Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Academies stutter as the bog standard picks up

Well, whaddaya know... it turns out that Academies are not all they were cracked up to be. For those long anticipating / salivating for their eventual and inevitable tarnishing, the apparent ever-upward trajectory (setting aside the question of just how massaged their "successes" had always been in the hands of the media-dominating politically-invested) has finally stalled in a quite spectacular way: as the National Challenge number of secondaries (simplistically read: "failing schools") has shrunk from 440 to 301 (or 247, if you wrongly ignore those that have been closed), the number of Academies in this number has risen from 32 to 41; more tellingly, this represents 20% of all Academies versus 7% of "bog standard" other schools.

Consider in this analysis (a) the vastly superior funds (b) the considerable flexibility with curriculum and staffing given to Academy Principals - effectively freeing them from reasonable constraints about fair treatment of staff which other Heads nationally must continue to meet and (c) the constant PR support of DCSF, up to its metaphorical neck in having to prove this particular Emperor of a policy is fully and sumptuously clothed, and the crash of the whole grandiose scheme to earth is extremely audible.

Those who have campaigned against Academies - from whatever stakeholder base: parents, teachers, social democrats, those fearing the nasty backdoor by which they have profilerated religious schooling at taxpayer expense - this will inevitably feel like a victory - so notice it and think about all the consequences. Of course we were right all along: schools can work to combat social deprivation factors, but cannot have a major impact, and no amount of throwing money at a new school building, "rebranding" the same institution or blazering-up the same students - nor tedious stock visits from the local bishop / minor industrialist will transform anything that the infinitely less glamorous chalkface efforts of thousand hard-working teachers will do. And just maybe - shutting down a school and changing half the staff on a fantastical whim about "fresh blood" will not improve, but will damage schools because students need consistency, and because relaunches - as any sane teacher could have told you - only last about 3 weeks in education anyway, period.

Of course we should look at this the other way: a national reduction in failing schools (however stupid and dangerous the whole National Challenge badge is) by a clear one-third is a huge gain. No amount of Daily Mail nonsense about Labour relaxing education standards can justify that: clearly, from any viewpoint, a fundamental improvement in standards has occurred in the weakest-performing schools; a disproportionate benefit of this will go to the most needy young people, and that is a cause for true celebration.

For those who championed Academies, this is a wake-up call. For those who have mocked, reviled and loathed them - whilst a brief moment of gratification is deserved and permitted (could you ever have been wrong?) - now comes the task of trying to use this evidence to win the wider public debate about good comprehensive schools, the danger of stealth religious education, and the pointlessness of dated business models in difficult schools where experienced educationalists and not former "business leaders" are needed to lead.

And for those who have been angered by the name-and-shame of National Challenge - including my own school, one of those 139 who rose this year above the threshold and out of National Challenge - we might perhaps reflect that, complain as we will, perhaps such public criticism, and such demanding initiatives, aren't always without positive effect; perhaps Ed Balls isn't always wrong; perhaps he's just wrong about Academies. Food for thought.