Does X hit the spot in academy consultations?

31st October 2008 at 00:00
The first ever ballot of parents shows most are in favour of the Government's flagship programme, but its opponents say their views are being ignored in the debate. David Marley reports

Academies have received an impressive vote of support, with the first ever parental ballot coming down strongly in favour of the programme.

More than seven out of 10 parents used the inaugural vote in Sheffield last week to back plans for an academy to replace the city's Parkwood High School. Pupils' parents and those at its three main feeder schools were asked for their opinion - 70.6 per cent voted in favour.

Anti-academy campaigners will be disappointed with the result. But they are calling for the same say to be given to all parents when academy plans are announced.

At present, the process silences or ignores opponents, they say. If the Government is genuinely interested in offering parents choice, a better system is needed to understand what they want.

So how popular are academies with parents? And are their voices being heard as the programme expands?

There are early signs that Sheffield's example could spur other authorities to follow suit in a bid to find out more about parents' views.

Councillors in Preston want to hold the second parental vote on plans to replace a school there with an academy backed by Charles Dunstone, one of the millionaire founders of Carphone Warehouse.

The city council has appealed to Lancashire County Council, the education authority, to organise the vote after raising concerns that it was not fully involving parents in its decision-making.

It says parents have not had access to both sides of the academy debate, "but merely had pro-academy literature from the county".

The county council launched its official consultation last week, but has not yet made a decision on whether to hold a vote. Its consultation will already allow parents to express their opinions, a spokeswoman said.

If a ballot does get the green light, the Anti-Academies Alliance is urging that lessons be learnt from Sheffield, describing the vote there as unfair.

Alasdair Smith, secretary of the alliance, said: "Parents received a glossy promotion pack with their ballot paper, but nothing explaining the case against the academy." He complained that opponents were not given an equal opportunity to present their case at public meetings, and said they were denied access to parents' addresses, while Parkwood governors were ringing around parents to drum up support for a Yes vote.

David Blunkett, the local MP and former education secretary, also circulated a letter supporting the proposal, Mr Smith said.

Sheffield council has said it would hold ballots on all proposals to take a school out of local authority control, but the results will not be binding on its final decision. Mr Smith said people would not take part if they thought their decision could be ignored.

In Barnsley, a poll of parents in 2005 that did not support the opening of a United Learning Trust academy was ignored. The school opened.

And in Bolton this month, strong views expressed against plans for an academy failed to divert the council from backing the scheme (see panel, below left).

The Government says academies are mostly proving very popular with parents and points to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) that says most academies are "heavily oversubscribed", with an average of three applicants for every place in 2006.

But the NAO report cites a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey which says that impressive new buildings and facilities in academies were an important attraction for 75 per cent of parents whose children attended. These facilities were, of course, not on offer in most other non-academy schools parents could have chosen.

The report also says that some academies have found it difficult to get parents involved in the daily affairs of the school and to take up a role on the governing body.

The Sheffield vote was the first specifically for parents, but not the first time an opinion about academies has been expressed through the ballot box.

In Barrow, Cumbria, four anti-academy campaigners were elected to the borough council in May, representing a group called Our Schools Are Not For Sale. The seats they captured included that of the then Tory leader of the council.

In Colchester, Essex, the Conservatives lost five seats on the borough council when the closure of two secondaries and their replacement by an academy was a major issue. Bob Russell, the local Liberal Democrat MP, has called for the Government to respect the decision of voters and to give existing schools the resources that would go into new academies.

Essex County Council has now said it favours building on an existing partnership to boost results. But Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has already made it clear that as part of the National Challenge, any school that fails to meet the 30 per cent five good GCSEs benchmark for its pupils is at risk of being closed and replaced by an academy, regardless of local opinion.

Roger Titcombe, a former head in Barrow and a member of the group's campaign team, said the power of the ballot box had led to plans being changed.

The original plan in his area was to merge three secondaries into one new academy, but protesters said the school would be too big. The proposal has now been changed to what they see as a more manageable plan for a split site.

Mr Titcombe wants the democratic principles applied in Sheffield extended to Barrow.

"We are campaigning for a parent vote but that has been refused," he said. "And that's because they know that the answer would be No. The process has to be made more democratic."


In Bolton, where there are plans to open two academies, a survey this month showed a 50-50 split: most respondents were in favour of one academy and against another.

Parents counted for around just one respondent in four, showing it can be difficult to engage large numbers in more typical academy consultations. In Sheffield, where parents had ballot papers posted directly to them, only 23.9 per cent responded.

The Bolton example also appears to support critics who say consultations pay only lip service to public opinion.

Almost 85 per cent of adults in Bolton who responded to the consultation said they were in favour of turning Haywood School into an academy. But about 90 per cent said they were against plans to change Withins School into an academy.

Opponents of the Withins plan said they were against the "privatisation" of state education. They said they felt academies were undemocratic, and they cast doubt on whether an academy would raise standards. One said academies were a "gimmick" that failed to address the underlying problems of schools in deprived areas.

But despite vastly different levels of support, the council has decided to push ahead with its original proposal of turning both into academies. Statutory closure notices have now been issued.

The only concession appears to be that the closure date for Withins has been pushed back from the end of this year until next August to allow the sponsors time to provide more information about their plans.

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