RIP ‘choice’ – “You must agree with us, or else”

For those of us who formed Educating Brentwood, just over four years ago, this was the week when an unprecedented number of chickens came home to roost.

The process of establishing a free school locally as another closed due to excess surplus places had brought vividly home to some of us the dangers to local educational accountability contained within the 2010 Academies Act.

Why, in a time of austerity, would scarce money be spent on a new school where no places were needed?

If the driving force behind it was ‘parental choice’, why were the majority of local parents ignored in the process?

Why was the proposed curricula offer of the new school so narrow?

How would the Surrey-based ‘academy chain’ that would hold a majority presence on the school’s trust board properly engage with and be accountable to the local community?

What were the implications for other local schools, and their parents and pupils, of the by-passing of the Local Education Authority (LEA)?

How could we ensure that new governance structures, without local oversight, maximised tight resources in support of the education of pupils and potential conflicts of interest were properly policed?

At this point, and in the intervening years, the Act’s defenders told us that the central driver for school improvement would be competition between schools fostered by ‘choice’. Parents could choose to send their children to the school they felt had the best offer for their child, the least popular local schools would then be incentivised to ‘improve’ to become more attractive. How they did this would be their choice, although the government were clear that this was most likely to occur should they opt for the ‘freedoms’ afforded by academy status.

However, as time has progressed, this emphasis on ‘choice’ has faded to the point of invisibility.

This week was the point at which the government officially lost the argument and withdrew the right for schools to decide how best to serve their pupils. The refusal of many parents and schools to use their ‘choice’ in the way intended by the Department for Education (DfE) has led them to drop the pretence. They have opted instead for dictatorship.

Since 2010, schools have become academies for a variety of reasons. Around 60% of secondaries have taken this option but less than 20% of primary schools have decided to. During this period financial encouragement gave way to enforcement where schools were less than ‘Good’. New schools, ‘free schools’, must be academies. Some schools recognised the direction of travel and jumped before they were pushed. Many have had good experiences – some LEAs were not strong and it is important to recognise that – the crucial difference now is that the judgement of school leaders and governors of schools officially recognised as doing a good job for their students is no longer respected.

The response of Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the National Governors’ Association (NGA), to this week’s budget announcement was untypically forthright:

“Forcing people to make a particular decision is not the way to bring them on side or to convince them that your argument is a strong one. It says you must agree with us, or else.  It says, we don’t actually trust you to make the right decision for your school. It says, we don’t actually value the time and the thought you have put into your local school – as volunteers. It says, we, the politicians based in Westminster, know what is best for your school and your community, even if you don’t. Furthermore these schools, which will be forced to convert, are good schools; it’s one thing to take over underperforming schools, it’s quite another to overrule those who are leading good schools”

She is quite right to point out this clear contradiction to the DfE’s professed wish to ‘trust teachers’. However, those following education news know that the government has form here.

The promotion of the English Baccalaureate (EBACC) is another innovation of recent years which has seen a radical change in approach. We were first told that it was important that as many students as possible studied this narrow selection of subjects because they were recognised by Universities as being those which ‘facilitated’ entry to their institutions. Once this was refuted by those providing higher education, it became a headline measure against which schools would be judged. However, too many schools for the DfE’s liking have decided that the priority should be to provide what is best for each individual student. This week we have been told that the “vast majority” of students will be forced to take it.

You will note the common theme of a lack of evidence to back up the drive for academisation or force modern students to study a ‘traditional’ curriculum.

“You must agree with us, or else”.

Of course, to date, those that do, and show public enthusiasm for it, have benefitted from higher profiles and, in some cases, more besides. Whether that means becoming a candidate for Ofsted Chief Inspector, a DfE ‘tsar’ or just an invitation to a Buckingham Palace tea party, such incentives have not led to the majority of schools taking the government’s chosen course.

no choice 2What should be of concern, however, is that it appears that it has smoothed the path for some to open free schools in the past, and may still do so. Lost in the subsequent budget brouhaha, School’s Week editor, Laura McInerney, wrote this week about her long battle to get the DfE to open up their approval decisions to public scrutiny. It reveals an interesting theme in increasing the odds for approval: “agree with us”.

“What is most silly about the free school case…is that such secrecy has put off the government’s own free school supporters. Eylan Ezekiel, an education consultant and former primary teacher, led an application for a free school in Oxford in the first wave. It was for an innovative school – said to be a main objective of the policy – with proposals laid out in depth (150 pages) and developed by an experienced group. When his application was turned down Ezekiel felt groups “more in line with ministerial direction” were being favoured, such as those with a more traditional curriculum..”

So what of ‘parental choice’? You may recall that last year the Secretary of State introduced a white paper that, this week again, has passed into law. As part of this, parents were to be denied the right to object to their school being forcibly academised. She stated:

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

As I wrote in a blog at the time:

“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.”

“You must agree with us, or else”.

I am not against schools opting to become academies – I am on the governing body of one – but it should only be where a positive choice is made and stakeholders are properly consulted. Particularly when there are financial implications for all state schools in pursuing this course.

You will have been forgiven for not seeing another announcement affecting education in the Budget. As reported in Schools Week, the Chancellor saw fit to raise public sector employer pension contributions once again. While the Schools Minister appeared in the media insisting that education funding had been protected he neglected to acknowledge the rapid increase in costs that the government have expected school’s to cope with.

Let us be clear, your child’s school is not ‘ring-fenced’. Increased costs have meant a real terms cut of between 8-10% in budgets already, this new announcement will increase that burden and school’s will again have to find savings to try to cope.

It is this background that makes the decision to force all schools into academy status particularly scandalous. The Chancellor announced a £640M four year fund to enable the over 15,000 required conversions to take place – the ability of the sum to cover likely costs is already a matter of dispute – but the very fact that he is prepared to find this money as individual schools are having to lay off staff to balance their books shows how skewed the government’s priorities have become.

cameron and goveThe DfE’s approach since 2010 was launched as an agenda for choice, if this had been genuinely followed through on then individual schools should be allocated their £25,000 and be provided the ‘freedom’ to allocate it to best support their pupil’s education, including the option of conversion. Instead we have arrived at policy based on, “we don’t actually trust you to make the right decision for your school” and the direct side-lining of parents and stakeholders.

This week has confirmed the fears we had when forming our group and it provides no pleasure that our reputation as ‘scaremongers’ has proved to be ill-founded.

‘Choice’ in education is the sole preserve of those who willingly do the government’s bidding. The remaining majority?

“You must agree with us, or else”

Stephen Mayo

 

You may think that £640M could be better spent if schools had a genuine choice over its allocation. If so, you may be interested in this petition.

 

 

 

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