From the Editor - When change is elusive, it's time to get tough

15th March 2013 at 00:00

Just over a year ago there was an almighty kerfuffle over plans to turn Downhills, a failing primary in North London, into an academy. There were protests, public meetings, petitions, even a legal challenge. Nevertheless, Downhills was forcibly converted. It now rejoices in a new name - Philip Lane - and new management. It's too early to assess its performance but by all accounts the parents are happy with its progress, as is the local authority.

Now the same arguments, and the same language, are being used to fight the forced conversion of another London primary, Roke in Croydon. A "bullying" Department for Education is foisting one of its "pet academy sponsors" on to a school "against the wishes of parents" and "without proper consultation".

The school's supporters claim there is one big difference: Roke, unlike Downhills, has no history of underachievement; it was rated inadequate after one inspection skewed by incomplete data. That may or may not be the case. But one suspects that opponents of the next forced conversion will claim that this time it's different, too.

Should a poorly performing school be kept open simply because it is popular with parents? No, it should not. It's not only their taxes that pay for their school - it's yours and mine as well. If parents want to educate their children at public expense, they play by the public's rules. And if the public's watchdog says the education the public is paying for isn't up to scratch and needs radical improvement, so be it.

Is Ofsted always right? No. But on balance I would prefer to trust its judgement than that of the Socialist Workers Party, jaundiced journalists and sincere but subjective parents.

Are academies the sole solution to underperformance? No. Some of them are pretty ropy and need a forced conversion themselves. But if a school is dire and its staff unwilling to change, swift surgery usually affords the best chance of a quick recovery.

Is it right that the government persists in raising floor targets and broadening the definition of failure? Well, the pace may be challenging and the measures sometimes crude, but who can really argue with the trajectory?

Forced academy conversions are not like forced marriages. They are not imposed on helpless victims. They are, with a couple of dishonourable exceptions, forced on schools that for whatever reason can't or won't improve the education of their pupils. The vast majority of them shouldn't be fought - they should be welcomed.

If opponents are truly progressive and care about underachievement, why aren't they demanding that academy chains with impressive records, like Ark or Harris, set up shop in their neck of the woods pronto? When conversions are imposed, why isn't outrage directed at the local authority, governors or school leaders who didn't take action earlier?

The government's critics protest that it does not listen enough and ploughs on regardless. They have a point. But if its opponents, particularly on the unreconstructed Left, devoted as much effort to exposing and challenging failure as they do to excusing it, would ministers have the legroom to interfere as much as they do?

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