Jayne Dowle: In defence of academy schools and what private sector can teach our councils

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WHEN it comes to education, I’m a great believer in gut feeling. This is why, despite so many people trying to talk me out of it, I sent my son to an academy secondary school in Barnsley run by United Learning, a charitable trust.

That was five years ago. At the time, academy secondaries were still a pretty unknown quantity. Friends warned me that I was experimenting with his education. Why not send him to a larger school under local council control?

The answer is actually in the question. Precisely that. I didn’t want him lost in the system. I wanted a headteacher with a personal vision and a whole school ethos to work to. I also wanted a senior management team with the flexibility to intervene quickly and provide a syllabus which hadn’t been crushed by committee.

I’d say that Jack’s progress has proven that a relatively small school, run by a specialist educational organisation with well-targeted resources at its disposal, has not let us down. It’s part of a group, but it has an independence which responds distinctly to its pupils, staff and local community.

I was interested then to hear the Local Government Association’s latest claim, which argues that academies are trailing behind. It finds that schools rated inadequate by Ofsted are more likely to improve if they are under local authority control.

Researchers looked at the inspection histories of 429 council-maintained schools which failed their Ofsted inspections in 2013. They found that 212 had become academies, whilst 152 remained under local authority control. Most of the remaining 62 had either closed or been taken over by other schools.

Of the ones remaining, by December 2017, all of the local authority schools had been re-inspected and 115 (75 per cent) were rated good or outstanding. Of the academies, 155 had been re-inspected, but just 92 (59.4 per cent) were deemed good or outstanding.

Even if we take the uninspected academies into account, I make that a differential of less than 20 per cent in favour of local authority schools. Whatever the LGA might say, it is hardly enough to demand that the Government reverses its commitment to rolling out academies and return all schools, primary and secondary, to town halls.

If LGA members really want to support the education of our children without further disruption, the least it can do is to take politics out of it. Official figures from 2016 suggest that 2,075 out of 3,381 secondary schools are now academies, while 2,440 of 16,766 primary schools have academy status. Are they really suggesting a root and branch about-turn, jeopardising the future of so many children and young people?

I know that several notable academy chains have been hauled over the coals amidst claims of financial mismanagement and inflated salaries paid to senior executives and consultants. To that, I would say – find me a local council unblighted by similar allegations over the years.

I’d heard all the arguments for local council accountability and I had never heard a convincing case that it worked so well that it would be a deciding factor on choosing a school for a child. In fact, most of the evidence I’ve come across suggests that the opposite is true. This isn’t just a local issue. Every town has a sorry tale of council executives failing to get to grips with serious school failings, misappropriation of budgets and other issues which lead to lack of trust from parents and the wider community.

And despite – or perhaps because of – my core belief that every child deserves a decent education, regardless of social background or parental income, I felt that the council-run comprehensive system simply wasn’t tailored to supporting my son, who struggled with literacy and concentration.

Although it’s a long way from where we live to independent schools in more privileged communities, I did like the fact that United Learning encompasses both the state and private sector.

There have been various highly-publicised initiatives involving young people from disadvantaged backgrounds being mentored by their fee-paying peers. I’m not convinced this helps, but I am sure that in general terms of developing personal pride, academic confidence and readiness to compete in the wider world, the state sector could learn a lot from the private.

I can’t see many local councils supporting this kind of thing. Politics, both internal and external, have a habit of getting in the way. I don’t doubt the commitment of some local councils towards raising aspiration and ambition, but too often it’s hidebound by pettiness and point-scoring.

It’s sad to see the Local Government Association proving this once again, and seemingly for its own ends. Anyone who really does care about the education of our children should work towards bridging all divides rather than opening up yet another.