Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Academy Schools

We often hear talk about the need for public sector reform, and indeed most governments pledge to deliver this in some form or another. I want to use this post to give you a real life example of the process in action, and to show you that even if there is a pressing need for it, successful change can take decades to come to fruition, and will be opposed at every step of the way. The case study I’m going to use is the British state secondary education system, which covers pupils ages 11-16. To explain the reforms, I have to explain the process which made them necessary in the first place, so I’m afraid this begins with a brief a history lesson.   

By the mid 1980’s it was clear that something had gone very wrong with the British comprehensive education system. Originally set up in the 1960’s, the idea behind it had been very noble. Up until 1965, children had been separated at the age of eleven into the one third who passed an exam and were sent to ‘grammar schools’, very high quality schools which prepared pupils for university and a life in the professions, and the rest, who were sent to ‘secondary moderns’, which essentially warehoused children until they were old enough to be sent off into low skilled jobs requiring few if any qualifications*. This system had the effect that most people’s life chances were decided at the age of eleven, and it failed to properly educate two thirds of the population. As a result the different types of school were merged, creating the new comprehensives which took pupils of all abilities from their local area.

The problem was that a very large number of the new comprehensive schools failed, becoming dire ‘sink schools’, which were effectively the same as the secondary moderns that had preceded them, only with no route of escape for bright children from modest backgrounds. Because wealthy parents could send their children to private schools, which actually became even better during this period because many of the old grammar schools went private rather than becoming comprehensives, the British state education system effectively became the teeth of the British class system. Social mobility froze up, because a high quality education was only available to the rich.

Faced with this problem, the politics of the period produced a dead end. The right favoured using state funds to pay for a small number of bright children to attend private schools, doing nothing for those left behind, while the left blocked any reform which they thought would lead to a return of a two tier system. Neither came up with an answer to the key question of how you could improve the quality of all state schools.

At this point, consider what it is that makes a good school. It is emphatically not the socio-economic background of the pupils. Rich kids can be deeply stupid (think Made in Chelsea), and if this is true then so to must be the reverse: poor kids are not necessarily thick. The good schools are the ones which insist on high standards of behaviour and achievement, and do not tolerate slippage in these areas. These standards are set and maintained by good quality leadership within the schools, which requires an excellent management team who have the power to implement their vision of a good school.

This high quality leadership was exactly what was missing in the sink comprehensives. Responsibility was split between the head teacher, the board of governors and the local education authority (LEA), which is a part of the permanent bureaucracy of the local council. These LEA’s were particularly woeful, and often members did not even bother visiting the schools they were responsible for, let alone provide decent leadership for them. They tended to be very protective of their schools and were very resistant to closing them, even if these schools were failing the pupils who had no alternative but to attend them. The split responsibilities were a recipe for passing the buck between different layers of management, and when no-one took responsibility for a school, it sank.

Gradually, beginning with Kenneth Baker’s ‘City Technology Academies’ in 1988 and followed by New Labour’s ‘Academy Schools’, a new model of state secondary school began to emerge, which tackled the problem of failing LEA schools head on. These new schools had a private sponsor, often a successful local business person, who hired a management team which they knew would be effective. They received their funding directly from central government, bypassing the LEA’s altogether. Although they had to maintain high standards and pass OFSTED inspections, the new managers were free to run the school as they saw fit, without interference from the local council.

The results have been quite frankly stunning. Not only have standards within the schools which converted to academies risen, but academy schools have raised standards across the education system as a whole, because previously coasting LEA schools have to compete with them for pupils, and so they raise their game. To see how effective academies can be, take a single example. Hackney Downs was one of the worst of the LEA sink schools, in one of the most deprived areas of the country. It was so bad that it was closed by ministerial order in 1995. The attitude of the time was that “schools cannot compensate for the problems of society” (translation: poor kids are thick).  In 2004 it was re-opened as Mossbourne Academy. In 2009, the first year that it had 6th form graduates, NINE of them gained a place at Cambridge. Who on earth could argue with results like this? Sadly, lots of people found a way.

The academy program generated a huge amount of resistance, both from the LEA bureaucracies themselves, and from the wider left, notably from within the Labour Party, who mistakenly thought it was introducing a two tier education system. I want to stress mistakenly here, because academy schools are bound by exactly the same selection rules as LEA schools**. It is just not true that they select their pupils. If they are good then parents will try very hard to get their children into them, but that was true of good LEA schools as well. Look at the high house prices around an LEA school with a good reputation and you will see selection in action, but it is selection by parental income rather than student ability. Academies took over the worst of the LEA schools and turned them into desirable establishments. They made the comprehensive dream of good schools available to all a reality. They should be New Labour’s proudest achievement, yet due to internal party resistance only 203 of these new schools were open by the time Labour left office in 2010.

The incoming Coalition government was not so inhibited. Education Secretary Michael Gove, knowing a good thing when he saw it, put rocket boosters under the program. There are now well over 2000 of these schools in Britain. That is over half of the total number of schools, and there are more to come. Gove is something of a hate figure on the left, so it is perhaps amusing to note that his most successful policy is simply to do what his Labour predecessors did but to do it more quickly. Those Labour predecessors were in turn building on the work which began under the Thatcher government, although they tend to keep that a bit quiet. That isn’t really the point though. Gove is simply continuing a much needed process of reform which began way back in the 1980’s. If real change is to happen, this is how long it takes. It is sometimes worth taking a step back from Westminster politics to think about that.   

 *The old selective system is maintained in a small number of counties, including Kent.

**UPDATE 14/02/2013: Please see comment one.


  1. Hey! I never normally comment on your stuff (or on blogs in general- this is a first!) but I have some personal observations which *might* be interesting.

    I agree completely with your comments, but as someone who is a product of the grammar school system (I grew up in Kent) and who worked in one of the first flagship Academies I wanted to add a couple of personal observations. Firstly, I would add that on a very personal/ individual level the Grammar School system does lead occasionally (and I stress this occasionally) to social mobility. I 'passed' when I was 11 and am the first person in my family to have gone to a red brick university, and the first one to go on to post graduate studies. I was also the first 'professional' in my family. However, this is not an endorsement of the grammar school system; it is a terrible system that labels children as pass/ fail, or winners or losers at 11 years old. Your comments regarding the two tier system really hit home- I only have to look at the experience that the rest of my family had to see the difference that attending the local sink school can have on aspirations, perception of the value of education etc. However, as a lefty who experienced the benefits of the system, I sometimes get caught in a quandary. Yes, it is awful and fundamentally flawed, but would I be who I am today without it?

    My second observation is on the academy system itself. In principle, yes it is a fantastic system and I was really lucky to see firsthand the impact that investment, emphasis on good behaviour, and working in a true comprehensive has on the general student population. I worked in an outstanding school and the results were amazing, especially if you read the Blair propaganda that 'despite' the socio-economic background of our students, the catchment area, the kids actually did good! Which is another point of yours that I agree with strongly- the children were actually just smart, and certainly smarter than the age old paradigm poor=thick would suggest.

    However, there is still some selection that goes on. I left the Academy in 2008 so I can't comment on recent changes, however, there was a test that kids had to sit in order to enter. The papers were marked and placed into 9 bands of ability that made up the bell curve. The school then took proportionally from each band according to the bell curve (i.e. most from the middle), but did take the top from each band of ability. Up until 2008 they also looked at primary school records to take those with the best behaviour record. I believe that looking at behaviour records is no longer allowed, but still it does question just how truly un-selective a school is when you are required to take a test at 11 in order to enter. Although the words pass/ fail are no longer used, to a certain extent the effect on the child is the same- those who aren't lucky still end up at the local LEA/ sink school.

    Moreover, and this is a very general point, there is something that sits a little uneasy with me about having a local business man appoint a board that can interfere in certain aspects of a school, such as the curriculum. The hoo-ha that occurred in 2012 regarding the teaching of creationism in academies is one such example of this.

    However, and in case anyone has read this far, and wants to comment further, I want to emphasise that I am not saying that the Academy system is bad/ wrong. I think that Chris has got the right balance of Grammar school= fails majority of people, and Academies= best of a ultimately flawed system. With the emphasis in the Government and society on grades, and how much a school can 'add value' to students, there is certainly not going to be a system that doesn't put a ridiculous pressure on kids (and teachers) to attain within quite narrowly defined boundaries. In short, it is impossible to find a system that works for every student, and that benefits each student to the same degree. Maybe China has the answer!

    1. I just want to say a huge thank you for this comment, it's most informative (particularly about the selection-I did not know that).

      I perhaps should have added something to this post, namely that although I was an inmate of an LEA school that was put into special measures by OFSTED because it was so awful, I did later work in a city technology academy which converted to academy status while I was there. The slightly evangelical tone of this piece is perhaps the result of seeing the difference between my school and the one I worked in.