Michael Gove has put the Academies and free schools at the heart of his education strategy. A programme started under the last Labour government, and opposed by all trade unions and by many parents and communities, has expanded so that now half of all secondary schools are Academies and primaries are converting at a worrying pace.
But Gove has met much more resistance to the project than he expected from parents and increasingly from local authorities, heads, teachers, support staff and school governors.
Since a campaign which came close to defeating the forced academisation of Downhills, a school in north London, parents’ groups have led high-profile fights to stop the privatisation of their schools.
Teachers at Connaught school in east London and Copland in west London have taken numerous days of strike action. Many campaign groups have been set up.
The parents at Snaresbrook in Redbridge, Essex, proved recently that the Department for Education (DfE) can be beaten. The community united with the council and local politicians to prove that their school could improve without becoming an Academy.
More recently neighbouring Barking and Dagenham Council applied for a judicial review on the forced academisation of Warren Comprehensive.
The judge found in favour of the local authority, saying, “Gove thinks academies are the cat’s whiskers – but we know some of them are not.”
Now the removal of ten schools from the E-ACT Academy chain is, in the words of the Anti-Academy Alliance campaign group, “the most spectacular failure in British post war education history. No local authority ever failed so dismally.”
The chief executive of E-ACT was Sir Bruce Liddington, a former permanent secretary at the DfE and head of its Academies Division, until he resigned last year from his 300,000 pound post, following widespread financial irregularities.
The Free School project has also seen three high profile cases. Two schools have closed, Discovery in Crawley and Al-Madinah in Derby. The third, the Kings Science Academy in Bradford, is mired in financial scandal.
A vice-chair of the Tory party is one of the school’s “benefactors” and has rented land to the school, making a profit of 6 million pounds over 20 years. Questions have been asked about why the case was not reported to the police as soon as it became known.
In late February another Academy sponsor, Barnfield college, was referred to the police over claims of financial mismanagement. The largest Academy chain, AET, has been investigated for lavish spending and huge executive salaries.
The Guardian newspaper obtained figures in January 2014 showing how much taxpayers money was being paid out to private firms through Academy finances.
A key government claim is that exam results show that Academies outperform other types of schools. Yet this too has been shown to be untrue. There is no evidence that Academy status has improved results.
So it’s not surprising that when parents are consulted over Academy status, they overwhelmingly reject the plans. But the government constantly ignores the results of consultations, making a mockery of another key claim – that the government is in favour of parental choice.
In Barking and Dagenham, east London, when Dorothy Barley primary school was consulted about becoming an Academy, some 84 percent said “no” to the plan and to Reach2 Academies Trust becoming the sponsor. Yet the school has been issued with a letter informing them that it has no choice.
There is a sea-change in attitude that schools and communities can fight and win anti-Academy campaigns. Several schools have proved that they can make the improvements without becoming Academies.
The governors and parents at St James school in Gloucester forced the DfE to halt Academy plans.
Gove and the privatisers have been rattled. Dan Moynihan, the chief executive of the Harris group of Academies, recently moaned to the Daily Telegraph about the resistance they encounter to conversion to Academy status.
The paper said, “His organisation is still encountering ‘very heavy resistance’ from councils and teachers… The continuing ideological opposition to the Academies programme from some councils and teaching unions prevented intervention at large numbers of schools, acting as a break on educational improvements nationally.”
Every fight and campaign, even those that have not been successful, has made it more difficult for Gove to convince the public that Academies and Free Schools can deliver better education.
The stance taken by some local authorities is encouraging and the Tories have lost the confidence of teachers – a recent survey showed only 12 percent intend to vote Conservative.
The Labour Party has yet to capitalise on that huge drop in support. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education minister, needs to realise that teachers, school staff and parents want schools to be able to return to local authority control.
Ultimately we want to move to a system where class does not determine educational outcome, where testing is not the dominant feature in schools and where teachers are treated with respect by government.
The halting of the Academy and Free School programme is a first step in stopping the fragmentation and marketisation of our education system.
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