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

11th January 2013 at 00:00

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.

gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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