Parental choice: The grandest illusion?

When the 2010 Academies Act was swept through a few short weeks after the Coalition came to power we were told that part of its purpose was to ‘empower’ parents. ‘Parental choice’ was at the heart of the new Free Schools Programme and would be the driver for improvement in existing schools. Now that the new Conservative government believes that it has a five year blank cheque at the Department for Education (DfE) is the mask beginning to slip?

Once again, controversial legislation will be enacted during the opening parliament of a five year term but the pretence has been dropped. The involvement of parents is only welcome where it suits the agenda of those in power.

Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, announced this week that, from here on, the DfE would only recognise one path to school improvement for those schools rated as “inadequate” by Ofsted. New powers would allow (indeed compel) Regional Schools Commissioners to immediately take steps to remove a school from local authority control and make it an academy.

The BBC coverage explained thus:

Hundreds of schools, often in disadvantaged areas, were already being turned around, “thanks to the help of strong academy sponsors”, she said.

“This bill will allow them to do their job faster and more effectively.”

As many have pointed out, and as illustrated by the clip of the Nicky Morgan interview within the piece, this presumes that academisation as a process is, in itself, a school improvement panacea. It also seems not to recognise that there are academies in existence now that are also rated Inadequate.

The claim of the universal benefit of academisation is examined here by Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network. Let’s just say the case is unproven…

On the current academy picture, not only are 133 currently rated as inadequate but research by Schools Week found that ”28 schools that were good or outstanding when they first converted to academy status but have subsequently fallen into special measures.”

I will let others dissect what the real agenda is behind these changes but, suffice to say, we now know that despite having no evidence to support the position, the Secretary of State believes that school structure is the main determinant of school quality. While she may be entitled to hold that opinion, it is the following statement on the new legislation that is far more sinister and should concern all who care for accountability and, frankly, democracy itself:

“It will sweep away the bureaucratic and legal loopholes previously exploited by those who put ideological objections above the best interests of children,” she said.

In other words, those who oppose our policies will not be listened to and will not even have a right to object. Worse, while they claim to have only the best interests of children at heart, those who have previously raised concerns are, in contrast, only doing so for “ideological” purpose.

As the National Association of Head Teachers leader Russell Hobby commented:

“Parents who have campaigned against the opaque and centralised process of academisation will be dismayed to see themselves dismissed as obstacles to be eliminated.”

Perhaps we should have seen this coming following the journalist Warwick Mansell’s article from last December on the DfE reaction to the successful parent campaign to prevent Hove Park School becoming an academy in Brighton. He reports that they were to meet to consider how to “help” schools in a similar situation in future. As Mr Mansell concluded:

“Whether the “help” a school would need would be DfE assistance in support of its agenda of academisation, against community opposition, is debatable.”

Many of us have felt that there has been a two tier approach to ‘parental choice’ at the DfE for some time. Now we have confirmation.

Consider the parents who campaigned against the closure of Sulivan Primary to make way for a new ’free school’ in Hammersmith & Fulham. The local council’s consultation explicitly gave more weight to parents who were in favour of the free school than those opposed.

(Sham “consultations” are no way to establish community supported schools )

Or the extraordinary case of Beccles Free School, approved despite a clear opposition majority during consultation, where campaigners were advised by their local MP that their protest had made the school’s establishment more likely rather than less.

In both cases, the choices of parents were only considered to be valid where they supported government policy. What is far worse is that those who have concerns about any such ‘reforms’ in their own school or area are considered to be actively ‘standing in the way of what is best for children’, even if they are their own. It is as ludicrous a position as stating that teachers are “enemies of promise”.

The implication that only the government, and those that agree with them, want ‘what is best for children’ is as offensive as it is unhelpful. No-one has so far found a formula for universal success so why are we pretending otherwise?

Doesn’t discussion and collaboration make wider school improvement more likely?

Shouldn’t anyone wishing to make a contribution be encouraged rather than vilified?

Why have pointless wars when we all profess to want the same outcome?

Furthermore, why pretend that ‘parental choice’ is at the heart of your policy when you are prepared to brand those with legitimate concerns as acting ‘politically’?

So while parents who campaign for a new school in an area of surplus places are seen as promoting ‘choice’, parents of children at existing schools who will lose money as a consequence of resulting falling role have no ‘choice’ but to put up with it.

The choice of those who cared enough about Hove Park’s future and “recorded an anti-academy song, leafleted, held rallies, strikes” is not considered to be as important as those seen as requiring DfE ‘help’.

And parents with concerns about declining finances at their children’s school will be labelled ‘idealogues’ if they object to the multi-million pound new build just down the road.

Perhaps the new bill should be introduced as ‘empowering supporters’…

 Stephen Mayo



  1. Pingback: Customers not stakeholders: the death of local accountability | Educating Brentwood

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