Walk into a school and some things will strike you right away. Is the atmosphere respectful and warm? How do children interact with their teachers? What sort of project work takes pride of place on the corridor walls? The Guardian reports.
One thing that you can’t immediately tell from wandering from classroom to classroom is whether the school is an academy, run by a not-for-profit organisation independent of the local council, or a “maintained” school under local council oversight. When things are going well, parents may barely notice the difference. But when things are going badly, it matters and that’s why the extraordinary growth of academy schools has become one of the most hotly contested developments in education policy.
Last week marked an important milestone in the English school system: more than half of pupils are being educated in academies. It has been an astonishingly rapid transformation: the Labour government left around 200 academy schools in 2010; today, there are more than 8,000.
There are some brilliant academy chains – and some that are desperately failing. But the government now forces all struggling schools to join a chain and there aren’t enough good ones, so many end up joining, at best, the average performers. Too often, the chains they join can’t cope, which means that the situation in a school becomes worse, not better.
A damning public accounts committee report last week highlighted how it can become all but impossible for parents to get answers when this happens and it can take years for schools to get “rebrokered” from a failing trust to a better one.
I know from experience. We converted to an academy while our head was in place, in the hope of building a small group of schools to provide a good education to children in less affluent communities like ours. A year later, she had to move for family reasons and everything started to fall apart. We advertised twice for a replacement; no one good enough applied and in the months that followed much of the rest of the leadership team, and then the staff, moved on. We knew that without a good head there was no way the tiny trust we’d created could turn things around again and that we had to find another chain to join. It took more than two years to make that happen – navigating all the government bureaucracy and finding a trust that was a good fit and was willing to take us on. Many struggling schools have financial problems and it can be virtually impossible to find a trust willing to take on their deficits and crumbling buildings.
Financial accountability has been another disaster zone. The government naively trusted that setting up academy chains as charities would be enough of a safeguard and blithely signed away vast school assets – buildings and land – in the hope that they would be looked after. There was a lack of checks and balances and there have been several high-profile cases where heads and directors channelled funds into family companies under dubious arrangements, while buildings have been left to deteriorate.
Turning back the clock altogether would mean ditching the kernel of a good idea buried in the Goveian reforms: that great school leaders should be in charge of several schools. But the system urgently needs a fix.
Read the full article The academy revolution has swept England. It has left casualties in its wake
Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin
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