For flexibility and freedoms, read 'chaos'

18th June 2010 at 01:00
The Coalition's mad academy plans could create a two-tier free-for-all that leaves state schools floundering

There can be no doubt that this is a coalition Government in a hurry. In its first few weeks it has axed quangos, taken up cudgels against England's General Teaching Council, invited headteachers to partake in the biggest experiment in school organisation since state schooling began through the offer of academy status, and both narrowed and expanded qualifications by ditching academic diplomas while allowing state schools to offer the IGCSE.

In the offing is the promise of a newly minted national curriculum - one that will establish "once and for all" what is to be taught and learned in state schools in England. Before the election, the Conservatives promised that once the new arrangements were in place, the Government would never again meddle or interfere with the curriculum - which reminds me strongly of the prayer of St Augustine: "Lord, make me good, but not yet."

Despite Education Secretary Michael Gove's desire to rid teachers of unnecessary bureaucracy, it appears the profession will have to take the weight of yet more initiatives, and teachers who ask plaintively why politicians can't stop meddling and let them get on with their work will find that there is little or no respite for a long time yet. They will find that changes are not confined to the curriculum and its assessment, but extend to their pay and conditions of service, and may be very unwelcome.

In his letter of May 26 to headteachers of schools rated "outstanding" by Ofsted, Mr Gove put forward the attractions of academy status. Only second on his list of tempting goodies was the promise that heads would have the ability to "set your own pay and conditions for staff". Further enticements are freedom from following the national curriculum; the ability to change the length of terms and school days; and freedom to control the money the local authority currently spends on the school's behalf.

No one should be in any doubt that what is proposed is radical and transformational. If Mr Gove gets his way, more than 2,000 primary and secondary schools may become academies as early as September.

Although schools are promised a brave new world of educational freedom and transformation, those tempted by the academies offer, and those not yet invited to change their status, should be warned: even the best laid plans of governments go astray. There are so many examples of this truism, but if I were to pick one, I would choose Assessing Pupils' Progress, which was not meant to increase teachers' workload - a fact greeted with hollow laughter by many now labouring under the mountains of charts and tick boxes that detail each of their pupils' sub-levels.

The coalition Government's proposals are not well laid - indeed, they are devoid of any reasonable and rational foundation. Driven by ideology, the Coalition is in danger of creating a chaotic free-for-all that will have damaging and lasting consequences for England's entire state-schools system.

The vast majority of state schools currently "buy in" a range of services from their local authority: financial services, audit, school improvement, advice on health and safety regulations, legal advice, representation and employment support and - crucially for parents and pupils - the operation of a fair admissions system. But how, under the Government's proposals, are local authorities going to plan their provision - including staffing and resources - for the start of the next school year in September?

At present, they have no sound basis for calculating which schools will "buy into" their services and, therefore, what resources, including staffing, they can afford to employ. The danger is that central services will be cut for those schools that stay in the local authority family - and because these schools are more likely to have disadvantaged intakes (and hence cannot pass the attainment threshold to be judged "outstanding"), the gap between them and their more privileged neighbours is likely to widen.

Is this what the Government really wants - "outstanding" schools with privileged intakes to float off to a haven of independence while poorer schools with deprived intakes are progressively starved of the resources they need to educate their pupils properly?

Parents and governors should be very concerned by the real prospect of losing any local control over their schools. It cannot be right that the decision to become an academy can be taken at a governors' meeting, with no requirement for consultation with parents and school staff. And governors who decide to make their school an academy may find that their involvement soon ceases as the governing body is replaced by unelected corporate and business sponsors.

Teachers will have well-founded worries about their pay and conditions of service as academies do not have to conform to the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions document. As more schools become independent, national pay bargaining for teachers is likely to break down as heads are given more flexibility and freedom to set their own rates of pay. No one should forget that when further education colleges no longer had to implement the nationally negotiated pay settlement, lecturers' pay plummeted and still languishes approximately 10 per cent behind that of teachers. School staff must fear that the same fate awaits them.

And what, finally, of pupils? Here, the Government's plans are barking mad. Academies will be free to teach just what they like while local authority schools will suffer the burden of a rigid and narrow "facts-based" curriculum. Any concept of a national pupil entitlement is to be jettisoned. Pupils in academies can be taught whatever the school sees fit, while those left behind in local authority schools will be taught a curriculum which, based on a rosy past of dates of kings and queens, rivers of England and phonics, fails to prepare pupils for life and work in the 21st century.

Is that what the Government really, really wants? And if so, why?

Mary Bousted, General secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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