Monday, 21 January 2013

Academies and Free Schools – not good reading

Academies and Free Schools have been much in the public eye in recent weeks with little of the publicity doing much for the reputation of either. Academies, like Free Schools, are able to operate ‘free’ of the democratic constraints imposed by Local Authority control and one of the consequences of this was shown in a high profile report by the Academies Commission report, compiled by the Royal Society of Arts and Pearson. This report showed how Academies can operate covert selection policies that allow them to exclude pupils deemed likely to harm their Oftsed performance. Fiona Millar, who has long campaigned on the issue of academies and Free Schools also pointed to the evidence of Free schools introducing covert selection, setting their catchment areas to include more affluent homes, like this Bristol free school. The report also said that while many academies had improved, there was little evidence that they are a better at improving than local authority schools. The report was covered in the national press here and here.

More and schools that are becoming academies are part of academy chains, run by companies like Harris, ARK or our very own potential Free School sponsors, Oasis. Back in 2012, the Local Schools Network conducted some very interesting analysis of the performance of Academy chains. The analysis indicated that on GCSE results, these chains, including Oasis, actually performed at below the national average. More recent research by Dr Terry Wrigley at Edinburgh university continues to show that academies are not a magic bullet for improving results. We are very far from the kind of propaganda emanating from the government or from Oasis, for that matter.

Evidence alone of course will not deter the government of course, which is determined to press ahead with its own agenda – breaking up the comprehensive school system and ultimately, turning as much of it as possible over to private companies. As the Independent newspaper revealed recently, even if Michael Gove weren’t already in favour of for-profit schools, there are powerful people in the Conservative government who will push for this if they win a majority at the next election. And they are being given help by their favourite think tanks – people like Policy Exchange and the Institute of Economic Affairs, hired guns in the battle of ideas who are paid to help obscure the evidence that for-profit education has been a disaster in the USA. Active, grassroots community level campaigning is vital if the battle change bad policies is to be won.

All this comes at a critical time in Waltham Forest. Not only have WSSI and Oasis submitted their application to the DFE to open a Free School but our local authority schools are coming under immense pressure from the DFE and possibly also from the local authority itself to become academies. Yet the evidence is growing that there is widespread hostility in the borough to both ideas. Maybe it’s time for a proper debate in Waltham Forest about education and democracy. What and who is education for? How do we hold all our schools accountable to all our people?

Hopefully, more on this soon.

In the meantime, here’s what you can do to get involved.

Keep the pressure up on our elected Councillors and our MP. Write to both of them about the proposed Free School, using our model letters here.

Coming soon – More details about Oasis, the people who want to bring their own brand of evangelism to our school system.