Diluting the Blairite Revolution
You make a big implicit assumption, which is that the findings of the encouraging Machin and Vernoit research (pdf) into the previous Government’s academies (which were schools that had previously been poorly performing) can be applied to the academies created in the last year. In fact, the same authors’ research last autumn (pdf: from which the graph, right, is reproduced) shows that the profile of the new academies is very different from those created under the new Government (which are explicitly excluded from the latest study), and the way in which they are created is different too. Many of the things which might have led to the benefits cited in the latest study (eg additional resources including in many cases new buildings, the attentions of a sponsor to support innovation, the feeling of being ‘special’ etc) are either not features of the new academy programme or not replicable nationwide. In fact, apart from the name, the only obvious similarity between new and old academies is their independence from the local authority. So before accepting that the findings of the study can be applied to the new academies, we would need to be confident that autonomy alone was what had the impact.
From where I sit, that’s a questionable assumption. I am a governor of a good (community) primary school, and we have naturally been looking at the possibility of becoming an academy. The local authority is not a bad one – it certainly has not interfered in our ability to improve the quality of education we provide or to innovate (I don’t recognise Machin and Vernoit’s characterisation of community schools, by the way – for example, we appoint all our own staff even though strictly they are employed by the local authority). Although we would get extra resources if we became an academy, we would also have to take on all the administrative responsibilities currently with the local authority, like payroll functions, HR policies, legal advice and insurance. Needless to say, for a headteacher and a governing body wanting to focus our efforts on improving education, those types of responsibilities are not the things we want to have to worry about – so at the moment, at least, we’re sticking with the local authority (the calculation may be different for a large secondary school, but like most primary schools we have little administrative capacity to build on). I’m surprised incidentally that there has not been more public comment about the paradox of a Government seeking to persuade thousands of schools to take on (or pay private providers for) extra administrative functions previously done centrally by a local authority, at the same time as (rightly) pressing public bodies to share administrative services for efficiency reasons.
I also think there are wider concerns about the impact of having large numbers of academies, one being the inflationary effect at least for teacher salaries. The most challenging schools are naturally going to seek to offer competitive salaries to the best teachers to come and work for them, but it’s hard to see the strongest schools going the other way and lowering salaries because they are attractive to work in – given the same freedoms they are more likely to raise salaries to retain the best staff. It seems likely that the net effect will be a general increase in teacher salaries (on top of big increases in the last decade), which is likely to reduce productivity, increase average class sizes, and indeed reduce the capacity of the sector to afford the administrative staff that they will need when they have to take on payroll functions etc. I am concerned about where this will leave schools in a few years.
I’m not necessarily arguing against the current Government’s policies, but you shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming that they are the same as the previous Government’s policies – and in any case there are some significant questions about them which remain unanswered, even with Machin and Vernoit in front of us. Perhaps you might want to ask some of them!
The difference between “Labour” academies and “Coalition” academies is an important one, although I think it will dilute rather than negate the benefits of academy status. My correspondent also makes a good point about the administrative burden on primary schools. Those can be shared by groups of schools, or provided by specialist and preferably private-sector companies. But I accept that there are limits to what can be achieved simply by school autonomy.Tagged in: academies, public service reform
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