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Sunday, 16 January 2011 19:22

Academies Update, January 2011 - The tipping point

THe following article appeared in an abbreviated version (missing out some of what I thought were the best bits!) in Kent on Sunday 16 January

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The face of education in Kent is changing with astonishing rapidity, driven by the Academy movement. Currently, there are 28 secondary Academies in the county with another 5 in Medway, and 10 Kent and 2 Medway secondary schools on the way. You will find a full list at www.kentadvice.co.uk. Many others have begun the process, so Kent is close to losing 50% of its 101 secondary schools. This is surely well past the ‘tipping point’, where KCC has confirmed it will encourage all remaining secondary schools to become Academies, as it becomes uneconomic to run a system for the rump.  Instead, KCC plans to change its focus to supplying services to schools who wish to buy them in.

What does this mean for the schools, and more importantly for the children? 10 of the original ‘luxury model old style’ Academies, mainly replacing failing schools, have been completely rebuilt at an average cost of around £30 million apiece, so the students are being educated in superb surroundings designed to offer exciting curricula,  often attracting highly talented leaders.  The remaining 6 ‘lean old style’ academies face a more difficult future as the plug was pulled on their building programmes, although several have been promised a watered down development.  However, as this week’s GCSE results tables show, many of these have yet to convert academic promise into real progress.

The remaining Academies are the new ‘Gove’ models, having converted since September, the government aggressively encouraging all schools to change status. It promotes the following advantages: freedom to reward staff appropriately; freedom in the delivery of the curriculum; freedom to change lengths of terms and school days (why not offer all these to all schools?); and freedom from Local Authority control. However, to quote the headteacher of one such Academy this week: “parents and children will not have noticed the difference; for us the main advantage is a short term financial gain of some £350,000 for the year”. The first crop of  Gove Academies are OFSTED ‘outstanding’ schools, so one is unsure why they need to be financially subsidised at the expense of others, as school budgets shrink to pay for them and because of the national financial crisis.

Kent County Council will probably continue to  support the majority of Primary and Special Schools (just 4 primaries have changed so far, with another 2 underway), otherwise it will be reduced to offering key services such as Special Education Needs and School Admissions, although these will be undermined by the independence of Academies.

It is already evident that there is a worrying lack of accountability of the Academies, with parental concerns having nowhere to go except the Department of Education that hardly appears geared up to deal with them. Some schools are already bucking the Admissions system with no sanction available, and others are actively discouraging children with Special Needs, so that shortly these will become a greatly disadvantaged group. I have already expressed concerns about pressure on primary school places in West and North West Kent, and cannot see how KCC can carry out its planning role in the new climate, as new provision moves over to the market place for individual schools  which wish to expand. One interesting development is the encouragement to successful schools to take over others, and there are successful examples of this, but no rationale to the decisions being made; indeed one civil servant is reported to be visiting Academies with a shopping list of primary schools across a wide geographical area, encouraging bids to take them over.

Soon nearly all secondary schools in Kent will be Academies, each ploughing their own furrow.  One can already see some adopting business models, seeking to expand their activities rather than putting the education (not just the league table outcomes) of their pupils first. Kent County Council which once billed itself as ‘champion of children’ has no role in the new set up so there will be no one who will stand up for the children of Kent as a whole, until government recognises there needs to be accountability and takes more central control. Then, when the number of schools is too great, it will set up local centres to administer schools. Presumably these will be without local accountability, unless they delegate responsibility back to KCC following the Eric Pickles philosophy of localism.

One final question. If government has the power to close failing schools and turn them into Academies, what will it do with failing Academies?

Last modified on Sunday, 22 April 2012 16:22

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