Independence does not mean isolation

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Academy status gives primary schools freedom to innovate - and collaborate, says Nick Gibb

On 27 July 2010, the day the Academies Bill was introduced to Parliament, Michael Gove visited Cuckoo Hall Primary in north-east London, an outstanding school led by an equally outstanding head, Patricia Sowter. She was keen on taking up the government's offer of becoming an academy and on 1 September 2010 the school became Cuckoo Hall Academy, with all the freedom and autonomy that academy status brings.

As Ms Sowter said then: "With the new academy freedoms... we will now have the flexibility to adapt and extend the curriculum, target resources more effectively, deploy specialist staff and, above all, build sustainable capacity."

Since then, more than 330 other primary schools have made the same choice. Each of these will have a story to tell about why they chose academy status, but I want to explain why the government believes primary schools stand to gain from becoming an academy.

The government is committed to increasing professional autonomy. For too long, governments of all persuasions have sought to interfere too much in the day-to-day management of schools, from the prescription of "three-part lessons" to the prohibition of certain coloured pens in marking.

Academies are able to innovate across all aspects of their work, such as curriculum, discipline, pastoral care, staff development and assessment, to tailor the support they provide and drive up standards for all pupils in the communities they serve.

They can spend their budgets and run activities in ways that suit their priorities. What does this mean for a primary school? It could mean the freedom to change the curriculum to deliver a better focus on literacy and maths, or to spend more time on history or geography. It could be about a better choice in the support given to pupils with special educational needs. It could mean changing the length of the school day or term to ensure that pupils benefit from a better balance of subjects and opportunities.

But none of these freedoms means academies are isolated - more and more schools are joining other academies, sharing services, expertise and resources. There may also be good local authority services that academies want to buy back.

The evidence from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development supports our reforms. It shows that autonomy combined with rigorous and objective external accountability are the essential characteristics of high-performing school systems.

We have no targets and no deadlines. This is about empowering schools to make choices themselves. We've seen from the overwhelming response to our invitation that many schools do want to change and believe they can use academy freedoms to drive up academic performance. They want autonomy and the government should not stand in the way of providing that freedom.

We want those outstanding schools that become academies to partner schools in challenging circumstances, and as part of the process of conversion we ask schools how they plan to do this. Having more freedom means that academies can work with other schools in more imaginative ways and choose partnerships that work for them and their pupils.

International evidence is clear: autonomy works. The question, therefore, is not "Why should primary schools become academies?" The question should be "Why not?"

Nick Gibb MP is minister of state for schools.

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