Academies are changing communities' poor perception of schools. That's why they'll succeed, says a former head
I'm a convert to academies. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's been a road to Damascus conversion; more a gradual realisation.
Nineteen new academies opened this term. Most appear to have been controversial, but not all have involved new-build projects, nor are they all in the centre of cities. Not all, despite the hostile press they receive, seem to be run by religious zealots.
Reading about most of them and visiting some has led me to see one thing they have in common: all are schools at which pupils and staff have, in the past, seen themselves at or near the bottom of the local pecking order.
It's a perception they all now seem to be shaking off.
My present work, in case you're wondering, involves nothing to do with the management, governance or selection of academies. I have taught in five secondary schools, each in a different local authority, and was headteacher of my last school for eight years. I now work in a consultancy role which allows me to visit schools and learn about the factors that lead to school improvement. Improving the quality of a school has much to do with the leadership provided by the head, the staff and governors. Strong leadership allows staff to generate high self esteem among pupils and deliver consistently high quality lessons.
But the more "good" schools I see, the more I realise that sustained success needs more than inspirational and "heroic" leadership. It requires a mindset from pupils, parents, governors, teachers and support staff that believes in success. A place where pupils say: "My school is the best in the town or city, I am proud to be here and I will do my best to succeed because I see how working hard at this school can make a difference to my chances of succeeding in life". Failure is not an option; achieving your potential is a must. All pupils and parents want and deserve such a school.
They have a right to expect the best. Leaders who inspire this belief are the ones who change peoples' lives for the better. They refuse to accept second best but strive for ever higher performance. They understand the levers to real lasting change.
Academies are attracting high quality leaders, teachers and other staff - partly for the money, of course - but mainly for the opportunity to make a difference and to accept the challenge. They are succeeding in changing communities' poor perceptions of schools that have existed for generations of pupils.
They have the potential to succeed where other initiatives have failed. Not because they are "independent" state schools; not because they are exempt from local authority control; not because they can ignore the national curriculum; not because the teachers are employed directly by the school.
No, academies do the trick for me because they bring a brand of leadership and governance that parents and children want. They can succeed because they offer something that is completely different from what was there before. Not simply a re-working of the past but a new outlook in terms of leadership, governance and aspiration for the future.
They are not part of the established "system". That's why the establishment mistrusts them. They are oversubscribed because they are providing local communities with choice and an additional school they are proud to attend.
If we can provide this brand in every rundown community across the country, so much the better. If more children and their parents have belief in their local schools it will raise standards across the board. Why do parents with money spend it on sending their children to independent schools, or move house to get into the "catchment" of the high performing state school? Because they believe it will give their children a better start in life.
They do it to beat the system. So let's change the system so they don't have to beat it.
Parents like and want academies, not because they are shiny new buildings, but because they fill them with the confidence that comes when their children attend a "good local school". If we can achieve our goal of making every school a great school by providing more academies, let's forget the rhetorical objections and support them.
The writer is a former head who now works as a consultant in the South East