Heads rush for Tory 'freedoms', but is it really safe to cross over?
Turn to the schools section of the Conservative election manifesto and you are greeted with a full-page picture of Swedish pupils.
It is no surprise. The Tories' plan to emulate the Swedish free schools policy and US charter schools movement with a wave of new state-funded independent schools has been one of the party's "sexiest" policies for years.
But despite the column inches it has inspired, doubts remain about how much difference this clever cocktail of Scandinavian cool and free market innovation will actually make.
Will private companies really want to open new schools if they are not allowed to make a profit and will parents and voluntary groups really want to bother when they realise all it entails?
Meanwhile, buried halfway down the final page of the manifesto's schools section is another, little-noticed, policy that TES research suggests would have a huge and instantaneous impact on England's schools system.
The Conservatives say they will automatically pre-approve all schools rated "outstanding" by Ofsted for academy status. Under a Tory government they could be academies by September.
Ofsted figures from January show that 14 per cent of all 16,900 primaries and 19 per cent of all 3,200 secondaries have this top inspection rating.
The TES has conducted telephone interviews with a random sample of 59 such schools from both sectors, and from all regions in England, in a bid to assess how many would take up the Tories' academy offer.
Of the 32 primary heads asked, five said their schools would become academies, and 17 said their schools would consider it.
From the 27 secondaries, seven gave a definite yes and 11 said maybe.
Make the not unlikely assumption that these opinions are representative of outstanding secondaries and primaries as a whole, and the enormous implications of this policy quickly become apparent.
The 'yes's would at a stroke, regardless of any other initiatives, increase the number of academies from the current 203 to a minimum of 740.
And if the further 53 per cent of outstanding primaries and 40 per cent of outstanding secondaries prepared to consider the idea did say yes, that number would increase instantly to a whopping 2,243.
In other words more than 10 per cent of state funded primaries and secondaries could be operating independently as academies before the opening of a single Swedish style "new academy".
The policy would also mean the introduction of the academies into a new, completely untested, sector.
At the moment there are no primary academies. The TES survey suggests a Conservative government would mean the immediate introduction of 379 of them with the possibility of up to 1,633.
The NUT predicts "absolute chaos" and there is no doubt that the policy as a whole threatens much of what all teaching unions hold dear.
Academies are free to depart from existing agreements on teacher pay and conditions and both Tory insiders and union leaders predict their large scale expansion would mean the end of the national pay system.
Under the Conservatives, academies would also be free to ignore the national curriculum. So the party's determination for all pupils to be taught synthetic phonics, algebra and the Magna Carta would become irrelevant for large swathes of state-funded schools.
There would be major repercussions for local authorities. The spread of the new academies would be likely to be geographically patchy depending on how much a particular local authority is valued by its schools.
Those that saw large numbers of schools opt out could struggle to continue to provide the shared education services that depend on economies of scale, particularly if they are small unitary councils.
For Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, it would mean a severing of the "democratic link" provided by councils between people and their local schools.
Heads' associations tend to be less convinced about the merits of local authorities. But all the unions share a concern that a sudden growth in academies could end the recent push towards greater collaboration between schools.
Mick Brookes, National Association of Head Teachers general secretary, said: "We think there needs to be greater interdependence between schools, but these outstanding schools might be opting for independence and isolation."
But the Conservatives have said that to become an academy, outstanding schools would have to be "in a relationship with another school which they use their new freedoms to support".
The partner school would have to countersign the outstanding school's academy application. John Dunford, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, thinks this stipulation could reduce the number of schools taking up the academy status offer.
But a Conservative spokesman said: "I am sure there will be exceptions if a school is not able to physically develop a relationship. We would take each case as it comes."
He added that the relationship between the schools would not have to amount to more than being "friendly" and that the partner school would not have to be underperforming.
The whole notion of awarding academy status to the "best" schools would dramatically change the nature of the academies programme.
To date it has been largely focused on disadvantaged areas as a means of turning round existing low performing schools.
But changes to the Ofsted inspection framework, with a greater emphasis on exam results, unadjusted for pupil backgrounds, will make it increasingly difficult for schools from tougher areas to be given an outstanding rating.
Instead, the immediate new influx of academies under a Conservative administration would be likely to come disproportionately from already successful schools, often in middle class areas.
This new elite would also benefit from being exempted from further Ofsted inspections under the Tories so long as the monitoring of data on indicators such as achievement, attendance and exclusions did not raise concerns.
But even if they were re-inspected and deemed no longer outstanding, the Conservatives say the schools would not lose their academy freedoms.
The freedoms would be greater than those enjoyed by conventional state schools and those currently offered to academies under Labour.
The new academies would not require external sponsors. But neither would they be given extra funding, apart from their slice of cash normally handed to the local authority. They would also be denied the prestige new buildings that were originally cornerstones of the scheme.
However, Ms Keates warns that another long-standing feature of academies, the particularly high attrition rate among their principals, could remain.
"It will be headteachers left to carry the can if they go wrong," she said. "They need to be careful what they wish for."
Additional reporting by John Elmes and Shade Lapite
FOR 'I'D GO FOR IT - LIKE A ROCKET'
Asked if his school would accept academy status, Paul Strong does not hesitate: "Like a rocket."
The head of William Farr CE Comprehensive is a veteran of the grant maintained schools sector, created under the last Conservative government.
Now, thanks to the "outstanding" Ofsted verdict his school, in Welton, near Lincoln, achieved in February 2009, it stands to gain even greater freedoms if the Tories win power.
Nearly 1,200 schools were given grant maintained status between 1988 and 1998 and received extra money that would previously have gone to local authorities, and freedoms over admissions, staffing and buildings.
"It created a can-do outlook, a dynamic," said Mr Strong. "It enabled us to make our own decisions without reference to other people. Becoming an academy would provide even more freedom."
The fact that the new status will not attract the expensive new buildings enjoyed by the first academies does not put the head off.
He regarded them as an "obscenity" and is more interested in the curriculum freedoms academies would enjoy under the Tories.
Mr Strong would like to be able to depart from the key stage 3 national curriculum so his pupils can study Shakespeare in more depth.
"I want to be trusted," he said. "That is the issue."
William Stewart and John Elmes
Proportion of "outstanding" secondaries that would accept academy status, according to the TES survey
FROM 203 TO ...
There are currently 203 academies in England.
Another 100 with sponsors are scheduled to open in September.
The Conservatives' Swedish model will allow "any good education provider" to set up an academy.
If it forms the next government, the party says all schools in special measures for more than a year (there were 75 at the end of last December) will be re-opened as academies by September 2011.
A Conservative administration would also give automatic approval for academy status to all schools rated "outstanding" by Ofsted.
TES research suggests this would lead to the instant creation of between 537 and 2,040 new academies, with up to 1,633 of them in the primary sector.
AGAINST 'WOULDN'T TOUCH IT WITH A BARGEPOLE'
David Hudson would not touch academy status "with a bargepole".
He is head of Wickersley School, near Rotherham, which would automatically be given the opportunity to become an academy under a Conservative government because a glowing Ofsted report rated the comprehensive "outstanding" in November 2008.
But Mr Hudson said: "I would decline no matter how much money they were paying. "We have a really superb national curriculum which is broad, balanced and motivating. We should be making sure we deliver that right."
Mr Hudson said it was wrong that under the Conservatives academies would not have to follow the national curriculum and "abide by the rules like everybody else".
"Why? They are saying because the system we have is wrong. I am saying it is bloody good."
Mr Hudson believes the whole concept of academies is misconceived.
"I was a fan of Tony Blair's but his idea of academies was a big mistake," he said. "The word academy is misleading. It is all about spin-doctoring."
He says he would like to see leaders of outstanding schools, like himself, take over neighbouring schools that are struggling.
"The debate over comprehensives is still at the back of all this. There is still a belief that the better kids are not looked after in comprehensives. Well they are."
William Stewart and Shade Lapite.