Extremism and academies - myths and realities

By John Freeman

| 10 June 2014

The Birmingham debacle reveals some fundamental weaknesses in government policy - not the least of which is that it's a government debacle, not Birmingham's.

1. Many people have said since the 2010 Academies Act that the creation of academies and free schools outside of a local framework of accountability does not inevitably lead to problems, but that any problems have no obvious correcting mechanism. This applies to school governance, the school curriculum, HR and financial management. In all these cases problems have duly occurred.

2. Michael Gove explicitly removed the duty of academies to follow the national curriculum. So he cannot 'order' them to teach anything or to “promote British values”. He could amend the national curriculum but that can only be enforced in maintained schools.

3. Michael Gove explicitly removed the requirement for academies to employ only trained teachers, leading to all sorts of peculiar practices - not just employing ex-army people.

4. Local authorities do have responsibilities for standards in all schools. But the May 2014 statutory guidance on “Schools Causing Concern” made it clear that local authorities should contact the DfE or Ofsted where they have concerns. And where a maintained school is good or outstanding the local authority is expected not to engage much and to focus its energies on failing schools. But if a school can go from “outstanding” to “inadequate” in a matter of months then this argument falls apart.

5. The Education Funding Agency is about funding – it is not an educational watchdog. As the Public Accounts Committee has just noted, it's not even very good at promoting good financial practice - so it is hardly a surprise that it can't spot poor governance.

6. Unannounced inspections will not work for some obvious practical reasons - the school may be closed or having a variation from normal activity for a range of legitimate reasons. The headteacher may be off site, governors may not be available, and what will inspectors do then?

7. Much of the debate has been about Park View Academy having an imposed Muslim character as a secular school. But a) it serves an almost exclusively Muslim population and b) if it were reconstituted as a faith school (like RC and CofE and Jewish schools) then these worries would (in theory) evaporate!

All this is an indication that Michael Gove has no notion of an education system - all he seems to want is autonomous schools fighting for market share in a dog-eat-dog way. He has now discovered that he wants schools to be autonomous provided they do what he wants ... governance, curriculum (no American books ...). This is madness, and it represents a tearing up of the notion of the education service being a public service there for the public good. And it won't and does not work.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children's services and is now a freelance consultant


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