Uneven playing field

24th June 2005 at 01:00
For little money academy sponsors wield a disproportionate amount of power, argues Janine Inglefield.

There is a spectre hanging over academies. It is the emergence of parental disquiet. Parents are beginning to have doubts about the leadership of academies.

Recent press reports of the PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of academies, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills and published last week, suggest the complete opposite: that the majority of parents are happy with private sponsorship and feel this has "made a difference" to their schools.

But the wording of the questionnaire implied the sponsors were providing extra funding and as all parents welcome more funds for their schools it is unsurprising that they would welcome new buildings and seemingly generous funding.

At no point in the questionnaire were the exact funding arrangements explained to parents - that the vast bulk of the funds are provided by the taxpayer but that the sponsors are given control of the schools.

Nor can all academies be compared to previous schools because many academies are completely new schools and they have no previous history.

Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, as a private company, is unlikely to produce a truly independent survey of the new academies as their loyalties lie with the private sector.

The individual reports are not public documents and the local community will not be told about the results for individual schools.

Academy realities are a far cry from the PricewaterhouseCoopers spin. A real difference encountered by parents between academies and many successful urban, local authority-maintained secondary schools is who, on earth, holds academies to account?

The DfES Academies Unit states that "as trustees the governing body has a public duty to act in the interests of the academy, not the sponsors. Their accountability will be similar to maintained schools".

But is accountability similar to LEA schools? In practice the authority seems to lie with the private sponsors, not the local community.

The sponsors, who donate just pound;2 million, can impose their choice of specialism and their religious ethos. The sponsors appoint the principal.

It is not necessary for anyone with expertise in state secondary education to be involved at this stage. The principal goes on to appoint all the staff.

It is unclear whether equal opportunity procedures operate in staff appointments as there are no LEA controls or union agreements.

Unfortunately the philosophy of business or philanthropic organisations can contain many patronising and arrogant views about urban communities and comprehensive education. Often the talk is of "poor and deprived" communities rather than diverse communities.

There is no sense of learning from successful LEA schools. The key criteria seem to be heads who will keep staff and students in order and adopt the sponsor's vision. Educational knowledge or skills in consultation and team building seem a lower priority. In at least two instances this has led to parental concerns being expressed over poor management and bullying heads.

In some of the academies parental involvement is actively discouraged.

When parents express concerns to the head they are often rebuffed. Local governing bodies claim their powers are restricted. The sponsors tell parents that they must discuss concerns with the head and the DfES tells parents that they do not have the power to intervene. Principals of academies, as "independent state-maintained schools", are therefore subject to far fewer checks and balances than LEA schools.

The head can abolish parents' evenings and arrange holidays that are out of step with other local schools. There appears to be no onus to report progress to parents or the LEA. If there is poor behaviour and bullying, there are no LEA advisers to call upon. The sponsors can limit parent governors to one representative if they so wish, and they form the majority on the governing body.

The inspection regime is changing and schools are going to be allowed to carry out their own self-evaluation. Inspectors will no longer consult parents directly about their views. Academies will, quite probably, only be subject to short two-day inspections in the first three years.

Parents are clamouring for good, new local comprehensive schools in urban areas, but they do not want "flagship" gimmicks with heads chosen by those without expertise in the state secondary sector.

While academies that are re-built on the sites of older schools will struggle with a past reputation, new schools can attract balanced intakes and therefore have a greater chance of success. But the Blair experiment could squander this opportunity if the hybrid structure of the academies and the absence of effective checks and balances allows leaders to be appointed who have poor educational management skills.

Janine Inglefield is a parent and PTA member at an academy

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