’ appointed by ULT are unlikely to represent parents’ and staff’s views. The community neither elected ULT nor invited them to take control of our school.

4. How do Academies perform in league tables?

Government claims that Academies raise standards are unproven, because their full exam data is kept secret. NAO reports and academic research often point to faster improvement under LA management before sell-off. Where Academies show marginal success, this is mostly for the higher-achieving children and can be partly accounted for by changes in pupil intake and the skewing of the curriculum. The use of vocational qualifications which count for four GCSEs has increased 12-fold in Academies, artificially boosting results in the short term.

5. What about exclusion policies?

Some Academies exclude children at up to ten times the National average rate. Children excluded from the proposed Midhurst Academy would have to travel some considerable distance to a local authority school. When Academies expel pupils, the local authority is left to pick up the bill for educating them – the Academy keeps the money. Proposed Midhurst Academy sponsor board-member, Richard Tice, favours removing parents’ right to appeal such decisions.

6. The setting up of Academies has been described as the privitisation of state edcuation, what is your view?

Privatisation ain’t what it used to be! Most commentators agree that new forms of privatisation blur the public-private boundry, and open the door for ‘flexibilisation’, ‘branding’ cost-cutting and competition now, and, sub-contracting, profit-making and buy-outs at a later date. Academies mark the first stage in a process of marketisation which may be completed by future governments. Make no mistake, you’re being sold the ULT brand! Hard-sell is not what schooling should be all about.

7. It has been said that local authorities are being 'bullied into accepting Academies to get money', is this true?

Many Academy ‘consultations’, including our own, are rushed and flawed and have no regard for the long term impact of school closure and relocation on communities. ‘Stakeholders’ often feel blackmailed into accepting an Academy, with little time to think through their own priorities for their communities: “no Academy, no investment!” WSCC said in November 2006 that it would not change education in the Rother valley unless under external pressure. Both the pressure and decision are highly political.

8. Are Academies fair on existing and new staff?

The MPs’ Committee of Enquiry documents Academies’ high staff turn-over rate and discriminatory employment practices. Support staff in Academies have seen their conditions worsen, and new teachers recruited to ULT Academies have been employed on contracts far less favourable than those transferred from local authority employment. Employees’ maternity rights have been eroded. Unqualified staff have often taken on teaching roles and the new Principal need not be a qualified teacher.

A positive future

What can ULT give us that a good community school cannot? It is children’s interests which should come first, not sponsors’. We believe in a positive future for Rother Valley community schools, retaining our influence over the use of our taxes, and upholding the rights of parents and children to a broad, rich curriculum. We do need investment in our schools, and we want to work with the Local Authority and governors rather than against them to ensure this investment is delivered. The rules for Midhurst’s Academy would be drawn up in a funding agreement between sponsor and government, and until we have seen it, we cannot know what we are being consulted upon. We reject the spin presented by sponsors and glossy ‘consultation’ exercises which are no more than advertising opportunities. However, we urge Rother Valley residents to complete the questionnaire (online at http://wsgfl.westsussex.gov.uk/ccm/content/community-projects/aot--pfi/rother-valley/response-form-age-of-transfer-consultation.en;jsessionid=awKNDaseJOHf ) and let councillors know what you think. It’s just like voting: if you don’t vote, you can’t moan about the government you get. If you don’t respond now, you cannot complain when you look back on the year the educational heart was torn from our community.

Anti-Academies Alliance (2007) Report on the MPs Committee of Enquiry into Academies and Trust Schools, London: AAA
Ball, S. (2007) Education plc. Understanding private sector participation in public sector education, London: Routledge
Ball. S. (2008) The Education Debate, Bristol: The Policy Press
Farnsworth, K. (2006) ‘Business in education: a reassessment of the contribution of outsourcing to LEA performance’, Journal of Education Policy 21 (4) 485-496
Gorard, S. (2005) ‘Academies as “The Future of Schooling”: Is This an Evidence-Based Policy?’ The Journal of Education Policy, 20 (3)
Hatcher, R. (2006) ‘Privatization and sponsorship: the re-agenting of the school system in England’, The Journal of Education Policy, 21 (5) 599-619
House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts (2007) The Academies Programme: Fifty-second Report of Session 2006-07, London: TSO
National Audit Office (2007) The Academies Programme: Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, London: The Stationary Office
PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (2006) Academies Evaluation: Third Annual Report, Nottingham: DfES Publications
Titcombe, R. (2008) ‘How Academies Threaten the Comprehensive Curriculum’, Forum, 50 (1)
Wrigley, T. (2007) Report on academic success of the Academies programme, http://www.antiAcademies.org.uk/content/view/217/30/

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