Monday, 19 October 2009

Change and continuity in academies

Labour's academies policy looks safer with the Conservatives now that people like the former Schools Commissioner Sir Bruce Liddington are on board with the New Schools Network, a quasi-independent organisation set up by shadow schools secretary Michael Gove to help him realise his policy of creating more independent state schools.

Of course, I hope that Labour can win the next election. But if, as the polls suggest, the Tories do win through, it is vital that there is continuity as much as change in what happens in the education system. In 1997, Labour took this view not only with testing and inspection, but also with the introduction of foundation schools and grammar school ballots.

Even so, it is going to be a tall order seeing the large number of new schools that the Conservatives envisage being delivered quickly and, more importantly, successfully. I am quoted elsewhere warning that 'cults and sects' may be the first to embrace any laxness in the safeguards for new schools, and that the realisable demand from groups of parents directly may be more limited than is assumed. There may also be justifiable demand from mainstream Muslims and Catholics, but the Government will need to balance demand with fair safeguards, if their policy is not to be hijacked, and while this is something Gove realises, it may not be as straightforward as the Opposition think.

But this doesn't mean they should be unambitious. However, there are two issues that the Tories need to address if they are to make a success of their plans. What I also told the TES is that pressure from faiths or sects means the Tories will need to have a much more hands-on position driving and encouraging secular demand, for example by developing the sort of school chains that are envisaged also by Ed Balls in his recent schools white paper. This is where the new network could be useful in opposition, though in government the Tories need to work more closely with established and trusted organisations that have helped deliver trusts and academies in practice. Whether they need to introduce profit-making is a moot point: Swedish and American profit-making entrepreneurs say they do. But Gove may find it far harder to sell his plans politically in the UK environment, with a strong tradition of not-for-profit independent schools than in Sweden, where there was no such tradition. And many American states prohibit profit in charter schools.

The second issue is difficult for any opposition: to recognise where and how Labour's reforms have succeeded. There have been substantial and genuine improvements in some inner city areas since 1997, as a direct result of a much more business-like and qualifications-focused attitude in schools - and a big improvement in the quality of teachers. Of course, too many targets can create their own problems. But the combination of floor targets - like the 30% minimum five goood GCSEs in the National Challenge - and tough internal targets within schools has driven substantial improvement where English and Maths are included. Unless the Conservatives expect similar ambition with their academies, they will not achieve the further boost in improvement they need.

And that may mean spending a bit more time getting it right rather than focusing on the numbers of new schools, especially when replacing failing schools or supporting new parent-led alternatives. Equally, those trusted organisations will need to help sell the benefits of being an academy to good maintained schools, especially if money is tight and there are no incentives. Similar strictures apply in primaries, more so given their size, where the majority of any new schools will be established, and the Tories need to be more vocal in resisting the efforts of some academics to return them to the secret garden of differential expectations and limited focus on the basics that too often prevailed in the seventies and eighties.

Despite all the hoopla in the press, most of whose editors have little idea what is really happening in most state schools and don't report real improvements when they occur, Gove's policy is far more a continuation of Tony Blair's and Labour's reforms (which in turn embraced many of Ken Baker's reforms) than either party would care to admit. (True, academies have lost some freedoms under Balls, but the fundamentals are still there.) And that continuity would be a good thing for schools and their students.

5pm UPDATE: I've also blogged on this theme at the Progress website.

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