Why we must beware the academy obsession

JPCT 190314 S14120907x Tanbridge House School, Horsham. Head, Jules White -photo by Steve Cobb SUS-140319-123835001
JPCT 190314 S14120907x Tanbridge House School, Horsham. Head, Jules White -photo by Steve Cobb SUS-140319-123835001

Jules White, headteacher at Tanbridge House School in Horsham, gives his view on the Government’s drive for new academies.

It’s been 40 years since I was a student at Barford St Martin primary school in Salisbury, but I have an abiding memory of assembly there. The morning gathering, led by the head, Mr Warburton, often involved listening to a traditional tale underpinning a moral lesson. The one that struck me most was the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Not because it was particularly engrossing, but because I couldn’t believe that the underlying message was plausible.

My seven-year-old brain told me it was ridiculous that everyone would just go along with a set of ideas when the obvious, and entirely opposite, truth was staring them incontrovertibly in the face.

Fast forward to the present day, and now I understand the need for the story – grown-ups really do act in this way and it’s making me cross – very cross.

On my way to work last week, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme trotted out the usual headlines about coasting schools and their impending fate. Our newish education secretary and minister for women and equalities, Nicky Morgan, informed listeners that her new bill would “remove the bureaucratic and legal loopholes” that slow the process of failing schools being turned into academies.

Surely that’s good news then, as there are no failing academies and no areas of good practice outside this governance model.

In 2013, some established educational thinkers published Unleashing Greatness (PDF), a report which looks at the risks and opportunities associated with the rapid expansion of academies. It said: “Indeed, many schools in disadvantaged areas that have been performing below par have done just as well as those which embarked on the academy route.”

Following the education select committee’s report on academies in January 2015, committee members, including its chair Graham Stuart MP, confirmed that the performance and impact of academies was yet to be fully understood or evaluated. As Becky Francis, professor of education at King’s College London, said at the time: “The evidence on whether or not academies have had more success in raising achievement than other equivalent schools is mixed and hard to pin down.”

The truth is that there are good academies and poor ones. There are many good maintained schools and, again, there are poor ones. The issue with academies highlights a greater problem in our education system: people seem to purvey a lot of nonsense about panaceas for the problems in education when most of us know the truth. We lurch from Sweden to Shanghai in search of best practice, but rarely take into account even the most basic social and cultural differences between one country and another. Fads come and go, but the problems remain.

There are not enough able school leaders to go around and our exam system has been broken for years.School leaders are still frantically searching for the most accessible exam syllabi after major curriculum reform and wondering why the independent sector is allowed to use different examinations from the rest of us.

League tables are fundamentally flawed as much of their data lacks credibility, and Ofsted relies too heavily on such data in its attempt to assure quality and add rigour to its assessments. Some inspectors have the track record and credibility to see this; others do not.

Even more importantly, all schools are facing an unprecedented recruitment crisis that is making the prospect of improved standards for children increasingly remote. Meanwhile, agencies are charging us exorbitant sums to ensure we are fully staffed – at least on paper.

There are a number of ways in which schools can improve their performance. Education itself must be championed by all those who are affected – that’s pretty much everyone. We need committed and inspirational people, but we are not getting nearly enough graduates to join the profession. We have to make the job attractive and desirable.

The formalised system of school-to-school support must be broadened beyond the work of teaching schools, national leaders and support schools. We must take care that those entrusted to deliver such help are best placed to do it effectively. It is not always the case that outstanding schools can improve weaker ones if their contexts are different.

Above all, we need a professionalised national council or trust that leads our system with authority and credibility. The “education spring” put forward by Professor Mick Waters and others provides an appropriate framework for this. A single syllabus for each subject area and improved data – quantitative and qualitative – could then be agreed on.

The obsession with academies often misses the point, as a more subtle and creative approach to school improvement is urgently required. The emperor really does need to be told to stop being so silly, as education is too important – just ask Mr Warburton.