By Megan Caulfield
When Sarah Barton sent her children to Bournville School and Sixth Form Centre, she felt content in the knowledge that her son and daughter would receive a solid, state education in a happy and successful community school. The South Birmingham school, served a diverse community, teaching the national curriculum under the watchful and safe eyes of the local authority.
Naturally, things have changed since her daughter, now 17, first started; Teachers have left, qualifications have reportedly got harder, but still, no one could imagine the day when the curriculum was scrapped and the teachers no longer had to be qualified. Where the school would be independent of local authority funding and have the potential to be sponsored by the likes of Oasis and JCB. And then that time came. Bournville School was going to be turned into an academy.
“I’d heard a bit about academies in the news but not enough to freely be able to talk about them,” Sarah said. “It was only when the Headteacher at Bournville discussed his plans to turn the school into an academy that I started to take notice,”
“The government tries to highlight the fact it improves education and that academies are more successful than state schools but that’s really not the case at all. I can’t see any positives about the whole thing. I knew I had to do something.”
Cue the development of Hands Off Our School. Hands Off Our School is a parent-led campaign against academy conversion at Bournville School. Similar to that of many up and down the country, the campaign is calling for Headteachers, the Government and the Department For Education to rethink the choice to convert to an academy and to stop the rumoured forced conversions by Michael Gove.
In this particular case, Hands Off Our School was successful and managed to stop the conversion which Sarah puts down to “having a wide range of people passionately, committed to saving Bournville school including parents, teaching staff and members of the community.” Many others however, have been unsuccessful in their attempts and have faced numerous difficulties in their struggle to reach the decision makers.
The number of similar campaigns appears to be on the rise thanks to the increasing popularity of government backed academies. As of May 1st, there were 2,924 academies open in the UK, which makes up more than a quarter of all schools. Academies even appear to be replacing state education; with the most recent statistics revealing that 59% of secondary schools have either already converted or are in the process of.
According to The Guardian, academies are, “state-maintained independent schools set up with the help of outside sponsors.”
They receive their funding directly from the central government, rather than through a local authority and have more freedom over their finances, curriculum, length of terms and school days.
Originally introduced by the Labour government in 2007, their declared aims were to improve struggling schools in disadvantaged areas. The coalition has since developed the idea and now any school can apply to change to academy status.
Why are people so against them?
The lack of certainty surrounding the effectiveness of an academy seems to be one of the biggest issues amongst parents and teachers. Few people have experienced academies over a long period of time so it is hard to see the lasting benefits to the education system. Many parents aren’t even aware what an academy is, as expressed by Karen Hall, a parent whose child’s school has gone through a conversion to become North Birmingham Academy. She said,
“I’ll be honest I didn’t have a clue what an academy was when the idea was first introduced to parents. I had to do a lot of googling and used mumsnet to see if I was the only one – I wasn’t, there were loads of parents in exactly the same position which made me feel better about the situation.”
“I do think the government and schools could do more to inform parents of what an academy is, so that we can make the transition for our children from a normal school to an academy much easier and effective.”
Sarah Barton added, “A lot of schools plan the conversion in secret and give parents absolutely no say in what is happening. It’s shocking to think that they can make such a big decision without even consulting parents beforehand or asking our views.”
Another key argument against the trend of conversion is that people are viewing the rise in academies as the privatisation of schools. Privatisation involves giving the rights to the school to independent parties resulting in the school having no accountability with the community or its leading figures.
Bournville School, had a 125 year lease that was in jeopardy – one of the reasons why the community united and worked so strongly against the schools plans to convert.
Companies from the likes of America and Sweden are coming to the UK purely to make a profit out of our previously local authority funded education system. Memos by the Education Secretary Michael Gove, which have been leaked, suggest this is the way he sees UK schools developing, causing further concern to those opposing the idea.
It has also been alleged that Gove has used bullying tactics in his efforts to get more schools to convert. Ask Parents First, an anti academy campaign based in and around Birmingham, claim they have heard from many sources that,
“The DFE sends in an academy broker and threatens the governing body into becoming an academy, telling them if they do not become an academy then they will be sacked and replaced by a sponsor and governing body picked by Gove.”
Foundry Primary School in Birmingham spoke out to confirm this goes on. The Headteacher revealed that he was bullied into becoming an academy and then denied the school’s first choice of sponsor, Wolverhampton University, despite it being on Michael Gove’s approved sponsors list. They were told they must pick out of a list of three which included retail brand Oasis, a company who has no prior background or ties with education and schools.
Effect on the local authority
The rise in academies has also had a detrimental effect on the local authority, who have seen a big decline due to government cuts. The LA in Birmingham, have seen a team of 100 advisory teachers supporting 400 schools, shrink to just 8 people, placing a big strain on teaching staff and reducing the support available.
In a letter addressed to parents by the union’s joint general secretary, they emphasise the risks, and the “profound implications for the children” that academies will surely bring. They appeal to the parents,
“We hope that having considered the information you will share our views that the high level of risk involved in academy status far outweighs any of the suggested advantages. The decision to become an academy is irreversible. There is no going back.”
They add that, “Teaching support staff are also often not recognised within the new pay structure academies have to negotiate, which affects the children who need that support in the long run.”
The Benefits of the Programme
Of course this is just the view of a percentage of people. A proportion of parents, teachers and government figures are also encouraging academy conversions and see it as a way to improve the education system by giving schools more freedom to innovate.
Painsley Academy in North Staffordshire received academy status last August. At the same time it also achieved a record-breaking 100% of year 11 students receiving grades A*-C in their GCSE’s.
Painsley shared the achievement with its six Catholic feeder schools. The seven schools work together as a ‘federation’ to help with finances, resources and services – sharing the title of ‘Academy’.
Veronica Johnston Jones, an academy committee member there, says it was decided that the academy status would be a positive step for the federation.
“At this point we had worked as a hard federation of schools for just over a year and had experienced the benefits that this formal level of co-operation was bringing to the lives of the schools though the educational experience and achievement of the learners”.
“Academy status would enable the schools to continue on this path with greater pace, as a result of a new level of independence and flexibility and greater revenue.”
Ms Jones also added that greater freedom to govern, and a smoother system of funding, is paramount for future progress in the schools.
“Greater freedoms to innovate and increased revenues are making a positive impact on the schools in terms of buildings, the learning environment and resources including staffing,” she said. “This in turn is having a clear and measurable effect on further raising standards and outcomes for our learners.”
This is something echoed by parent Karen Hall, who spoke of the benefits of her child’s school being an academy. “My child’s school, College High, used to have a bit of a bad reputation, but since converting, it has really improved both academically and physically in the form of new buildings and equipment.”
“I can only see the benefits of becoming an academy -the Headteacher has received an MBE, people are getting good university places. I would say the school, (now North Birmingham Academy), has probably been saved by the conversion.”
Karen and Ms Jones are not the only people who feel this way. 86% percent of schools have seen the benefit of academies with the percentage receiving an ‘outstanding’ or ‘very good’ recommendation in their latest Ofsted report. This improvement is twice the rate of a normal school, something The Department For Education and Gove are keen to emphasise.
Lesley Smith of Ark Schools, an academy sponsor with over 18 schools around the country, sees the benefit of academies and said, “Since sponsoring some of the schools we have seen a real improvement in the general running of them.”
“For us, academies are a way to improve the education system by providing a better learning environment through adapting the curriculum and enriching our pupils with a great approach to learning and developing.”
“Our longer school day provides more time to embed core subjects and to extend the curriculum, and our excellent teachers help support this. The results are clear from our last Ofsted report, with nine of the ten ARK academies so far inspected rated as good or outstanding.”
Michael Gove has been the biggest driving force in the academy movement. He is often seen in the media promoting the benefits of the programme, encouraging what he believes is a better education system. One of his biggest arguments is that it provides more freedom to teachers.
“We believe in trusting the professionals. That’s why we gave teachers the opportunity to take on more freedom and responsibility and they have grabbed it with both hands. Many are now going even further and taking on responsibility for turning around less successful schools,” he recently said.
Whether you are opposing or agreeing with the academy movement, there is no denying that academies have created a strong debate within the education system. 16 year old Erin Geraty, a pupil going through a conversion sums it up, “you are always going to get groups that agree or disagree, that’s life, all that matters at the end of the day is that we, the pupils, get a good education so we can go on to get a good job, and lead a happy and fulfilling life.”