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From The Editor - An unfinished revolution in the reign of timidity

opinion | Published in TES magazine on 11 January, 2013 | By: Gerard Kelly

Revolutions vary. There is the French variety (bloody), the Russian version (very bloody), the British (minor scratches all round) and the American (utterly harmless and more of a whine). The academies revolution that has engulfed the majority of England's secondary schools in a few short years is at the American end of the revolting spectrum - short on casualties, long on tedium.

For all the fury of academy opponents and the zeal of their supporters, now that the dust has settled, surveying the hundreds of sponsored academies and their converter successors, it's tempting to conclude that not a lot has changed. Neither the worst fears of detractors nor the highest hopes of advocates have been realised. School performance hasn't soared but the system hasn't descended into chaos either. It is, as one observer remarked, the "so what?" revolution.

The commission set up by Pearson and the RSA to explore the implications of this educational upheaval doesn't put it quite like that (pages 14-15). But flicking through its findings, it's clear that the impact of the academies revolution is like the French version in at least one respect. It is, as Zhou Enlai said of the bust-up at the Bastille, too early to say.

That shouldn't surprise. The vast majority of academies - more than 90 per cent - converted only in the past couple of years. And most differ greatly from the original model - they are less likely to be in disadvantaged areas, to have a sponsor or to be failing. So making generalisations is nigh on impossible because while there aren't yet 57 varieties, there are enough for the label to be taxonomically useless.

Attaining academy status is certainly no guarantee of improvement. The commission did find that sponsored academies that had been going for five years or more tended to outperform their peers; that chains, with some exceptions and plenty of caveats, were on the whole more convincing than the stand-alone variety; and that the most impressive of all were those outfits that wisely concentrated on what they did best and didn't expand too rapidly.

Alongside the excellent practice, however, were some equally unimpressive habits: complacency, timidity and insularity. Indeed, the most depressing finding of all was that although many schools leaped at the chance to be free from council control, many of them didn't seem to grasp what their freedom was actually for.

As the commission politely explained, if autonomy isn't used to foster great teaching and learning, to innovate and collaborate, to be open and confident in pursuit of the best, then school improvement is unlikely to follow. There is a point to all that freedom.

Unfortunately, the system is stacked to deter the bold. Why should a school support a struggling neighbour if it jeopardises performance? Why toy with staff terms and conditions when the benefits are as unclear as the pitfalls are obvious? The commission suggests remedies. But it's clear that this revolution remains largely unfinished.

"Prescribe adequacy but unleash greatness," Joel Klein exhorts radicals keen to free schools from the dead hand of the state. But it's not easy to transform a world if the temptations to do nothing are rather substantial and one's revolutionaries are a little coy.

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Comment (3)

  • Academies haven't outperformed their peers. Research by Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network, backed up by academics from Leeds and Manchester University, has found that there is no academy effect.

    Other initiatives have been more successful. A little-publicised DfE report found that the City Challenge initiative was more successful in raising performance than the sponsored academy programme.

    Ofsted found the success of the London Challenge had little to do with sponsored academies, despite what Gove says.

    And local authority maintained schools are not under LA "control". They haven't been since the introduction of Local Management of Schools. The only extra "autonomy" enjoyed by academies is the freedom to spend that small portion of the budget retained by LAs for central services, to set teachers' pay and conditions and employ untrained teachers. It's unclear how the last freedom is supposed to increase the quality of teaching.

    Schools don't need to become academies to innovate if they wish to do so. And collaboration is more likely when schools are not in competition with each other.

    The London Challenge improved standards across London - but very few of the schools involved were academies. And Ofsted found that when schools involved in the Challenge did become academies they were less likely to collaborate with other schools.

    Academy conversion is not a panacea for school improvement. But it does pave the way for profit-making companies to take over the running of schools.

    As it was meant to do. This was made clear in a Policy Exchange report, Blocking the Best, welcomed by Michael Gove before the last election. It said that profit-making could eventually be allowed although the politics wouldn't be easy. All that was necessary was for schools to be technically "independent".

    Just like academies.

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    11 January, 2013


  • The Academies Commission found that maintained schools could do most of the things that academies can do. It wrote: “The reality is that the increased [academy] freedoms are not nearly as substantial as is often suggested,”.

    It appears, then, that this unfinished "revolution" should never have started. The Government's overspent £1 billion on the academies programme on the premise that it delivers freedom to innovate and "unlease greatness".

    Turns out that all schools have these freedoms. There's no need to become an academy. And becoming an academy in a chain can result in less autonomy, the Commission found.

    "They create a prison and call it freedom."

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    16 January, 2013


  • That should be "unleash" not "unlease". Sorry.

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    16 January, 2013


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