Editorial - Heads can see clearly through academies mist

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
Tories' revolution divides many, but school leaders spy a world of freedom and trust

Heads are not normally revolutionary types. A saner, more judicious and level-headed bunch would be hard to find. They are more grounded than the planes at Heathrow were this week. They do not, as a rule, favour fads, jump on bandwagons or embrace change for change's sake.

So it is surprising to find that so many eligible heads would consider taking advantage of the Tories' radical proposal to allow all schools deemed "outstanding" to become academies (pages 14-15). If those considerations became intentions and the pattern were repeated across the country - a big "if" - more than 10 per cent of all schools would be academies before any insurgent parents or incoming Swedes had timetabled their first lesson. How's that for an instant revolution?

It is a fair bet, however, that most heads contemplating a switch are not revolutionary converts. Clear calculation rather than enthusiastic evangelism is probably uppermost in their minds. This is no mean feat, given the clouds of misinformation about academies belched out by supporters and detractors alike.

The academies programme is not a miracle cure for all educational ills, despite claims to the contrary. There have been calamitous failures: eccentric sponsors, botched launches, bombastic buildings and leadership teams as flash and vacuous as their atriums. Some academies have arrogantly disdained any co-operation with local schools and cynically resorted to mass exclusions to improve results. A few languish in special measures, having utterly failed to improve the educational prospects of the children they were designed to help.

On the other hand, anti-academies zealots have warped facts and camouflaged intentions on a scale not seen since the Allies duped Hitler over the exact location of the second front. Most academies are succeeding. National surveys suggest that recent arrivals in particular "performed better than the national average for progress". It is simply not true that they are "back-door grammars". Indeed, the infractions commonly attributed to academies are hardly unknown in other schools, without their raison d'etres being called into question.

Much guff is reserved for academies' "democratic deficit". This is code for the threat posed by them to the cosy relationship between some union branch secretaries and local town halls. It has little to do with neighbourhood needs. Is anything less accountable to a community than a school that repeatedly fails pupils with the connivance or studied indifference of a complacent local authority?

Academies succeed for the same reasons that non-academies do: excellent heads and motivated staff who are committed to maximising pupils' potential. Strip out the hullabaloo and they are the same as other schools - with added freedoms and a bit more money, which is, of course, the attraction for so many heads. The apparent endorsement in our survey is nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with pragmatism. It is a plea for freedom from Whitehall nannies and council deadbeats. "I want to be trusted," as one head succinctly put it. Amen to that.

Gerard Kelly, Editor E gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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