‘Politics’ fear in Leeds schools academy plans

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AN EDUCATION boss in Leeds believes the Government is targeting the city’s primary schools for “political reasons” after it emerged that the Department for Education is planning to intervene to ensure the worst performers become academies.

The Yorkshire Post revealed yesterday that the DfE has identified Leeds among several “hot-spot” authorities around the country where too many primary schools are failing to meet national standards.

Education Secretary Michael Gove is demanding the city’s worst primary schools be turned into sponsored academies and officials say specially-appointed interim executive boards (IEBs) will be appointed to take control of schools where they are not satisfied with the progress made.

A union official has warned that such a move would be likely to be met with community campaigns against “forced academisation” and even industrial action from school staff.

Patrick Murphy, the Leeds branch secretary of the National Union of Teachers suggested the lack of primaries converting to academies could be the main reason for the Government intervention. He said: “We have been aware from the council that the DfE has been putting them under pressure for primaries to go down the academy route. I don’t think there is an appetite for it among the schools in question.

“It is plausible that the DfE has got fed up of waiting and has decided to take over. It is an audacious move because this will not be a walk in the park – removing governing bodies and appointing people to work on IEBs will be difficult. I do think it will meet with opposition in some schools but I think it depends on the stance of the head teacher.”

Any efforts by local schools or unions to resist the Government’s demand that they convert to academy status are likely to be given short shrift in Whitehall.

At Downhills Primary School in north London, Mr Gove recently used new powers awarded him under the 2010 Academies Act to dismiss the school’s entire board after accusing it of “chronic underperformance”. The board had refused to allow the failing school to become a sponsored academy.

A senior DfE source said that Leeds had the highest number of primary schools in the country, 34, which are failing to meet national targets in standard assessment tests (Sats) sat by 11-year-old and the second highest proportion of schools below the benchmark among similar education authority areas around the country. The source said 16 per cent of schools in Leeds had less than 60 per cent of pupils reaching the standard expected of the age group in English and maths.

However league tables published last year based on Sats results show Leeds was far from being the worst performing authority in the region based on the proportion of pupils achieving the benchmark. Eight out of 15 authorities in Yorkshire fared worse.

Labour coun Judith Blake, Leeds Council’s executive member for children’s services said the authority, head teachers and even the DfE officials they had contact with were surprised that the city was being singled out.

She said: “I do suspect this is being done for political reasons rather than in the best interests of the children. I have been at a conference of 130 primary school head teachers from across the city and there has been absolute outrage. We have been working very closely with the DfE and officials there did not see this was coming.” She said the council was focused on raising standards in primaries.

“What we are saying is that there will be schools where an academy solution will be appropriate but that is not the case in every situation. One of the schools which has been put in an Ofsted category to improve in Leeds is an academy. ...it just demonstrates that going down the academy route is not the be all and end all.”