Opinion: Pity Gove’s 400?

You may have seen the list of the 400 “worst primaries in England”, according to M. Gove.  If not, you can download it here: Primaries.

I am not about to re-visit the bone of contention that is academy status among Lib Dem colleagues, but I do think we have to look very carefully at the whole issue of forcing schools to become academies–and look at it as Liberal Democrats, who value both devolution of powers and liberalism.

I know that those to the right of the party will say that there is nothing liberal about allowing children to fail–and they are absolutely correct.  Since I became a councillor in May this year, I have had an insight into the problems there can be in local authorities in responding to problems in schools (and in other areas of local responsibility) innovatively and effectively.  So where a school is in dire need and failing students, something has to be done, as it is simply not acceptable to waste children’s life chances.

I know that those to the left of the party will say that the local authority has an almost divine right to oversee schools in their area–and they are correct to the extent that an effective and skilled local body can and should be the most sensible way of overseeing the effectiveness of schools, and allocating resources and school places according to highly variable local demographics, local context and local aspirations.  They are also right that there is at least a  democratic mandate involved which means that local authorities can be held to account through local elections, which is several steps removed where the accountable body–sorry, I mean person–is the Secretary of State.

These are generalisations and there are obviously a variety of views on the vexed issue of academies within the party.  But I think we can all feel slightly (at least)  uncomfortable about forcing 400 schools to become academies.

For a start, how do we assess which are the worst performing schools, especially now the contextual value added measure has disappeared?  Then, how are local factors taken into consideration? Finally, how are parents’ views taken into account?  Of course, it is Ofsted’s opinion that is wholly taken into account in deciding the 400.  So then for us, there is the nagging discomfort that Ofsted is now judged by many to have become politicised.

In addition, we must be forced to ask: are academies the answer, where schools are failing? Do they represent the single, shining, silver bullet?  Empirically speaking, we are too early into the process of academisation to accurately report on their effectiveness, surely?

I am sure that many MPs in your areas, as well as In North Yorkshire, got the tip off a few weeks ago when the letter from Michael Gove arrived explaining to them how there were so many schools “failing” in their local authority.  We knew what must be coming.  But still the feeling of discomfort that this approach resembles that of a blunt instrument–one that is potentially unfair and possibly does in fact not best serve children or the communities where they live.

How do others feel, and what have you experienced in your area?

* Helen Flynn is a Harrogate Borough Councillor and is the Parliamentary Candidate for Harrogate & Knaresborough. She is an elected Council member of the Social Liberal Forum, an executive member of the Lib Dem Education Association and a member of the Federal Policy Committee.

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15 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Nov '12 - 1:04pm


    I know that those to the left of the party will say that the local authority has an almost divine right to oversee schools in their area

    I think that is more a stereotypical misrepresentation of the left made up by our opponents than the actual position.

    I don’t myself have a problem with the idea of schools being free to design their own curriculum and ways of delivering it. That’s fine so long as public money for schools is fairly allocated, parents have enough information to know that a school have kept to a generally accepted level of standards (or to be aware that it hasn’t if they want their children to go to that school for other reasons), and no-one is forced through lack of alternative to send their children to a school which is abnormal in some way.

    The problem I have with the “academy” idea is that it is based on the notion that what’s wrong with a school that is poorly performing is “local authority control”. But local authorities simply do not have the control over what goes on internally in schools that this notion assumes. Local authorities do NOT tell their schools what to teach and how to do it – that is down to their heads and governing bodies as directed by NATIONAL government with its national curriculum.

    So the academy idea is like trying to cure a cold with antibiotics – it cannot work because it’s going for something which is not actually the cause of the disease. So it’s needlessly diverting money that could be used elsewhere and diverting attention from what might be the real underlying problem. Of course, if you give more money to a school and allow it to pick more able pupils, it is likely to show performance improvements. That does not prove the “academy” idea itself has really solved the problems – it’s simply shifted them by moving the more challenging pupils elsewhere and taking money from elsewhere.

    It suits the political right to suggest that anything which involves democratically elected people having some power is by its nature a bad thing, which is one reason why they jump for “council control must be the problem”. Another reason, however, is that many of those pushing this idea through the commentariat or as politicians actually DON’T KNOW what normal state schools are like and how they are run, since they have no contact with them themselves. They really do seem to suppose that dungareed Labour councillors and bearded and sandalled Liberal Democrat councillors issue daily management instructions to the schools under Local Authority control, which they take to be the reason their pupils do badly.

  • jenny barnes 27th Nov '12 - 2:57pm

    All part of the neo liberalisation agenda. Selling education off. I never believed the LDs would be complicit in this sort of thing.

  • Old Codger Chris 27th Nov '12 - 5:00pm

    I’m a governor at a school which has switched from LA to a trust which embraces many academies. Best thing we ever did – the level of support is far better and more professional.

    But there will be many schools supported by good LAs,and I’m sure there are some dodgy academies and trusts. Every school must make its own decision – if allowed to – ignoring political bias.

    So many schools are opting out of our poorly performing LA that it’s having to downsize its services still further. So more schools in my area will take the academy route. It’s a snowball effect.

  • Leekliberal 27th Nov '12 - 6:36pm

    Helen says ‘ So then for us, there is the nagging discomfort that Ofsted is now judged by many to have become politicised.’ No Helen they have not ! Ofsted simply report impartially on the quality of education in each school. It is for the politicians and professionals to use that information to improve things.

  • Fiona White 28th Nov '12 - 8:24am

    There should be a right for schools to become academies if they believe it is the right thing for them. What I object to is the principle of forcing schools to become academies. Some schools do fail. Some schools are not sufficiently well-run and let down the children in their care. That can happen to academies as well as LA schools. Either way the local authority ends up with the responsibility to make sure that every child has an access to education.

  • James Kempton 28th Nov '12 - 9:37am

    Helen asks a fair question “are academies the answer, where schools are failing?”, but fails to offer any compelling alternative improvement strategy.
    As yesterday’s Ofsted report confirms, some local authorities are doing a fantastic job at driving primary school improvement – supporting, challenging and intervening very successfully. They are keeping good schools on their toes, spotting problems early and offering timely and effective help to schools when things start to go wrong, as they can sometimes do.
    As someone who helped turn the worst ever education authority in the country which we inherited from Labour in 2000 into the 6th best (according to recent Ofsted’s ranking for Islington) it was refreshing to hear the second most influential figure in education, Sir Michael Wilshaw, acknowledge that local authorities do make a real difference. Some clearly are very good at the job and others less so. It is simply not acceptable to have the current wide variation in school standards – local government has to put its house in order. And if they are not able to grasp that nettle quickly, then we should use our position government to force the least effective authorities to start working with neighbouring better councils. When you have a team of council educationalists in one authority who are manifestly good at their job and a team in another one which is not doing so well, isn’t it obvious which team both authorities should use.
    People know that I have always argued that academisation will be the answer for some schools. But we fail children by allowing it to be advocated as a one size fits all policy. Liberal Democrats need to offer an alternative. For me that means recognising, as Ofsted now does, that some councils are doing brilliantly and making sure that councils abandon their own mediocre services and rely instead on the school improvement services provided by the best in the business.

    James Kempton was leader lead member for children and then Leader of Islington Council over the period 2000-2009

  • Matthew Huntbach, an experoienced Councillor, has summarised the situation precisely. Perhaps we might consider what is meant by ‘the school’ Is it the Head or the Governing Body or both. Is it a successful school? Does it recognise its weaknessses and have a credible improvement plan? Has the LA provided professional support in the form of advice and/or a temporary secondment from a successful school?
    I sit on a county Monitoring panel where members recieve reports of schools causing concern along with LA strategies to support those schools . The most frequent issue is leadership which the governing body is either unable or unwilling/complicit to address. The LA has limited powers to effect a quick solution but my experience has been that it can solve the problem in a constructive way which recognises the career of staff. Sponsored Academies can sort things in less time. Could this be the blunt instrument favoured by the Gove/Wilshaw Axis? The other question is whether this will be arepeat of the Grant Maintained saga?

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Nov '12 - 11:08am

    Old Codger Chris

    So many schools are opting out of our poorly performing LA that it’s having to downsize its services still further. So more schools in my area will take the academy route. It’s a snowball effect.

    Yes, it seems to me this is all part of the problem. If a school is performing badly it seems to me that what would be most useful for it is advice coming from nearby schools that are doing better. Perhaps things like staff exchanges that can be used to make sure best practice is shared. Already this is less likely to happen if we have an atmosphere of competition, so it helps the better schools to keep the secret of success to themselves, attract the more able pupils, and see their “rivals” dragged down. This is another illustration of how the idea that “competition drives up quality”, which the political elite in this country have become obsessed with to the point of proposing it as the solution for almost any problem that exists, does not always work. Sometimes competition serves to drive down quality.

    It seems to me that organising this sort of local co-operation to share best practice and bring in local advice to deal with problems in individual schools ought to be a big part of what Local Education Authorities are about. If they did not exist, we might want to invent them to take on this task.

    So the “Academy” idea that the way to improve school performance is to take it out of the local network of support and advice seems to me to be daft. As I said, one can artificially engineer an improvement by also giving the school more money and enabling it to take on pupils who are easier to teach and have better prospects. However that says nothing about whether the “Academy” idea itself is achieving anything, particularly overall rather than just by moving the problems elsewhere.

    It reminds me of this mania for PFI that was around a few years ago. I remember questioning it when I was a councillor, because I was extremely dubious about this idea of signing up for a contract which meant tying up to a supplier for a very long period with the costs paid to that supplier paying back what was really just a loan. The answer that tended to be given after one had really question what was being proposed came down to this thing “private sector know-how”. Somehow just because the private sector was involved it was supposed to be very much better, people in the private sector had some sort of magic knowledge and power to improve things which people working in the public sector could not possibly ever have. It was never really explained just what this “know-how” was, what were these secret facts and ways of doing things that public sector people could never ever fathom?

    Two days ago I went to a public meeting about hospital provision in my area. There is having to be a major reorganisation because our local hospitals are “losing money” according to the bod presenting the report where we are meant to be getting “consulted” about it and saying which services in which hospitals we want to see closed down. Now I thought, of course hospitals are losing money, this is the NHS, they don’t charge, so they aren’t making money. However, what it actually seems to mean is the government sets some arbitrary figure and local hospitals are costing more than that. Weasel words, therefore – they are losing money because it is the government’s judgment what they should do should cost X but it actually costs X+Y. That’s NOT the same as a trader losing money, is it? OK, but one big reason they are losing money is the PFI agreement that got the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Woolwich built. So we were told, this PFI contract was so set out that even if the QEH was running at full capacity doing all it could possibly do and was designed to do, it would still cost an extra £1 million a week to do it. So, HERE you have it, this is that magic private sector know-how, it WASN’T on how to run hospitals efficiently, it was on how to pull the wool over the eyes of whoever originally agreed to it to get them to sign up to a long term agreement which would involve shadowy private sector organisations chiselling a million a week more out of local people in one of the poorer parts of London for hospital services than it would cost if they had been provided purely by the public sector – and they are of no better quality, in fact they are worse.

    Isn’t this now just the same we are seeing with these “Academies”? There’s a handwaving argument which boils down to some shadowy “trusts” running them who must be “better” purely because they are private sector rather than public sector. There’s no real argument as to why this might be, so really it’s just magic fairy dust. Sprinkle it about, it’ll solve your problems.

    As we see also with the utilities, what this private sector know-how really comes to is the know-how to make vast sums of money for the private sector executives in control of these things. But to shut up the people, their puppets in the press will divert attention by making a huge thing out of the much smaller amounts public sector executive people and politicians make. Go canvassing and what will you hear? Chances are a lot on the lines “I never vote, politicians are just there to make money for themselves out of the people, look at those MPs expenses, …”. Er yes, Margaret Moran, who was Leader of Lewisham Council when I was first elected was the worst of the lot here. Yet the £53,000 she misclaimed would be peanuts for a top banker, what he and a few of his mates might spend on a slap-up dinner. We are told politicians are bad people out to twist money out of the public, so we must instead hand control of everything to “private sector know-how”, i.e. these bankers.

    However disguised, what’s happening with schools here is more of the same.

  • Graham Evans 28th Nov '12 - 5:27pm

    It is often difficult to radically improve a seriously failing organisation,at least within an acceptable time-frame, by incremental change, irrespective whether the organisation is in the public or private sector. The only solution is often a change at the top. In the private sector change is usually driven by external shareholders, or by external takeover, or sometimes by a board-room coup. In the public sector the appropriate mechanism is often less clear. Sometimes privatisation may be the best route, perhaps with some regulator, as has been the case with the water companies, and telecoms. In other cases contracting out may work. (Indeed the first notable contracting out of a local government service was in Southend in the early 1980s. Its refuse collection service was so appallingly managed that contracting out was the only way of cutting through the mess. Southend Council certainly saved itself a lot of money by doing so, but it still landed up with the most expensive service in Essex, simply because the in-houses services of the other Essex districts continued to be miles more efficient.)

    Forced academisation (and free schools) are surely therefore merely mechanisms of dealing with seriously failing schools. Sometimes this may work, but the key is change at the top. If LEAs are unwilling to take radical action, they have only themselves to blame is others step in.

  • David Allen 28th Nov '12 - 6:07pm

    “what this private sector know-how really comes to is the know-how to make vast sums of money for the private sector executives in control of these things.”

    Well, there’s a lot of truth in that, of course. However, for those who are turned off by anti-capitalist comments, there are other, seemingly more benign, factors as well.

    Jobs are scarce. People wants work to live. Businesses therefore want to grow. If they can’t grow, they risk shrinking.

    If you are someone like Alan Sugar, you go for growth by means of invention, aggressive selling, knowing your market, and getting the price right. Apart from the abrasiveness etcetera, that is broadly how capitalism is supposed to work for the benefit of all of us, so, this looks (reasonably) like a Good Thing.

    If however your business is health, or education, or persuading somebody to build a nuclear power station, then your growth does not depend primarily on things like price competition. It depends on lobbying, persuading, and cajoling politicians to make the decisions that will let you grow. You will be well advised to spend far more time and effort promoting yourself than your intended victims in the state system can possibly spend on defending their position. You will be well advised to seize your opportunities the way an alligator does – bite on hard, and never let go until you get what you want. You would be well advised to make sure that politicians knew which side they should be on. That is, the ones who favour private enterprise should get well paid jobs after political retirement. The ones who stand up for statist solutions should just fuddle off and die.

    It’s natural that private organisations should take over every State function, one after the other, because they are so highly motivated to do so. When there is nothing else left in State hands, those who are still hungry for lucrative opportunities will no doubt seek a privatised monarchy, or a privatised parliament, or a private army (oh sorry, that one is already on its way, of course…).

    It isn’t even essential to the march of the capitalists that anyone should become stinking rich. However, it’s normal that this will also happen, of course.

    It’s natural, until somebody manages to get an effective political movement under way which understands just how deeply wrong this is, and vows to fight it.

    The Socialists tried, but their solution was fatally flawed, because they didn’t understand the need for democracy, or individual rights, or openness, or finding ways to avoid rigid centralist bureaucracy and state-based corruption.

    We could try, but instead we have sold out to the capitalists.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Nov '12 - 9:29am

    Graham Evans

    The only solution is often a change at the top. In the private sector change is usually driven by external shareholders, or by external takeover, or sometimes by a board-room coup. In the public sector the appropriate mechanism is often less clear.

    What is so unclear about elections?

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Nov '12 - 9:44am

    James Kempton

    When you have a team of council educationalists in one authority who are manifestly good at their job and a team in another one which is not doing so well, isn’t it obvious which team both authorities should use.

    If a team is doing well, might it not be a good idea to find out what it is they are doing that makes them do well?

    The problem I have here is that no-one seems to be asking questions like this. Instead of finding out what’s going wrong in terms of real actions of real people, we are told there’s this instant magic solution. Why is it that making a school an “Academy” is supposed to make it better than it was before? What is it in terms of real actions of real people that achieves this?

    I appreciate there is good and bad leadership in schools. One of the things we might want is MORE local authority control, so good heads can be moved around schools in the authority. Governing bodies can provide good public input, but it’s onerous work and unpaid, not surprising it’s hard to get sufficient people with the skills to do it, and the result will be the quality for governing bodies varies enormously – and to the detriment of those schools in areas where few of the parents have a strong professional background. Yet the debate on LEA schools v. “Academies” barely mentions governing bodies.

  • Cara Jenkinson 30th Nov '12 - 5:54pm

    I just wanted to give our experiences of interacting with the DfE at one of Gove’s 400, a primary school in Tottenham, North London.

    Over the last five years of so standards of the school declined so that by 2011, pupils were making half the progess that they should in each year group. In Summer 2011 the Governing Body persuaded the Head to leave, and appointed a new Head who started in Jan 2012. Since then the GB and Head, with very little help from the Local Authority, have made huge changes at the school, including pretty much replacing the teaching staff, establishing much better tracking systems, and better relations with parents. The Governing Body has also been significantly strengthened with several new very experienced governors joining over the last 6 months. Over the last two terms we’ve seen progress increase significantly, though it was too late to make enough difference to our Summer 2012 Yr 6 cohort whose results were below floor target. As a result we were issued with the Warning Notice by the Local Authority, Haringey, to which we responded with a detailed action plan. We also had a full Ofsted inspection in October which put us in a “Needs Improvement” category. However the comments made by Ofsted about leadership and governance were positive:

    “The new headteacher has a clear plan for improvement that has already led to improvements in teaching, behaviour and attendance.”

    “The governing body has shown itself ready and able to take decisive action to improve the school.”

    “The governing body have the skills and show a willingness to confront problems and take effective action.”

    In November the DfE requested to meet with us. They made it clear at a meeting on 13th November that we must become a sponsored academy and that while they would consider our views the choice of sponsor would be a ministerial one. They said that they expected that the decision on the academy sponsor must be made by the end of Autumn term. We started researching potential sponsors and have met with two of them, keeping the DfE updated on what we are doing. The DfE have now come back and said that the decision must be made by December 10, further stating “I must reiterate though that the process for determining the sponsor will involve the DfE deciding on its preferred sponsor and proposing this to the governing body, which will be asked to agree to apply for an academy order to become a sponsored academy with that sponsor.” So not much choice for us as Governors, which is very frustrating since many of us have devoted considerable time to the school over the last year, and feel that our views on what is best for the school are not valued.
    Unfortunately we are caught between a rock and a hard place, a poor local authority (17th worst for primary schools in the country according to Ofsted’s recent report), and a inflexible, dogmatic DfE.

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