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3 November 2014

The coalition’s flawed academy programme: a political gift Labour refuses to accept

There are votes to be won if only Labour would expose the unfairness, the incoherence and the disregard for evidence that characterise the coalition’s education reforms.

By Anne Powell

“I’m a carrot, rather than a stick, politician,” said Nicky Morgan when asked by the education select committee whether she’d consider setting targets for the number of academy schools in England. “I’m not really a forcing type of person,” she later added.

So what about forced academies? Does Morgan agree with her own department’s practice of forcing underperforming local authority schools, sometimes by way of legal action, to become sponsored academies when such measures are opposed by a sizeable majority of parents, staff and governors?

We do not know because no one on the select committee asked her, even though there are ongoing battles to force conversion on her watch. Anyone who hoped that this omission would be rectified by Tristram Hunt in the House of Commons was to be disappointed: Hunt turned down this gift of a question and stuck somewhat unsuccessfully to his favourite and well-worn subject – unqualified teachers.

It is difficult to understand why Labour has not exposed forced academisation for what it is: a waste of money that alienates teachers, parents and the local community, absorbs time and resources that could otherwise be spent on improving leadership and teaching, and makes a mockery of Conservative claims to champion parental choice. Yet Hunt has not condemned it.

For Labour to make this argument, they would have to address another matter on which they have been frustratingly reticent, namely the fact that there is no evidence that academies perform any better than local authority schools at secondary level. At primary level, alarmingly, the data shows sponsored academies doing substantially worse than equivalent local authority schools.

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Even the Department for Education, when there was little choice but to tell the truth, has admitted that sponsored academies do no better than comparable local authority schools. This admission came in a recent court case brought against the DfE by a maintained school fighting academisation. The Warren Comprehensive in Barking and Dagenham argued that in its “consultation” the DfE had misused statistics to claim that sponsored academies improve at a much faster rate than local authority schools. As stated in the court report, the government’s QC “accepts that when answering the consultation, responses to the question as to whether becoming an academy would improve the Warren, comparing rates of improvement in sponsored academies and all maintained schools does not compare like with like.”

Sponsored academies are schools that have hitherto performed poorly; they therefore have greater capacity for improvement than better performing schools. To assess the relative performance of sponsored academies, you need to compare their results with those of local authority maintained schools that could have become sponsored academies due to low standards, but didn’t.

In court the DfE conceded that if you exclude the discredited use of so-called GCSE equivalent qualifications, such as nail technology and horse care, sponsored secondary academies do no better than comparable maintained schools, and that they only do “marginally” better when the soon-to-be discontinued equivalents are included.

Why didn’t Labour jump on this? What could be better than exposing the Tories’ deceitful use of statistics at the same time as denouncing forced academisation as a waste of money, devoid of an evidence base, anti-democratic and a clear statement that the government thinks it knows better than parents what is best for their children?

There are, I think, several reasons why an end to forced academisation and a more robust critique in general of the academy programme are not official policy of the Labour Party. The first is a misplaced loyalty to sponsored academies on the grounds that it was the last Labour government that introduced them. This is clearly a bad reason to support anything, but it also betrays a lack of understanding: Labour’s sponsored academies and this government’s reforms are two very different beasts.

Between 2002 and 2010, 203 sponsored academies were opened, all of which were secondary schools. That’s 203 academies out of 3,333 secondary schools in England. Labour’s academies tended to be in deprived areas where performance had been persistently low. Initially they were sponsored by businesses or philanthropists; later, charities, universities, other schools and even some local authorities acted as sponsors.

At the same time as central government was implementing this new sponsored academy programme, local authorities could still open new maintained schools to meet local demand. Councils could also satisfy their duty to provide a school place for every child by requiring maintained schools to accept more pupils.

This all changed under the coalition. According to the latest data, 1,893 out of 3,329 secondary schools in England are now academies. The majority are not sponsored academies but converter academies, schools that were performing well and voluntarily converted to academy status, often on a stand-alone basis.

In its scale and in its nature, this is an entirely different academy programme to what we saw under Labour. Not only are converter academies a new departure, so is the introduction of primary school academies. There are now 1,789 primary academies in England, 507 of which are sponsored. The most recent performance data shows that sponsored primary academies have improved approximately 5 per cent slower than comparable local authority schools.

We should also be hearing much more from the opposition about the coalition’s ludicrous decision to stop local authorities from opening new maintained schools. Despite still being responsible for school place planning and provision, councils are not only prevented from opening new maintained schools, even if that is the locally preferred option, they have no control over academies and so cannot require them to take more pupils. This is at a time of extreme pressure on school places.

Banning all local authorities from opening new maintained schools is clearly inconsistent with the Tories’ mantra that their reforms are providing more choice for parents. Some local education authorities are superb (look at Camden, for example). How is the exclusion of exceptional education providers consistent with the competition and choice agenda? And how is it in the best interests of children’s education to prefer virtually any academy chain or sponsor, many of which are mediocre or poor, to a local authority with an outstanding track record of running schools?

There are of course badly performing local education authorities and some excellent academies. This is trite, and yet I think that some Labour politicians fear opposing the worst aspects of the academy programme on the grounds that they will be smeared as ‘enemies of promise’ who oppose all academies, even the outstanding ones, and support underperforming councils.

It would be quite easy to deflect such an attack by stating that, to the contrary, Labour supports all excellent schools, whether they are academies or local authority maintained, and that unlike the Tories they will allow parents the full choice between the two while forcing them into neither, a measure that will not only be popular with parents, but also with teachers.

Annie Powell is a governor at a school in Southwark and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward