Academies and free schools: "we need national action to meet this threat"

Submitted by Matthew on 24 June, 2010 - 9:53 Author: Pat Murphy, NUT Executive, personal capacity

The government has announced that all schools will be able to become Academies; schools which have been judged to be “outstanding” by Ofsted will be automatically approved and fast-tracked to that status.

The coalition is rushing through legislation to allow schools to make decisions about becoming an Academy before the end of term. And Education Minister Michael Gove has written to all “outstanding” schools inviting them to do this. The Academies programme is also being extended to primary schools.

At the moment there are only 203 Academies, but there are 600 “outstanding” secondary schools and 2,000 “outstanding” primary schools.

The government also plans to create a new type of “free” school. Similar to Academies, “free schools” will be founded in response to parents, or other groups, who want a new school in their area. Gove claims to have received interest from over 700 groups including some from teachers.

Whereas Labour claimed to be tackling underachievement and social disadvantage with Academies, the coalition’s plans explicitly target the more affluent and academically successful schools. They are also ending any requirement whatsoever to consult parents or staff on plans. The major local campaigns to oppose Academies were built around the consultation process but that will now not exist.

The “free schools” policy promises utter chaos in the school system. Well-resourced and organised local groups will be able to demand the right to set up their own school regardless of the effect on other local schools. Free schools will be Academies run, not by parents or teachers, but by private organisations with no guarantee that they will not be able to make a profit from the school.

One of the most high profile groups Gove has promoted is a group of parents in Dewsbury, but the organisation which will run the school is SERCO, a multinational service company.

Gove also wants to see at least 30 schools run by Kunskappskolom, a Swedish outfit that runs schools for profit.

These schools will be run by a combination of central government control and private sector management.

The effect of these proposals on local school provision for all children will be devastating. The extra money available for schools that opt to become Academies will be taken from money the local authority holds centrally for support services. Each new academy will get its share of this money and the central fund reduced accordingly.

Under current arrangements the local authority holds a central fund used to provide a range of services such as support for special educational needs, school transport, and school admissions.

Academies will have to buy these services from somewhere else or buy them back from the Local Authority. If enough schools opt out of these arrangements the ability of local authorities to provide basic services to the rest of their (generally less well-off) schools will be massively reduced.

The money to fund free schools will come from freezing plans to refurbish existing school buildings through the Building Schools for the Future programme. Worse than that: the government plans to end free school meals for low income families (Observer 20 June) and use that money for these schools.

The destruction of local authorities is one of the key aims of this legislation. The other key target, are the trade unions that represent teachers and the national pay and conditions arrangements that they have won and defended for years. In place of a more or else unified set of pay and conditions, we could be faced within a few years with thousands of different bargaining units and different rates of pay and different conditions.

The academies and free schools project can be frustrated and even stopped if we organise and demonstrate powerful opposition from the start.

Gove is overstating his support when he refers to over 1,000 schools interested as this only means they have asked for more information.

He has blundered in promising hundreds of new Academies by September as the legislation is extremely unlikely to be in place by then.

Early feedback from schools, and parents and governors’ organisations shows little interest in Academy status and some strong opposition. Parents and governors can be persuaded by the arguments against.

The school trade unions, in particular the NUT, are also starting to talk seriously about industrial action as a response to this threat. Already they have a policy of supporting members fully in opposing Academy status, up to and including with industrial action.

But we will need a strategy for developing national joint action to meet the scale of this threat.

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