A bit like matron prising our reluctant mouths open and forcing cough mixture down our throats, education secretary Nicky Morgan is inflicting academisation on every school in England. It seems that freedom is being inflicted upon all of us.
That’s right. The oxymoron of the day is “forced freedom”. Pass the sick bucket, please.
The news is a sign of how threadbare pragmatism has replaced the semblance of policymaking.
In the early days – that glimmering Govean dawn – becoming an academy was dangled just out of reach, a prize for the chosen few. It was intended for outstanding schools, using that most cynical of incentives: do this and Ofsted will leave you alone.
When lots of headteachers reacted as if the academy offer was akin to one of those scam emails promising unexpected fortunes, academisation had to be reconceptualised.
It became a punishment for schools in special measures, a consequence for schools deemed to be coasting and part of the armoury of an increasingly swaggering Ofsted which, on Sir Michael Wilshaw’s watch, has allowed itself to become cast in the role of willing enforcer of government policy.
Until today, that is − when academisation is no longer a treat, an incentive, a perk or a bribe. It’s apparently the new bog standard, the final breaking up of England’s collective school system and a wilful boot into the notion of democratically elected councils taking responsibilities for the institutions where most parents choose to educate their children.
Nicky Morgan had the chance to explain all this in person. Ten days ago, she spoke at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders. I wonder why she didn’t step up to the podium in that cavernous Birmingham Hilton, look delegates in the eye, and proudly tell us of her plan. If universal academisation was the vision we’ve all been holding our breath for, why did she not add it to her brief ASCL speech and then pause for delegates to whoop their joyful thanks?
Or was it that ten days ago, the idea wasn’t yet hatched? Perhaps it is not actually the secretary of state’s idea but one foisted on her. Is this a last-minute money-saving wheeze by the chancellor, or a way for certain idealogues to put a definitive boot into local authorities? Maybe it is just another act of craven marketisation of our education system.
Back in August 2012, the GCSE English fiasco was raging. Teachers across England and Wales were dismayed at last-minute changes to grade boundaries that left many grade-C students with Ds.
One afternoon in September that year, I received an unexpected phone call from one of the big beasts of a large new academy chain. This was no mere headteacher, you understand. He was a chief executive officer. He explained to me that many of the schools in his burgeoning multi-academy trust were situated in disadvantaged areas, where students were hit especially hard by changes to English grades.
My unexpected caller wanted to talk to me about the scale of the problem, about the number of other schools that had seen their results dip. He then revealed that he had been told that if he wanted to see his chain of academies continue to grow, he had better not be seen to criticise the government. He wouldn’t tell me who was applying this pressure. Thus a man not known for holding back opinions on any matter was being warned to be compliant. He duly kept shtum.
But at the end of our conversation he said something that has stuck with me. He asked whether our comprehensive school had considered becoming an academy, and “taking over other schools”.
“No,” I said. “I’m not really interested in that stuff.”
He told me to think seriously about it because “the back office savings were massive”.
I had no ideas what “back office savings” meant. Part of me wondered whether it was some vaguely obscene euphemism.
We’ve subsequently seen that the criticism of profligate spending by local councils and their armies of advisers is looking increasingly unconvincing. Instead we see even smallish multi-academy trusts with chief executives earning more – sometimes much more – than the prime minister. We see chains employing small armies of pinstriped executives who talk of standards but rarely set foot in a classroom to teach a lesson they have prepared themselves or give back books that they have marked.
The money for those salaries comes from somewhere. There must be savings from some back office.
So forgive me if I don’t drape bunting from the school buildings. I’ve said before that I hope to be the last person in England dragged kicking and screaming to be an academy head. Today, perhaps, that showdown gets a little closer, or perhaps the lofty Westminster rhetoric will dissipate − as it so often does − and little will change.
Either way, as I watch 1400 students arrive at school this morning, I reflect that I couldn’t be prouder to be a teacher and headteacher of a local comprehensive school. This place has been around since 1550. It has seen changes, initiatives and politicians come and go.
I’m proud to serve a wonderful local community, as part of a hard-working local authority. It’s what I and most of our parents thought schools were designed to do.
Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, a 14-18 comprehensive school in Suffolk