Finish the revolution that is freeing schools28 March 2012
Academy heads are frustrated by unnecessary restrictions. Let them be truly radical
A quiet revolution is sweeping English state education. It was started by Labour and has been carried on by the coalition. It has captured 1,635 of the 21,000 state schools in England and that number is growing by hundreds a year. The academy movement has real momentum and it is the future. After the last Education Act, every new school from now on must be an academy or a free school.
The Government’s commitment to a greater number of academies is clear. But what has been less clear is what these new schools are actually doing. The Schools Network and Reform have therefore just completed the biggest survey of academies to divine their actions, attitudes and ambitions. The results should give two groups pause for thought.
The first are the critics of academies. These voices are worried about the extra freedoms that academies enjoy (for example, to set their own curriculum and terms and conditions for teaching staff). They have claimed that these freedoms will set one school against another.
In fact the opposite seems to be true. The great majority of academies report stronger relations with neighbouring schools and their local authorities. Some are sharing their expertise with their neighbours, whether in particular subjects or in specific categories such as special education needs. Others are working with their feeder primary schools, often to develop English and maths.
Sometimes this is an entirely selfless effort, as in the many cases of academies supporting nearby failing schools. Sometimes there is a degree of self-interest. Working with other schools is an effective means of staff training, and academies for secondary pupils will benefit if their feeder schools improve their standards. But regardless of their motives, academies are firmly part of the state school family and the growing co-operation between English schools is a great cause for optimism.
Ministers will be pleased by this but the survey is something of a challenge to them as well. Ministers have given academies extra freedoms so that they can raise standards by doing things differently. Some academies are certainly doing so. One answered the survey: “We radically altered our curriculum three years ago in a way that (just) remained legal. Becoming an academy means that we can build on this and continue to innovate regardless of what this, or future, governments legislate for from on high over the next few years.”
Only a minority, however, are doing so to the extent that the Government would wish. Most academies have no plans to change their school day or school year, for example. Three fifths report that the existing national pay agreements for teachers have discouraged them from using their freedoms in this area. While two thirds have changed their curriculum or plan to do so, most changes are relatively minor variations on the national guidelines.
Many are surprised that even when they have completed the academy process they are still subject to external decisions over funding and pupil numbers. In other words, academies do not yet have full freedom. The remaining restrictions are hindering their efforts to raise standards and preventing the outpouring of creative thinking to which ministers rightly aspire.
In his most recent speech, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said that, far from slackening the pace of his reforms, he would accelerate them. In fact, much of what needs to be changed is in his own hands, from national terms and conditions to the hideous complexity of the school funding formula to the framework of inspection and accountability.
One head responded to the survey: “I would like the Secretary of State to put his money where his mouth is about academy freedoms. Either we are independent or we are not. If the former, please stop applying central rules around how we operate.”
Over to you, Mr Gove.