The burden of freedom
School leaders do not necessarily revel in the prospect of additional power and responsibility that
Ed Balls may have been overstating it when he told me, "The only thing Michael Gove's academies have in common with mine is the name" - but the new government's plans for making schools free-standing institutions, divorced from local authorities, are certainly a significant development beyond what Labour did.
Under Labour, academy status was supposed to be a route for failing schools. In fact, Labour made several schools that were not failing into academies, and, unforgivably, made some other schools sound as though they were failing when they were not, so that they could be turned into academies. But Gove's Act goes much further, and creates a rose-strewn legal pathway for schools to become academies when Ofsted says they are outstanding. Such schools do not have to consult anyone - neither the local authority, nor the parents, nor the staff, nor anyone except the Secretary of State, who is bound to say yes. They do not even have to have a sponsor, as Labour's academies did. The governors can set up a Trust and run the show themselves.
Gove's so-called "free schools" are something completely new to Britain. If you can show there is a demand for places in the area, Mr Gove will fund you to set up a new school. There does not have to be a shortage, only a demand. You can set up a school with government money to compete with an existing state school and take away its pupils, which sounds to me like a foolish way to spend public money.
Gove may have changed gear, but the direction of travel is the same as it was under Labour: to detach schools from their local authorities, and - although no one says this explicitly - to get rid of the influence of parents and teachers too. The sponsor - or in the absence of a sponsor, the Trust - is in absolute control, with an inbuilt majority on the governing body, which does not have to have any parents or teachers on it.
This gives increased powers and responsibilities to heads. The assumption is made that good heads want more control over the administration and finance of their schools, but Russell Hobby, new general secretary of the National Association of Head teachers, isn't so sure.
“Schools have more freedom at the moment than many of them choose to use," he says. "They have levels of freedom in terms of the curriculum and use of pay scales and staffing that they do not all want. If academy status is under consideration, a head has to ask: would the extra freedom and responsibility work for me? You get more money but you have to spend it on things that you previously got given. For a large school with a bursar or business manager, it might work, when it might not for a smaller school where perhaps the head has a teaching load."
Freedom from the local authority is not always a blessing, he says. "Some heads get fantastic support from their local authority; others don't."
In theory, a governing body can go ahead without the head's agreement, but Mr Hobby thinks this would be unwise. It could be about to happen to Brian Lloyd, head of Kelsey Park Sports College in Beckenham, south London. A pressure group formed by some of the parents is called Harris into Beckenham. As the name implies, they have not only decided they want academy status, but have even chosen the sponsor: carpet millionaire Lord Harris, already the sponsor of nine academies in south London.
Mr Lloyd became head in 2005 and results have improved every year since then, except last year when it took in a large number of pupils from a school that was closing down, few of whom did well in their exams. The upward trend was renewed this year. But Mr Lloyd feels besieged. A meeting was called at which Lord Harris and Rachel Wolf, former adviser to Michael Gove and now head of the New Schools Network, which exists to help academies and free schools get started, were the speakers - on a day Mr Lloyd had already set aside to give prizes at the school.
“I object to a Harris academy because of the way they deal with people and with education" says Mr Lloyd. "Their record is to remove the head and the governing body, and make all the staff apply for their own jobs." He says the advocates of the Harris academy went to the local authority's education committee and "they heckled and sneered from the gallery."
Mr Lloyd is not opposed to academies in principle, and neither is Mr Hobby. But Mr Hobby is less happy with free schools. He says that, while the originators of a free school may have a very strong vision, in time they will be succeeded by others with a less strong vision, who do not want to spend all their spare time running the school. "At first you may find your governors and your parental community much more than usually involved in the running of the school but, in the end, there is a reason why professionals run schools - it is very hard and takes a lot of time. Over time it would probably become just like any other school. I doubt whether what free schools will add to the mix is worth having."
Other school leaders have serious doubts about the whole academy project. For a recent book - How to Run a Successful School (Biteback, 2010) - I interviewed 18 successful heads of ordinary local authority schools, and most of them opposed academies. Mr Gove would have to offer them a considerable inducement to allow their schools to take advantage of his swift and easy route to academy status.
One of them, David Nichols of Littleover Community School in Derby, had spiked a government attempt to force two other Derby schools down the academy route. He told me the story with undisguised delight.
“The government tried to bully governors, staff and the council into making them into academies" says Nichols. "There was a very glitzy marketing presentation. The local authority was told it wouldn't get any Building Schools for the Future money to rebuild Derby's secondary schools unless their proposals included at least two new academies."
Efforts to sell the academy idea included one of those clever questionnaires which are actually designed to tell you what your opinion ought to be. "Are there aspects of the proposed Academy that you particularly support?" it asked, without giving you the opportunity to say that you didn't support the academy at all. The "key features of the academy", which the reader was asked to decide on, started with "Ensuring good reading, writing and number skills" - the subliminal message being that non-academies ensured poor reading, writing and number skills.
But it all backfired, and governors, staff, parents and pupils fought the academy proposal to the point where the local council and Derby College started to see that it would be politically embarrassing. Mr Nichols helped provide an alternative, and now two high-achieving Derby schools are mentoring the two schools that were to have become academies. There is, he says, a better way for failing schools - and a better way for outstanding schools as well.