Academies pushed through in haste

30th May 2008 at 01:00
Government 'rushing' to meet its 2010 target of 400 new schools - even if it means teachers working in building sites
Government 'rushing' to meet its 2010 target of 400 new schools - even if it means teachers working in building sites

Teachers face working in temporary accommodation and building sites because ministers are determined to open new academies as quickly as possible.

Official documents seen by The TES illustrate how much direct influence Whitehall now has over the minutiae of school projects that are supposed to be locally controlled.

They show that three new academies in Cumbria will open in September - a year earlier than planned - at the behest of the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), despite reservations from the sponsors and local authority.

The acceleration came as teachers warned that the academies - two in Carlisle and one in west Cumbria - were not ready and could "fall flat on their face".

Staff have just seven weeks of term time left to prepare, and in some cases they said they still did not know what they would be expected to teach or how much they would be paid.

Ministers have been accused of rushing through the openings as they seek to reach their national target of 400 academies by 2010.

Sue Wilkinson, Cumbria's academies programme manager, said at a council meeting that the three school were originally envisaged to open in September 2009. But the DCSF had asked for the start date to be "brought forward to September 2008, albeit in existing and temporary accommodation".

"Ordinarily the council and sponsors would have preferred to have a longer lead-in time for the opening of the academies," she said.

The lack of time meant that, with less than two terms to go, "logistical arrangements" had not gone beyond the discussion stage.

Councillors at the meeting warned that both staff and parents were concerned about the effect the short lead time would have on their future employment, and curriculum and transport arrangements.

Other council meeting minutes show that the Government's insistence on opening West Lakes Academy in Egremont a year early was partially responsible for the council abandoning its preferred new site. Instead the academy is now planned for the site of Wyndham School, one of its two predecessor schools.

In the past fortnight, staff have been told that the acceleration could mean "phased construction", with the existing school being gradually upgraded to an academy while teaching still goes on inside.

"For the first three years, we will be working in a construction site," one staff member said. "I think the Government is trying to rush this because they want to tick a box to say, 'We have achieved this'.

"I don't feel they have taken into account the lives of the young people and staff who will be affected."

A teacher at Morton School, which is to be converted into one of the Carlisle academies, said the plans seemed "chaotic".

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the union was concerned by the Government's drive to "push through academies to meet its targets, come what may".

"It's putting staff in the affected schools under intolerable stress because of uncertainty about their jobs," she said.

A spokesman for Cumbria council said this week it was confident that the academies would get off to a "flying start".

He said the authority had agreed to open the schools a year early because "the potential downside of a shorter preparation time would be outweighed by a reduced period of uncertainty and the chance to begin making an educational difference 12 months sooner".


School organisation decisions have always been taken locally, and in theory still are. But, since the advent of academies, there has been increasing evidence of behind-the-scenes pressure from Whitehall, as ministers seek to meet their ambitious targets to open more state-funded independent schools.

In 2006, it emerged that Durham and Sunderland councils had been told "quite blatantly" that a failure to submit academy plans could jeopardise capital funding for other buildings in the Government's multi-billion pound Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

The Government denies ever linking the two issues. But the senior civil servant in charge of promoting "diversity" by creating academies is the same man with responsibility for signing off BSF schemes.

The latest news suggests that Whitehall does not need a BSF carrot to exert its influence, as Cumbria is towards the back of the queue for the building programme.

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