‘York schools academy plan is rushed, opposed by experts and socially divisive’

16 Jun 2015 @ 7.11 pm
| Education, Opinion
Consultation on plans to create a multi-academy trust in York, comprising Millthorpe School and feeder primaries Scarcroft and Knavesmire, ends on Friday (June 19). Richard Bridge urges a rethink

First things first, I am not an expert on education. I am not a parent at any of the South Bank schools in York considering becoming academies.

My children are now grown up but I feel like a stakeholder in this process. I am a grandparent of a two-year-old. I am a York resident.

So the decision to convert to a multi-academy trust does not affect just the parents and children at the schools. It affects York as a city.

It affects in particular the communities in and surrounding South Bank. What do those communities look like?

Is the proposed academisation of those schools part of a process in which South Bank further morphs into a gentrified and even homogenised white, middle-class well-heeled community in which its children are not exposed to difference? (Anyone present at the recent meeting on York’s Housing Crisis would know that is not hyberbole).

If so, is that really a rounded education?

Testing from the age of four

Knavesmire School. Photograph © Google Street View
Knavesmire School. Photograph © Google Street View

So before addressing the specific issue of academies, we surely need to ask ourselves what the purpose of education is in the 21st century?

Of course, there is no categorical answer but Sir Ken Robinson, in an extraordinary TED talk, challenges the current focus on the social investment model of educating children to be ‘good workers’ and suggests a reformulation of the education system to cultivate children’s creativity.

The message sent home by a South Bank primary school
The message sent home by a South Bank primary school
Instead we test our children as early as four as can be seen from a message home to parents from one of South Bank’s primaries.

The idea for my generation was study hard, work hard, and you will be rewarded with well paid jobs. Of course, the reality now is very different – the nature of flexible, insececure and poorly paid work creates precarious conditions for even the best qualified students.

Ironically, rather than re-evaluating what education is for, this seems to intensify the perceived importance of academic attainment.

Parents are geared to valorise academic achievement to the extent that private tutoring is endemic.

Schools are clearly under huge pressure to measure up well on OFSTED inspections meaning non-academic activity – whether sport, drama, vocational skills, indeed humanity – are accorded little importance.

It is this fear of failure (in a narrow academic attainment sense) – and the lack of value given to other qualities – that is used to push schools, parents and most importantly children into a marketised education system in which corporations extract profit (see the failed Swedish system).

Why the rush?

Scarcroft School. Photograph © David Smith on geograph.org.uk
Scarcroft School. Photograph © David Smith on geograph.org.uk
It is interesting to note that as recently as December 2012, the governors of Millthorpe chose to reject becoming an academy after creating an academy working group.

A glance through the minutes of Scarcroft, Knavesmire and Millthorpe suggests that academies were barely considered until the turn of the year. So, one may ask, why the volte-face? And, moreover why the rush?

Whilst speculative, this proposal appears mostly driven by the headteachers of the schools. If one looks back to Millthorpe in 2012, the process of the governors considering academisation took a year. It was considered, detailed and measured.

Is doing something always better than doing nothing?

It is difficult to fully understand the rationale behind the headteachers’ desire to become academies. Often, the reasons given to academise are additional financial freedom and autonomy.

Even the headteachers acknowledge any financial benefit will be marginal at best and the prospects of capital investment are remote (apparently four times oversubscribed).

The main focus appears instead to be the possibility of a greater curriculum freedom, an apparent increased autonomy to shape their own future as well as greater collaboration.

However, a more recent article in the Press suggests the move was motivated by the headteachers’ fear of ‘the current status quo’. The implication seems to be ‘doing something’ is better than ‘doing nothing’. But is it?

I have to confess that the arguments and multitude of articles relating to the proposed academy conversion have left me on occasion confused as they delve into multiple and complex issues.

There is a tendency to zone out (so if you have got this far in my article, well done!).

For me, I think it useful to refer to independent experts without vested interests who are respected in their field.

Thirty academics express their concern

Dr Selina Todd, a writer and Oxford University history lecturer, was one of the academics who signed the letter
Dr Selina Todd, a writer and Oxford University history lecturer, was one of the academics who signed the letter

Thirty academics have written an open letter on the South Bank proposal, arguing that the “there are fundamental implications for all parents and children across the city”.

Also in that letter they refer to the House of Commons Education Committee report on Academies and Free Schools which states “Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change” and points out the very thin evidence base in the primary sector.  

They suggest it is imperative that there is a pause to allow proper debate and an independent ballot.

I was disturbed to learn that despite three separate requests, the York Press has chosen to date not to publish the opinions of 30 of the country’s well-respected academics such as Kate Pickett (co-author of the Spirit Level), Diane Reay (professor of education at University of Cambridge), Stephen Ball (professor of education at University College London) and Selina Todd (modern history lecturer at Oxford). Make of that what you will.

Academies are not a panacea

On the issue of doing something is better than doing nothing, I also urge caution. Back in 2011, I lived 20 miles out of York and became aware that nearby Goole High School had converted to academy status.

Two and a half years later, the school was inspected by OFSTED and rated ‘inadequate’ on all counts. It was placed into special measures.

The following year, eight staff were suspended (including the co-headteachers) in the wake of exam irregularities and the governing body dissolved.

Whilst there has been subsequent improvement, the school remains in special measures 18 months down the line. This should not be read as alarmist but simply a case study that demonstrates academies are not always the panacea they are sometimes portrayed as.

The DfE website itself shows 174 converter academies are now rated as ‘requiring improvement’.

We should also consider the position of staff within the three schools, whose terms and conditions will apparently remain unchanged, something Unison appear unconvinced by.

Only last week, parents at a primary academy in Norfolk were said to be ‘pulling their children out’ after losing trust in the school due to a massive turnover of staff meaning there was a ‘changing rota of supply teachers’. Parents are also said to be frustrated by the lack of communication.

Interestingly, there has been a change in headteachers at all 12 schools within that academy chain which perhaps suggests the continuity of senior management should not be taken for granted.

The suppression of debate

Opinions differ of course and at the outset, there was a consensus at the packed public meeting in April that the issue should not become divisive. Of course true but there is still a need for vigorous debate on the issue.

Surely in places where citizenship is part of the curriculum, educators should provide an example of how to conduct a debate in which agonistic viewpoints can be argued constructively? And provide various communications channels so those traditionally excluded from the public sphere are given a say.

For instance, have pupils been given any voice? If not, why not? Have parents who have (or whose children have) learning difficulties been appropriately consulted? Have parents who are not fluent in English being given access?

In what ways have parents of feeder schools to Millthorpe been consulted? Has there been any attempt to inform the wider community of the plans?

Sadly, the feedback that I receive has been that the process (which appears to have been run by the headteachers rather than the governors) has been defensive and tightly managed.

Consultations have been held during working hours and parents have been given little time to ask questions.

Emails have reportedly been ignored. And of course, that academics letter has never been published by York’s local paper.

This is why Rachael Maskell’s proposal to pause the consultation makes so much sense.  

The schools could easily do so without endangering the process and if they held a number of independently chaired public meetings as well as other fora in which to engage everyone, they would have the goodwill of the whole community whatever decision was ultimately reached.

Academisation by fear

Recently-elected Green councillor for York Lars Kramm. Photograph: City of York Council
Recently-elected Green councillor for York Lars Kramm. Photograph: City of York Council
From a personal perspective, it feels though as if this is ‘academisation by fear’. By making the issue appear complex and portraying education as going through uncertainty and turbulence, there appears to be a subliminal undercurrent that governors and parents must trust the headteachers as experts, despite the very different perspectives that research presented by a host of academics illustrates to the contrary.

The fear has even fed down to some politicians. Whilst MP Rachael Maskell has been admirably clear in her opposition to the conversion, independent councillor Johnny Hayes has steadfastly sat on the fence whilst even more bizarrely, newly elected Green Lars Kramm refused to be drawn despite Green education policy being categorically against academisation.

Labour in York has made their position well known whilst the Conservatives and Lib Dem administration appears ‘pro-academies’.

To that end, I hope governors of all schools will reflect on some excerpts from the minutes of the Millthorpe Governors Meeting dated March 29, 2012:

  • Mr Butterworth (Deputy Head) expressed that governors were representatives of the community
  • Governors strongly expressed they felt community perception was important and needed to be considered
  • Financial advantages were uncertain
  • Governing Body workload and responsibility would increase
  • There was still potential for partnership work
  • There was a need to know the market and community perception
  • Staff needed to be factored into discussions

If education is to be more than a commodity to be bought and sold for profit (and its marketisation used to reinforce educational inequalities), the governors of the three schools will hopefully resist the urge to be subsumed by the Government’s ideological agenda.

There is no turning back if not.