Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Don't overregulate academies

School standards minister Jim Knight professed himself surprised by today's intervention by the Independent Academies Association into the debate about the independence of academies. After all, the requirements of the new legislation are all just about collaboration and co-operation, with which all reasonable folk should agree.

To be fair to Gordon Brown and his ministers, they have not only embraced the academies programme, but have expanded it rapidly, with details of new academies announced today. But what ministers sometimes ignore is the extent to which perception about independence is as important as legal independence in the success of most academies.

The sense of being free from the petty diktats of the local authority, of having the freedom to collaborate and the ability to innovate far outweigh the relatively minor legal differences that exist between academies and maintained foundation schools. But talk to any academy principal and they will tell you how that sense of independence is hugely important.

And it is that sense of independence - and the confidence it engenders - which is being eroded by various misguided attempts to tag extra legal requirements onto academies, especially those related to the bureaucracy surrounding children's services about which I have written elsewhere.

Of course, academies should do more to show how their freedom to innovate has also given them the confidence to collaborate in a far more meaningful way than when such co-operation is imposed. Indeed, such freedoms allow them to employ staff on site who can provide far more effective social support than attendance at a dozen local authority safeguarding committees.

Academies are a great Labour innovation. Ed Balls has been right to want to expand them, and to see them as a key part of lifting standards in the poorest schools and areas. But he should be wary of doing anything that distracts them from the reasons for their success.

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