The long-anticipated announcement on academies has been made. Effectively, you’ve got four years to make your own mind up, otherwise you’ll be directed to convert. In the meantime, resources and powers will be stripped from local authorities to make the move more "attractive". This is the "burning platform" approach to change management.
I have no problem with schools choosing to become academies, but I wonder what problem universal academisation is designed to solve. If every school in the country were to become an academy tomorrow, our education performance would change not one jot. The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students would remain the same. We will spend a lot of money on lawyers, and the makers of school signs and uniforms will be happy. We will spend more time thinking about structures than teaching. I don’t fear the ability of schools to make the most of the situation. I do fear the possibility of distraction.
The problems we face as a system are not ones that ever greater accountability and autonomy will solve. We’ve already tested those concepts to destruction. Our challenges are problems of capacity – of ensuring enough places for every child, enough teachers and enough money. These proposals so far make no real addition to that debate, other than to devolve the responsibility for national challenges to a local level. There are times when local responsibility is best but there are also times when national resources are required. Schools can do little individually about perceptions of teacher salaries, for example. It remains to be seen if the education white paper itself will offer more on this front.
'Challenges for school leaders'
The government will need answers to a number of questions. Who will support small rural schools that depend on external networks? Academy chains and sponsors have proven remarkably reluctant to step in so far. As you strip away the support they have now, what positive vision is on offer for the future? If there is no positive vision, where do you expect to find all the headteachers to lead these schools? Perhaps local authorities should be allowed to establish trusts of schools. How can you ensure that admissions are genuinely fair in such a disaggregated system? It doesn’t seem credible for schools to be their own arbiters on this. How will you ensure transparency and accountability for academy chains if they become such a major feature of the system? How can you get high quality school-to-school support into every part of the country?
For school leaders, I can see a number of key issues. Firstly, don’t rush. You have a minimum of four years and possibly up to six. You have time to consider your options and consider your partners. Don’t let anyone logroll you into a hasty decision. Secondly, the quality of the partnership is more important than what it is called. Focus on finding a group of school leaders who share your values and vision; worry about conversion later. For those already in chains, consider carefully your plan of growth. The pressure to take on more schools will be immense, but hasty growth, outside your zone of competence, could damage everything you’ve already built. Equally though, we cannot let our colleagues fall between the cracks of geography and personality – we have a duty to our neighbours as well as our own school.
Is there an upside to this? I’ll suggest a few to end on a positive note. The nice thing about freedom is that you can choose what to do with it. School leaders do not have to accept an atomised and competitive education system, they can build a more positive alternative. More cynically, it will also end the debate about whether academies are better than maintained schools. Perhaps we can then focus on the quality of teaching and the quality of leadership. Maybe we can just call them all schools again too.