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Academies: the one-way journey

Ian Leaver
25th May 2012

Unfortunately, three schools in Leicester have now become academies. Ash Field Special School and Sacred Heart Catholic Primary School became academies on 1st April. St Joseph's Catholic Primary School converted on 1st May. The governors at St Thomas More Catholic Primary School have also voted to leave the support of the local authority and are likely to convert on 1st June.

The NUT is hopeful that the new employer at the three Catholic Primary Schools, The Corpus Christi Academy Trust, will agree a protocol on Employees' Terms and Conditions and Union Relations. This will enshrine, in the articles of governance, the commitment of the schools to retain national and local conditions of service.

Sadly, no such protocol will be agreed by Ash Field Special School. The head teacher has stated that he is "not sure why you would think this agreement should have been necessary or desirable." Indeed, Executive Principal, David Bateson, even goes on to say that "academies are not party to future national agreements." He describes his staff as good-humoured, professional and trusting and asks why "you should have felt it difficult or so untrusting that such an agreement was required". A statement of this type, in response to a request from all six of the teacher trade unions, beggars belief and demonstrates the danger that staff in schools face from some academy sponsors.

Remember, there is no going back from conversion to an academy and once conditions of service are handed over they are as good as lost for ever.

Forced Academies

At the moment we are not aware of any other schools in the city choosing to become 'converter' academies. Schools are proud of the collaborative work that takes place between schools and do not want to lose that.

The only other school where the governors have decided to seek an academy sponsor is Queensmead Primary School in Braunstone. Their decision, which has been publicised in the local press, has been taken because governors fear that the government will force them to convert and impose a sponsor on them. This bizarre thinking suggests to me that if somebody is threatening to drown you, you might as well stick your head into a bucket of water yourself and have done with it!

A chosen sponsor is likely to come from outside the city and will have their own ideas about how the school should be run and what conditions of service they will want for their staff. It is likely to spell an end to the work that has been done with the Local Authority and other schools in the city to help Queensmead to raise standards. It will be on its own in the future.

Of course, the sponsors will be happy. They will have a brand new school building, costing £6 million, opened in 2007 and paid for by the people of Leicester. The sponsors will be laughing all the way to the bank. One wonders what they will be bringing to the deal.

City Teacher has received an email from the headteacher at Queensmead Primary School, pointing out a possible confusion raised by the article on academies in our April edition. It was never our intention to suggest that one of the proposed sponsors for Queensmead Primary School is Harris, who operate the Carpet Right chain, but we are
happy to accept that the article could have been misread and apologise if this caused confusion.

Private Enterprise 7 Local Authority 3

(David Houlton, Governor Queensmead)

By a majority of 7 to 3 the Queensmead Primary governors voted to convert their school to an academy, thereby encouraging Michael Gove in his drive to privatise local authority schools. It's hard to believe that 7 people have the power to remove a local authority school - building, resources, grounds, and staff - from the ownership of the people of Leicester and place it in the hands of an unelected sponsor, answerable only to Michael Gove.

It's nothing less than daylight robbery.

To compound the felony, Queensmead is a school that was totally rebuilt by the City Council 5 years ago at a cost of £6million and, because it was in Special Measures, received enormous extra support and funding from the LA.

Sadly, the 7 governors were fully aware of what they were doing. They knew that conversion to an academy is a one-way journey from which there is little likelihood of a return to the LA, even if the change proves disastrous. Their decision was in defiance of some of their own most experienced governors, and led to the resignation of the vice-chair. They were opposed by the Union and they disregarded the advice of the LA. In a pathetic attempt to salve their consciences, some of the governors even managed to vote for the academy proposal, whilst simultaneously stating their opposition to academies.

How could such a situation have come about in a city like Leicester, where school unions are strong, where there are well-established partnerships between schools, where there is good support for governors from the LA and declared Council opposition to academies? The answer quite simply is that the Queensmead governors capitulated to threats from DFE officials charged with carrying out Michael Gove's policy of forcing the 200 lowest performing Primary schools to become academies. Fearing a repeat of the sanctions being meted out to the Haringey and Birmingham schools that have resisted Gove's plans, the governors argued that they had no alternative but to concede. By doing so they hoped to find favour with Gove and be allowed to choose their own sponsor, whose values would accord with those of the school. They were driven by self interest and paid little regard to the impact that their actions would have across the community of Leicester schools, let alone the education of future generations of Queensmead children.

The battle for Queensmead is not yet lost, because there will be a period of consultation with parents and the community, and unions are already organising a campaign of opposition, which might even result in some of the governors having a change of heart.

Whatever the eventual outcome at Queensmead, tensions are already building in at least six other Leicester primaries which have been targeted by Gove to become forced academies. Tensions will mount yet further following a recent announcement that Gove now has the power to impose academy status on any schools that are put into an OfSTED category. It's imperative that we learn from the mistakes made at Queensmead so that we will be better prepared to resist Gove's plans for other Leicester schools.

So what were the mistakes?

Most of the blame for what has happened at Queensmead has to sit with the governors, collectively and individually:

Despite unanimously opposing Gove's proposals for Queensmead and even setting up a school improvement partnership with another Leicester school, the governors allowed themselves to be manoeuvred by the DFE into feeling isolated and vulnerable. They did not turn to the LA for support and failed to keep the LA informed of developments. They saw the union as a threat rather than an ally.

The governors became over-reliant on the Head teacher for advice and, as he became more sympathetic to the Academy option, they put their loyalty to the headteacher above their long-term responsibility for the school. They failed in their duty as ‘critical friends' by arguing, 'We have to support the Head”.

They refused to engage in any serious debate about alternatives to academisation. Attempts to instigate discussion in governors' meetings were closed down with the mantra, 'There is no alternative”. Opponents of the academy option were marginalised.
They were heavily influenced by DFE officials, who issued dire warnings about the school's future if they resisted Gove's plans. They allowed themselves to be smooth talked into believing that the future would be brighter if they were to convert voluntarily and, thus, be granted the special privilege of being able to choose their own sponsor.
At governors' meetings the LA was misrepresented and dismissed as a 'spent force with nothing to offer”. Requests by some governors to meet with the LA were over-ruled.
They did not communicate with staff, other than through the headteacher. They did not engage staff in a serious debate about the school's future or enlist their support for a ‘no' campaign.

The LA and local councillors also have to bear some responsibility:
The LA was not proactive. It was too trusting of the governors and the headteacher.
It did not insist on being kept up to date on governors' discussions or on making its views known at governors' meetings.
Intervention by the LA was too little and too late and only happened after a dissident governor wrote to the Director, alerting her to what was happening.
Ward councillors were silent and invisible throughout.

For the sake of Leicester's future as a LA, this can't be allowed to happen again.

» 'Educate yourself about academies, I wish I had' - letter in Leicester Mercury


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