Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Academisation: Policy Is Lagging Behind Ideology

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Academisation: Policy Is Lagging Behind Ideology

Article excerpt

In the aftermath of Wednesday's Queen's Speech, ex-schools minister David Laws evaluates the thinking behind the push to convert all schools to academy status

New Governments like to do a lot. They have manifestos to deliver on and ministers with ideas and ambitions.

The education White Paper exemplified this with its unapologetic ambition to improve the school system through a range of interventions, including, most controversially, forced academisation of all schools.

These plans met with significant resistance, not least from some of the government's own backbenchers. This led to a significant U-turn, which will mean that "good" and "outstanding" schools in many areas will be permitted to remain under local authority control.

But, leaving aside the politics, does the approach of mass academisation make sense?

The academy programme started in earnest under the government of Tony Blair. I vividly recall Blair's then policy adviser - Andrew, now Lord, Adonis - stopping me in the street in about 2002. He wanted to know whether the Liberal Democrats could be more critical of the government on education standards. Understandably, I looked a little baffled: "You are the government. We are in opposition. You want us to be more critical?" I asked.

"Yes" Adonis said. "We have far too many really weak schools, particularly in poor areas, failing children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But there is too little momentum for reform. The Labour councils in the poor areas often just blame it all on poverty and say their schools are doing as well as they can.

"The Conservatives seem more interested in grammar schools and the leafy shire areas. Tony Blair and I want to shake things up, and turn around the worst schools, but we need more political attention to the problem."

Turning schools around

Labour moved ahead with "academisation" of some of the weakest English schools - often against the wishes of unambitious local authorities. Some of the "new" schools were turned around quickly. Some took much longer to succeed - after all, most were very low-performing schools.

One by one, new schools were established, often with new leadership and governance. Academies were given some enhanced freedoms - for example, over the curriculum. And some received more money (from sponsors and from a government that was eager to turn them around).

Of course, there was a lot of opposition - from local authorities, national politicians, and the trade unions. What impact the new academies were making was hotly disputed, and even where results were improving, the critics claimed that this was all down to "selection" of more middle-class pupils.

It was some years before robust and independent data became available on sponsored academy performance, from academics such as Professor Stephen Machin. This seemed to show that on average there was a positive impact on pupil attainment - supporting the position taken by reformers in all three major political parties.

There had been in government, however, a certain casualness about identifying why sponsored academies might be doing better than their predecessor schools. Was it the new leadership and governance? Was it the chance to clear out underperforming teachers and "start again"? Was it funding? Curricular freedoms? Was it that more money was devolved from local authorities to schools, rather than being spent "wastefully" at the centre? The truth was that there was little clear evidence.

Governments of both parties seemed somewhat unclear as to what the real drivers of improvement were. …

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