Academies and Free Schools

Every so often something happens which makes me extra glad that I live in Scotland. Currently its the ConDem government rushing ahead with their plans to take schools out of local authority control (and into the control of anybody else who wants to run them, including for-profit companies).

First up, Becta was summarily dismissed. This has had a mixed reception amongst teachers – with reports of the agency wasting some of its money, or some of its services not being used by all schools. A good collation of responses here, courtesy of OLDaily. (The British Journal of Education Technology is owned by Becta currently – I presume and hope that arrangements will be made to transfer ownership before Becta closes for good)

Whereas in Scotland, LTS is not being closed. I doubt very much that every spending decision made by LTS is the best decision possible – but there is a lot of good work coming out of LTS, and some very dedicated people who work hard on making schools better, supporting teachers and supporting a forward looking curriculum.

Michael Gove outlined plans to encourage the best schools in England and Wales to leave local authority control (as a first step to taking all schools outside of local authority control), and to make it easier for parents and companies to start new schools. The BBC’s initial coverage of both didn’t delve too deep into the possible problems – with naysayers given relatively small soundbits on pieces about new academies and free schools. Schools (such as the new academies) which have been rated as ‘outstanding’ will also be free from future inspections. Even though there is now an example of an outstanding school turned academy failing a subsequent inspection.

Mike Baker finally provided some analysis on Saturday, which includes some worthwhile observations.

On local authority control over schools:

Perhaps the most misleading, and frequently repeated, claim is that becoming an academy allows schools to “escape local authority control”.

This is ridiculous because local councils no longer have “control” of schools.

… Town halls no longer determine how schools spend their money, what or how they teach, or how they are held accountable.

Schools are constrained in many ways. But these constraints come from national government or national bodies, be it the national curriculum, national tests, Ofsted, or government legislation on issues such as safeguarding or Every Child Matters.

What do local authorities do?

Their last remaining influence is in the provision of school places, organisation of the school admissions process, and as the stretcher-bearers when schools fail. …

They provide vital services such as educational psychologists and special educational need support and more humdrum, but essential, functions such as payroll management and legal advice.

And with local authorities having little actual control over schools, there is really one reason driving the academy agenda – money:

… academy status brings a cash uplift of 10% or more.

This is the money otherwise held back by town halls for central education services. For a large secondary school that could be £400,000 a year.

Many heads believe they can make better use of that money themselves, even though they may continue to purchase some services from the local authority.

This hints at one way in which academies will be able to save money. Limiting their use of central psychological services and special needs support. Cutting back on support for the most expensive pupils – i.e. those with the greatest need – will free up more money for prestige facilities (to attract better students) and better pay (to take the best teachers away from other schools). And even to allow companies running schools to profit from the public purse and parent contributions.

As Mike Baker’s analysis points out, there will be little in terms of academic freedom or control over allocated budget to distinguish a local authority school and a new academy or free school. All that is left is whether or not the school contributes to a local fund for specialist services to support the most needy (academies won’t), whether the people running the school can make a profit (yes for academies), and whether voters actually have any power to effect change in their local schools (academies “unlike local councils … cannot be turfed out by parents and local voters.”).

As I say, every so often something happens that makes me glad that I live in Scotland.

Related:

The Guardian asks head teachers if they will opt for academy status. Not all are in a hurry – those that are tempted are tempted by the extra money.

The Independent reviews the free schools policy:

“The Tories have misrepresented the case for free schools by only quoting the good part of some very mixed evidence from the US and Sweden,” says McNally. “There are serious issues here. It might raise standards but I’m concerned about social mobility. Will the pupil premium for disadvantaged children be big enough to attract people to run schools in poor areas? If not, non-free schools will have to pick up all the social problems and will struggle to get teachers because they won’t be able to pay as much as other schools.”

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