Editorial - Strap in, we are about to experience some turbulence

23rd December 2011 at 00:00

I would be treated with scorn by my TES colleagues if I were to read aloud the following sentence: 2011 has been a rollercoaster ride for schools. The reason for the scorn is that using "rollercoaster ride" as a metaphor for a turbulent year is a journalistic cliche. After all, no hack worth his salt would ever report that "2011 was a relaxed year, in which most people rested on their laurels".

Thus, with a heavy heart, I observe that, for anyone with an interest in schools, 2011 has been a rollercoaster. In fact, it has been like one of those huge, scary rides you would see if you scraped together enough cash to take the sprogs to Florida.

I hope to escape the wrath of the journo-gods because it really has been a monumental year for the entire educational landscape. Even ignoring the English Baccalaureate, the national curriculum review, the special educational needs green paper, the recent exam board scandal and the reinvention of TES, it would still have been breathtaking. For this year witnessed the wholesale reorganisation of the English schools system as it has been conceived for the best part of a quarter of a century.

Let's be clear: by the time we launch ourselves into 2012, roughly half of all secondaries (1,463 to be precise) will be or will be about to become academies. That's up from just 407 at the end of last year. More than 1,000 schools will have stepped away from local government control in 12 short months.

Conservative strategists have never made any secret of the fact that they wet themselves with excitement over academies, but it's the worst-kept secret in Whitehall that even they have been blown away by the rate at which heads and governors have signed up. As is illustrated by the funding mess that is following in their wake, they weren't ready for it.

These bureaucratic difficulties will no doubt be resolved in 2012, but there are heftier problems of support structure and accountability left behind by the withering of local authorities that are more long-term and broad-ranging. Tory policy wonks must focus on these as soon as the New Year's Day headache begins to clear.

It would be wrong to suggest that they are ignoring this management vacuum - one regular in the corridors of power says it's now impossible to have a meeting without the issue of the "middle tier" coming up - but there does not seem to be any sense of real urgency in ministers' statements on the subject. This is an error. Make no mistake, this is a very real and very pressing concern for heads that needs addressing, and fast.

For others are waiting in the wings to step in. As this week's cover story shows, perhaps the most enthusiastic group readying itself for unprecedented educational power is the Church of England (see pages 26-30). The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is quite open about it. The Church is, he said earlier this year, facing the "breathtaking" prospect of becoming the dominant force in state education in this country.

It has been far too exhausting a year to set out the arguments for and against religious organisations running state schools here. But it is certainly worth making the point that, unless those driving the academy revolution decide what it is they want from the "middle tier" and how they are going to organise it, the Archbishop may well get his way.

Happy Christmas.


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