Aniela Wenham: Academy plan in York has sidelined the views of parents

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SHOULD parents and teachers have a say on who runs their schools?

More than 40 academics from across the country have now signed an open letter in support of a parent-led campaign in York calling for meaningful consultation and a democratic ballot in helping decide if their schools should convert to a multi-academy trust.

I was one of the signatories to this letter. I also have a child who attends one of the schools concerned. As the campaign unfolded in York, the Government announced the new Education and Adoption Bill that will “sweep away bureaucratic and legal loopholes” in order to “speed up the turnaround of failing schools”. No longer will there be the requirement to consult locally on whether or not academy sponsors should take over their schools. Schools deemed as inadequate or failing will be forced to become academies regardless of local opinion. A number of high profile academics immediately criticised the portrayal of the Government’s academies agenda as a “silver bullet”. The message was clear, there are “real dangers and no clear benefits” associated with the expansion of academies.

As a parent at one of the York schools affected, I am experiencing the process attached to transforming a state maintained school into an academy first hand.

I have been struck by how, when placed against the backdrop of the Government’s agenda to rapidly expand the academies programme, consultation with key stakeholders has been perceived by those championing the proposed multi-academy trust (MAT) as nothing more than an inconvenience.

One has to ask “whose voices are being heard”? The consultation lacked meaningful dialogue. Instead, parents were provided with a very partial account of how this would benefit their children.

Indeed, headteachers from the schools presented the proposal to parents as an “exciting opportunity”. The case for change was not only extremely biased, but worryingly, ignored key messages from research evidence.

Much like our national policy- makers, headteachers appeared oblivious to research evidence that should be integral to helping inform the future direction of the schools concerned. This resulted in many parents questioning the motivations behind the proposal. The consultation suppressed dialogue with parents and highlighted a democratic deficit within our local communities.

One size fits all? While the Secretary of State’s plans to accelerate the academy programme require further scrutiny, so too does the local context in which the proposed MAT will be formed.

Say, for instance, that in five years time all schools have become academies. You have to question exactly how this approach will remedy all the challenges our education system faces. For instance, what will happen to failing academies? (We currently have 133 academies rated as inadequate and are running out of “good” quality sponsors).

Most importantly, how will academies tackle educational inequalities between schools if all are academies operating to their own agendas? The most compelling research that we have to date demonstrates that as our school system becomes more fragmented, it also becomes more divided and segregated.

The proposed MAT in York comprises of two “outstanding” primary schools and one “good” secondary school. These schools are embedded within one of the city’s most affluent areas, with average house prices well above the reach of the majority of York residents.

Within this context, one could argue that the proposed MAT is merely symbolic of a wealthy and advantaged community becoming increasingly exclusive.

The organisational structures that accompany the expansion of academies are also problematic. “Regional Academy Commissioners” have their powers devolved from the Secretary of State, they are responsible for holding academies to account while simultaneously advocating for the expansion of academies and free schools.

While many parents will never have to approach their local authority with school-related issues, a significant number are compelled to do so. Sometimes these cases are extremely complex and require the input of various professionals.

Academies strip away the local authority tier and replace this with a regional tier. Once a school becomes an academy, the democratically-accountable local authority cannot intervene. Expecting parents to approach their regional academy commissioner only adds problems to what is already an extremely complex and often intimidating environment. But each local authority has a distinct identity and structure and a proven history of partnership working.

The City of York needs to address these concerns head on before our educational context is transformed before our eyes and we are left to deal with the consequences.

These issues deserve wider scrutiny and debate within and across our local communities.

The repercussions are far reaching and should not be the driven by the agenda of a select few.

• Dr Aniela Wenham is a lecturer in social policy at the University of York.