When I saw the letter from David Lammy and others, including the general secretary of the NUT, criticising DFE plans to convert Downhills Primary school, Lammy's old school, into an academy, I knew it would just be a matter of time before the whole incident formed the basis of a speech by the Education Secretary Michael Gove. It seemed like a gold-plated gift to Gove, delivered just in time for Christmas, and the Education Secretary has wasted no time opening it and showing it to all his friends.
In a speech today at Haberdashers' Askes Academy in South London, Gove highlights the protest using a splendid headline from the Hornsey Journal, ‘Campaigners: Hands off our failing school.’ Downhills has become a cause celebre from the critics of academies, who think it wrong that underperforming schools should be forced to become academies.
In his letter to the Guardian, Lammy et al wrote:
...the secretary of state for education has become the playground bully, using draconian legal powers to force schools into academy status, removing democratically elected governing bodies, circumventing the important role of local education authorities and creating more opportunities for those in the private sector to take over England's schools.It is clear that the Haringey schools mentioned in your article and, we understand, many more around the country are being used to promote the government's academy agenda. Department for Education officials are instilling fear in schools and putting them under intense pressure to convert voluntarily rather than face the stigma of being forced to become academies run by external sponsors as so-called failing schools. This use by Michael Gove of legal powers, departmental staff and resources to pursue a political agenda has nothing to do with school improvement and must cease forthwith. Decisions about schools are best made by people from the communities they serve. This undemocratic programme is no more than political dogma and has nothing to do with localism or communities.
Gove uses today's speech to hit back, citing the work of Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis, who battled to convert failing secondaries, as well as the success of CTCs to justify his extension of the Academies programme. He tells us that there are now over 1500 academies, though only 335 are led by sponsors. And the truth is that, while it may be a legitimate criticism to question the DFE resources spent on persuading outstanding schools to take a £25k cheque to pursue the legal formalities needed to convert to academy status, rather than simply letting them get on with it, the drive to replace failing primary schools with sponsored academies is genuinely an extension of the Blair programme, and one that is needed.
There is a hard core of primary schools that have remained stubbornly below par for years, and they need to be given a new start, sponsored by a successful school, an established sponsor or as part of a trust arrangement. In his speech, Gove says there are more than 1,000 primaries - 1 in 18 - where fewer than 40 per cent of pupils reach Level 4 in reading, writing and mathematics. The status quo is not enough for them. Nor, frankly, is it good enough to expect 'other solutions' to be tried before moving to academy status if the problems are that entrenched.
Whether Downhills is still among the worst is less clear. Results from 2011 show that Downhills is no longerbelow the Government's floor target for Level 4 English and Maths any more: it had some pretty miserable results in 2008 and 2009, participated in the 2010 boycott, but got just above the target at 61% last year - the floor is 60%. Progress in the latest Ofsted monitoring inspection, after a dismal report last January, suggests progress is now satisfactory, though it suggests a lot still to be done. It is a school that clearly needs a strong drive forward - but its pupils would benefit from some political agreement about its future rather than being the pawns in this ideological battle.
Yet Gove's arguments would be a lot stronger if he were able to distinguish in his own mind between the genuinely hard graft required to convert failing schools to academy status - and the scars on his back in this case are mere scratches compared to those endured by Adonis and DFES officials in the early 2000s - and the legal niceties needed to enable others to do so. I think it is great that good schools have been enabled to convert: I just feel that they could have been expected to do more as academies, given the financial incentive provided - many schools gained £300-£500k in the process.
Gove admits in his speech that only 18 out of 1194 converters are sponsoring other academies (and two of those started doing so under Ed Balls), though around 400 participate in trusts and chains. By conflating the figures for sponsor-led and converter academies, he is undermining his own strong case for action in the failing primaries. And by failing to pursue his own expectation that outstanding converters would significantly help weaker schools, he has played a weak hand in exploiting any potential leverage from the conversions.
In such battles, the education secretary needs to turn on one of his better traits: his charm. Gove should not be making his case to the converted at the brilliant Haberdashers' Academy. He should meet with Lammy and be ready to argue his case to parents of children at schools like Downhills. Since the DFE is rather short of the sponsors it needs for all its target primaries, a process of engagement, where governors and parents get the chance to meet sponsors, many of whom will be other school heads, could go a long way to separate the ideologues from those they have swayed.
All that said, this is now a good time for Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg to take a strong stand on academies. On failing primaries, there should be no quibbles from the two Eds. Twigg should be ready to argue the case for primary academies to play a central role in reducing school failure, and to act as a persuader with recalcitrant Labour councils where there is an issue. This is not to say that he should back every imposition unquestioningly but that where it is clear that academy status is best he should work to prevent it becoming a party political football.
Michael Gove's speech today makes many of the right arguments. He now needs to find ways to make that case directly to the parents and teachers in the primary and secondary schools whose pupils still desperately need a new start, and to engage them in finding the right academy-based solutions. He deserves backing in making the case. But if he is to win this battle, he must also recognise that this has to be his top priority for schools reform in the coming years.