I'm supporting my local secondary's bid for Academy status so that it can become a genuine comprehensive

Francis Gilbert's picture
The recent news that Michael Gove is compelling two hundred “failing” primary schools into becoming academies didn’t surprise me much. It feels that this is the way that everything is going; there’s no political appetite either in the Lib-Dems or the Labour Party to oppose him.

Currently, having listened at length to both sides of a very acrimonious argument, I have decided to support the bid of my local secondary school, Bethnal Green Technology College (BGTC), to go for Academy status, where my son will go in September. The bottom line is that it’s the school’s only chance for survival.

BGTC is a great school – it was my number one choice for my child -- but it still suffers from a poor reputation with the community because of problems it encountered some years ago under a different management.

BGTC was formerly Daneford Boys School and its sister school Haggerston (Girls) School fell over the border in Hackney: a significant number of students are from Hackney. Schools re-organisation in the early Noughties – school closures in Hackney and various changes in Tower Hamlets – meant that the school took on hundreds of new students “mid-phase”. Quite frankly, the school just couldn’t cope. A former headteacher had to send the pupils home in 2007 for their own safety. Riots were common and teachers didn’t feel safe. Things are completely different now; it’s a very well ordered place. But that reputation lingers on amongst the community.

Furthermore, BGTC is isolated almost on the border with Hackney and the City. It suits Tower Hamlets (LBTH) and the other maintained schools in LBTH to have a “dumping ground”. It’s a lot cheaper to dump the most challenging kids at BGTC than send them to a PRU or manage a permanent exclusion properly.  A cynic might say BGTC is a school for black kids from Hackney and Bengali boys that can’t get in anywhere else – so why should the white middle class professionals that run education care? Indeed, I’ve spoken to a number of more prosperous parents in the area that basically see the school as a “secondary modern” in all but name. One educated parent, who doesn’t send their children to the school, was dismayed that the school is going for Academy status, telling me, “It should know its place. It’s very good at educating the strugglers. It’s really getting ideas above its station wanting to be an Academy!”

As a result of all these factors, it is currently suffering from a short-fall in pupil numbers, which is causing financial problems. Becoming an Academy will not only give the school more flexibility to raise funds but will also enable BGTC to “re-brand”.

Staying with the Local Authority isn’t going to help either side I believe. If the school continues to suffer a shortfall in numbers then the LA will have to plug the hole in its finances with money it simply hasn’t got. The result will be that the school will down-size and have to shed many staff.

As an Academy which has good and improving results, the school will receive a bit more money and the chance to raise funds from elsewhere.

Union members and other headteachers in the area are very worried that it will suck funds from the other schools. I’m not sure this is true, now that the anomalies in the Academy funding formula have been sorted out.

Perhaps most importantly BGTC will continue to be an inclusive, non-selective community school. It will continue to have the same admissions’ policy, it’s got now: it will remain a non-selective, community-based, local school. Indeed, as an Academy it will be able to have a more comprehensive intake. As I’ve already said, at the moment, it is regarded in the local area as a “secondary modern”. Schools nearby – Academies in Hackney and over-subscribed schools in Tower Hamlets – take a far higher proportion of higher achieving pupils, leaving BGTC to take the “lower ability” students, which it disproportionately does. It does remarkably well with them but it does need a wider mix of pupils if it is to become genuinely comprehensive.

Being its own admissions authority will mean that it can do that – whether it’s by organising a fair banding system or by appealing to a wider variety of parents – which is, like it or not, something that academy status brings.

There are concerns that this is “privatisation” by the back-door. However, the governors have made it clear that there be will be no sponsor for BGTC and there will be no “privatisation” of its services. No private company will run it, just the existing headteacher and the governing body. Six out of fifteen Tower Hamlets secondary schools are Voluntary Aided or Voluntary Controlled, or “trust” and therefore own their own property and employ their own staff. Furthermore, trade unions, charities, faith groups regularly set up companies limited by guarantee to hold property. The governing body want to in-house services such as Information Technology – and fought a battle against the LA privatising these services as part of BSF. Staying as an LA school would actually mean privatising more services, which would no doubt involve downsizing and shedding staff.

There are actually advantages for everyone if BGTC becomes an Academy. Firstly, the greater independence will help it improve because it will be able to involve universities, charities and other organisations in assisting it help children learn to the best of their abilities. Secondly, it will be able to more readily share its expertise and facilities around the whole borough because it will be freer to do so. The school received £13.5m in Building Schools for the Future funding recently; possibly as an Academy it will be able to open its doors longer so that the whole community can benefit from its great facilities.

Thirdly, other schools can see what Academy status looks like when it’s adopted by a principled, caring, sharing school. It may be that all schools will be forced to become academies soon – this seems quite likely -- and it’s surely going to be advantageous in the borough if there’s a school that knows what’s involved.

I do have real problems with the Academies programme as a whole because, as has been discussed extensively on the site, it means that schools can much more easily “abuse” the admissions’ system (and either overtly or covertly cherry-pick pupils) and, in many cases, it’s leading to the privatisation of our schools. There are also major issues about “accountability” and “transparency” – which is something I believe the government is going to have to address in the coming years if the programme is going to be sustainable over the long-term. Indeed, I think many of the points that the Anti-Academies Alliance make are very valid – indeed I spoke at their conference about free schools this month – but I don’t think BGTC is guilty of the kinds of abuses that many Academies get up to. It’s got 50% of its pupils on Free School Meals and certainly has no intention of becoming an “elitist” institution, segregating itself off from the local community.

If the school doesn’t go for Academy status it will shrink and die – and that’s not good for anyone, least of all the children being educated there.



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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 16:21

The newspaper article shows just how divisive the academy programme can be. Schools fear that some schools have, or will have, more funding at the expense of other schools. Headteachers who should be co-operating to enhance the education of all children, not just those in their own schools, argue with each other. Academies that converting from "outstanding" schools resent the fact that lower-achieving schools are allowed to join the club.

Also, governing bodies change. There is no guarantee that a future academy governing body won't decide a different admission policy or decide to buy in services from an academy chain. And there will be nothing that the locals can do about it.

And when all schools are academies, what then? Will there be a superior brand of elite academies, while the rest are considered "bog-standard"?

Toby Young's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 16:30

I'm delighted that you're coming round to Academies, Francis. Does this mean we can expect a softening in your attitude towards free schools, too? As you know, there's no meaningful difference between an Academy and a free school and many of the reasons you give for supporting BGTC's conversion to Academy status – the benefits of independence, for instance – also apply to free schools. What's your attitude to the free school in Newham that Peter Hyman is setting up, for instance? His vision doesn't sound all that different from your vision for the BGTC.

I don't say this entirely in a spirit of provocation. I've always thought that a more nuanced critique of Academies and free schools would be more productive than the blanket opposition offered by the NUT and the Anti-Academies Alliance. What you've begun to do in this post is set out the conditions which an Academy has to satisfy in order to win your support, something Andy Burnham has begun to do with free schools, too. I don't think Burnham has got it quite right, but nevertheless I welcome his recognition that some free schools are capable of being genuinely comprehensive.

Why don't you and your colleagues start working on a "Fairness Charter", setting out the conditions you think Academies and free schools should satisfy if they're to be genuine comprehensives and command the support of their communities? Better that, surely, than trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted? I don't doubt that such a charter would be taken seriously by education reformers, particularly free school proposer groups.

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 06:15

"As you know, there’s no meaningful difference between an Academy and a free school"

There is huge difference behind the premise of academy conversions where maintained schools become academies for additional funding and more flexibility in their selection intake (for survival like BGTC), and free schools which are conceived with taxpayers money because parents/others don't want to support the existing state schools that are available to them.

Henry Stewart's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 17:24

Toby, I think you have posed an interesting question here.

Here in Hackney we now have probably the majority of state secondary education delivered by academies (simply because that has been the only way to get new schools for the last 10 years), but it is under local authority co-ordination. I see the success of Mossbourne as a triumph of the comprehensive ideal - it takes a true mix of intakes, has the highest expectations and tremendous achievement.

Hackney has gone from a national joke for its education provision to arguably the best set of schools in the UK. Is this down to academies? No, it first topped the tables for value added before the first academy got its results. But it has succeeded in integrating the academies into its high quality range of provision.

My thoughts on what would be needed:

* Genuinely comprehensive in their intake and provision designed to meet the needs of the whole community
* Admissions organised centrally by the local authority, rather than by individual schools.
* Schools accountable to the local authority for their quality, and the local authority in turn accountable to the DfE
* Bound to the same staff pay and conditions as community schools

I don't like the structure of academies and free schools (who decides the three trustees that are, in law, responsible for the school?) but the key is that they fit within local need.

My biggest worry is of 25,000 separate schools, some run by chains and some individual, all deciding their own admissions and only accoutnable to the Minister.

A good local education authority, like we have in Hackney, can work wonders. It ensures admissions are generally fair, it knows the shcool and the communities and intervenes to deal with under-performance.

The pt about provision designed to meet the needs of the whole community is an important one. The questions about WLFS focus only on the academic isn't just pt scoring. While I do believe the school wants to help find those with academic potential that are often ignored, I'm not sure its understand that some children's strengths are simply in other areas.

The pt on staff conditions is because I do think teachers on the whole do an incredible job and deserve their conditions. And there is a fear that one reason for the focus on academies is to undermine that.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 19:20

Wonderfully put Henry!

I would also add that as all schools in Hackney, including the Academies, are part of the Local Authority "family", there is no dog-eat-dog, fight for survival mentality which Academization would engender in areas where accountability is split and central government, by dint of being able to enforce schools to close and re-open, has the brutal upper hand and community schools would suffer, leading to great distress for teachers, governors, children, parents and the loca community.

Ian Taylor's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 19:42

Good post Henry.
Unfortunately the Labour Party seem unwilling or unable to provide the leadership of arguments such as these you make. I fear it is now too late.
The system you suggest depends on all schools agreeing to these principles. Mr Gove has already split schools so that they are racing to gain advantage for themselves. Beyond a certain point the remaining schools have to race to join in the scramble before they are left behind in the public perception of Good School v Bad School.
Therefore it is inevitable that schools will be forced into pragmatic decisions rather than ones of principle.
Mr Gove is a smart politician. He has managed to get the big snowball moving in his direction. He can even claim that everyone agrees with him because of all the rapid moves to Academy status. Even if Mr Gove had doubts he is not going to spell them out. I don’t think the snowball is stoppable.
We are selling the educational forests but this time no-one has mobilised the opposition in time.

Sarah's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 18:03

There is absolutely nothing that becoming an Academy can do which the school cannot already achieve by remaining accountable to the local community through the local authority. There is no guarantee it will be able to become more inclusive - it appears no change in admissions policy is proposed - that will depend on parental preference.

Getting charities and other organisations involved can be done as a maintained school - so can sharing its expertise with other schools - many good schools already do these things.

To be honest I think you are being a hypocrite - condemning the programme as a whole then supporting conversion for a single school out of self interest. I think you have undermined many of the good arguments you have made in relation to Academies.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 20:27

Francis should be applauded for choosing to send his son to a local school which is currently facing challenging circumstances. It is very sad that more local parents are ignoring what is obviously a good school in which their children could get an excellent education.
I think it is regrettable that the school feels it has to choose this path and agree with Sarah that most of the changes the head teacher claims are necessary could easily take place without having to opt for academy status. Moreover there is now the added uncertainty about future academy funding, which could disadvantage some converter schools and leave them without the support of the LA and vulnerable to some of the more predatory academy chains.
I am also puzzled as to why the head feels this will help to make the school more comprehensive if the governors don't plan to change the admissions criteria.
However the underlying message here is that we are asking schools to operate in a highly competitive dog eat dog situation and many feel they have no alternative but to use the tools of the market to succeed, even though they won't necessarily a guarantee that the school will actually be a better environment for the pupils than the one it replaced.
I understand that in a press conference today Michael Gove said that free schools ( and presumably that means academies) should feel no shame in poaching pupils from existing schools .Is this the sort of school system we want for our children? I don't think so.
Henry is absolutely right, schools should be allowed autonomy but within a clearly defined and regulated local framework where admissions, place planning, exclusions, funding and the provision for pupils for SEN are fairly and locally managed on behalf of all young people.
Several years ago, Melissa and I got into a discussion on this issue with a VERY WELL KNOWN academy head (no prizes for guessing) at the end of which he conceded: "In the end they will have to reinvent local authorities".
You read it here first...

W Smith's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 20:33

Very disappointed Francis - if you, as a founding member of this network, attempt to justify academies because of short term self interest, then how can you argue against other parents self interest. Every head in every proposed academy is probably using exactly the same arguments.
I wonder if you will feel the same in five or six years time when academy regulations, a new head and governing body may rule in your child's school and who knows who will be teaching them or what they will be taught!
And "if you're alright Jack" why would you care about all of the other children who do not get a place in an academy over the next few years? May be you would argue now that It is their own fault for not having parents informed enough to "choose" their education for them.
Can you really attempt to justify your own academy and still claim to follow the principles of this network? I would be really interested in your reply because from where I am sitting I am having difficulty understanding.

Steve Sarsfield's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 20:54

Francis I was rather surprised by your post but I also understand the personal dilemma that you face. I respect your decision and admire your honesty.
Even so, I feel Academies are flawed and I wish to give you a personal account of why I think LEA’s are important and why the NC is so crucial in giving our children an ‘entitlement’ to learn.
Back in Easter 2005 I made a difficult decision. I decided to take up a HOD post in a failing Catholic state school in Croydon that had a new Head teacher. He was incredibly positive and he was determined make a difference to the pupils and for some unknown reason I fancied a challenge. No sooner had I accepted that he told me that an OFSTED inspection was imminent.
The DT department was the focus of much criticism with poor results and even worse facilities. The accommodation (especially the Food area) was condemned and management had to address this in their 5 point improvement plan. This however was the best news I could have hoped for as the LEA had a duty to provide and maintain DT as it was a statutory subject at KS3. Whilst I had to settle for a 3 year rolling programme of refurbishments I could plan and redesign a facility that was ‘fit for purpose’ and was above all modern and inspirational to our children. The results have steadily risen and better still the take up at KS4 is really strong. The subject is attractive to girls and they are applying for degree courses in Product Design.

This would NEVER have happened if the school had been an academy.
My problem with Academies is that it is a short term gain, usually for relatively small financial reasons. There is NO local accountability.
I also feel that the NC is vital in ensuring that our children get a broad and rich curriculum. And that this is their ‘entitlement’.
If we go for the quick buck we will regret it in the long term and the future of our pupils will suffer.

Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 21:42

Agree with Fiona that Francis deserves credit for supporting his local comprehensive school while others in the catchment area are copping out and looking elsewhere.

I don't pretend to know enough about academy status to know whether he has made the right call - time will tell, but he obviously acted by conscience and not idealogy.

And I think the tag of hypocrisy is rather unfair. From what I've read, Francis has taken a nuanced rather than an uneqivocal approach to academies, ie by pointing out some positive features about the KSA a while back.

Toby Young's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 22:50

Thank you for taking my suggestion seriously, Henry. I think the conditions you set out are too onerous, but perhaps a good starting point for further discussion.

Reading these posts, I think the difference between our two sides comes down to this: We think competition is good, you think it's bad. You believe that if schools are granted the freedom to act in a more self-interested manner, ignoring the impact of their behaviour on their neighbours, the overall quality of provision will decline and, in particular, the least well-off will suffer. (To quote John Prescott: "If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that everyone wants to go there.") We believe that the least well-off are ill-served by the present system and that the best way to drive up standards is to allow schools to compete more freely with each other. To us, you seem a bit like defenders of an Eastern European planned economy who simply cannot grasp that allowing non-state-owned businesses to compete with each other will benefit everybody, even though the individual businesses will be acting in their own self-interest rather than the interest of the collective. The conditions you've set out, Henry, seem designed to limit precisely the kind of "selfish" behaviour that we believe will benefit all.

Both sides in this debate are quick to cite evidence that they believe supports their position, but there are two problems with this approach. The first is that both sides can cite equally compelling evidence to support their viewpoint and undermine their opponents'; the second is that all the evidence is contested. In the end, the citing of evidence becomes little more than a rhetorical device. Fundamentally, the disagreement is ideological.

I can hear Janet Downs shrieking, "What evidence is there to support your contention that increased competition drives up standards?" I would point to the widespread choice within the Finnish system, the recent study carried out by the LSE's Centre for the Economics of Education that concluded that "performance improvements in an Academy ... generate significant beneficial external effects on their neighbouring schools", and the improvements you say have taken place in Hackney, Henry, since the majority of secondary schools in the borough became Academies. But no doubt Janet would contest all this.

I agree with Fiona that Academies, free schools, foundation schools, voluntary aided schools, trust schools and community schools (I've left out a few squares in the patchwork quilt, no doubt) should all have to compete on a level playing field, but I don't think the only way to guarantee that is to entrust the management of admissions and so on to the local authority. The state is perfectly capable of regulating admissions through legally enforceable Codes of Practice and wotnot without playing a managerial role.

I know that accountability is a big issue for your side, but we think the best way to ensure schools are accountable is to give parents more choice. That way, if they don't like a particular school they can vote with their feet. Your notion that maintained schools are accountable via the local authorities that fund them is laughable. Fewer than 50% of people turn out to vote in local elections and it's a safe bet that less than 1% of them actually know the name of the lead member for Children's Services in their borough. The only people with the skills to hold the lead member to account if a school is failing their children are members of the local political class and, with a few exceptions, they don't send their children to the local community schools. Even Christine Blower sent her daughter to a high-performing, out-of-bourgh school. Fiona and Melissa are honourable exceptions and while I'm sure they're both very capable of working the levers of local democracy, 99.5% of the population aren't.

As Ian Taylor concedes, your side has lost the political battle. He credits Michael Gove's "shock and awe" strategy, but it was lost long before that with New Labour's steady erosion of the powers of LEAs. The reduction in the control of local authorities over taxpayer-funded secondary education has certainly accelerated in this Parliament, but the direction of travel has been clear for over a decade.

I think we're witnessing the emergence of a new settlement, something a future Labour government is unlikely to tinker with, which brings me back to my earlier point. Rather than quixotically fight a battle that you've lost, you'd be much better off spending your energy on trying to ameliorate the negative aspects of this system-wide structural change. You should focus on regulation and a good starting point would be a voluntary code of practice that you urge all Academies and free schools to sign up to. But it has to be one that acknowledges the changes that have taken place and will continue to take place, Henry, not one that tries to restore the role of the LEAs via the back door. Like it or not, competition is here to stay.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 01:35

I’m not sure who the “we” and “you” are but leaving out political party affiliations, let’s assume that those critical of reforms are against competition and those in favour think competition will increase standards.

I believe both sides would agree that positive competition is good, when there is some collaborational or shared endeavour being pursued. Where there is going to be problems is when the system dictates that competition is no longer healthy, but a fight for survival as the weakest are punished, abandoned or consumed by the greed or lust for dominance of the strongest. This doesn’t benefit communities, especially the more diverse ones, and could contribute to civil and social fractions within communities that stretch way beyond the walls of a school. This is where the calming and nurturing effects of a local educational body would ensure healthy, constructive competition. Without it, there is a very real danger of unfettered grabbing and self-advancement at any cost, even some very unethical ones. Even here, Toby, you speak of battles being lost. Not just "political" ones, but community ones where only the more aware can deal with their LEA. This is not true - the LEA is there to step in.

I agree it is tempting for both sides to cite statistics and polls to prop up arguments and provide evidence but there are some absolutes. One is that maintained schools exist and have provided education and have the capacity to adapt and improve. Not all maintained schools have failed. Many have improved. Many become outstanding then perhaps drop back a little. Mossbourne is a success but there is a failing Academy in the North-East.

What magic formula do Academies have to make the big difference? They are facing exactly the same challenges – sourcing good teachers, governance, inspirational headteachers, ever-changing local demographics, social and family problems – that face maintained schools. Academies and Free Schools don’t have the monopoly on aiming to provide quality education – maintained schools have the same aims but all types of schools will face individual challenges in chasing their dream.

Of course, evidence for the performance of Free Schools is non-existent as they are yet to open but there are models from Scandinavia and America. The Finnish model is not relevant here as Finland has a different education system altogether and, crucially, has little poverty. The introduction of profit-making companies into Swedish Free Schools has led to the government having to review the policy as, in too many cases, the pursuit of profit has actually degenerated education provision and resulted in poorer grades.

What Free School supporters here never reveal is the downside of the American model of Charter Schools, which have been an enormous inspiration for Gove, and the closest example we have of what could go seriously wrong here in the UK. America has a free-market, government sponsored and promoted programme promising to raise standards across the board but especially devised to improve educational standards and thus life chances for the most disadvantaged. And across the board.

And here is where competition went wrong. Schools competed for state and federal funds (Obama’s Race to the Top); private companies competed for contracts to run schools (hiring and firing of staff, acquisition and leaseholds of buildings, implementation of curriculum) at the behest of parent groups or charities who had the energy but lacked the experience of setting up, running and developing a school; states like New York closed schools that were “failing” according to a prescribed bar and forced to open as Chain-run Charters; Charters, once set up, were staffed by stressed teachers who saw that tests were being devised not for measuring student progress, but to reward or penalise their ability and ignoring the ability of the students they taught. This drive for competition and survival has led to schools excluding underachieving students from sitting tests and, under Michelle Rhee in Washington DC, apparently wholesale cheating and false marking of exams. This is not teaching. This is hitting targets and driving up statistics.

Gross financial miscalculation and planning on the part of the coalition means that there is a lot less money to develop Academies and Free Schools as we were led to believe. Gove is not ideologically opposed to free market influences in schools. so this is another American inevitability to land on our shores. Some Charter Chains are no doubt fine but there are too many that have ripped off schools to such an extent that whole states like Florida and Ohio and individual schools are taking legal action against edu providers for not only worsening results but for controlling so much of the schools assets that they fear a permanent and unhealthy relationship with the Chain.

It is the claim that competition will create choice for the most disadvantaged that the American model provides evidence that Charters, taken as a whole, have failed. Not only have they failed to substantially increase results across the board in any meaningful way compared to non Charter schools, but they have also failed to break the cycle of poverty/low attainment in poor rural areas and amongst the disadvantaged black and Hispanic communities in states such as Mississippi or even Florida.

The American model has shown, therefore, that the effects of poverty on education is a problem so severe that it can only be solved if poverty and the resulting low expectations of life is eradicated. Gove yesterday brought up American Charters, as he praised the reforms of Joel Klein in his speech at the Policy Exchange. Formerly in charge of Education for New York City, Klein abruptly left to join Murdoch’s News International as CEO of the Educational Division. Gove did not reveal that Klein has been heavily criticised for artificially driving up results, closing schools against their will and using results not to appraise students but to penalise and punish teachers.

In any case, New York is a wealthy state, with relatively small pockets of poverty overshadowed by immense privilege so it would have been a hell of a lot more persuasive if Gove had spoken of success in largely poor areas and using that as an real tried and tested example of how Free Schools can improve the life chances of the disadvantaged here. By focusing on New York, he evaded the uncomfortable truth that Charters haven’t helped the poor much at all.

There is no widespread deprivation to break in New York State and New York City so the modest success there of, for example, Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is in no way indicative of the massive failure elsewhere. So Charters have not broken deprivation in poor areas so it is unlikely Free Schools and Academies will do the same here.

Why? Because of investment. Or lack thereof. HCZ’s funds of $200m does not just provide cash for teaching but it also takes care of medical issues, social problems and family problems. Is Gove doing this? No. Neither are the other government departments. HCZ is buzzing with philanthropists, celebs and Wall Street bankers keen to publicise their philanthropic image by attaching themselves to a sexy success story. But are they giving their cash to anonymous schools in rural America where both poverty and the Obama administration are failing the poor? No, they are not. This is truly segregation by selection.

The conclusion therefore is that the American model shows how Free Schools can fail and how they can still fail the disadvantaged as maintained schools are being accused of by you and the government of doing. Being in denial about this is to conceal the truth that Free Schools will only benefit a minority and the landscape will shift, as it has in America, where funds are selectively doled out to high achieving Charters, most of which are located in rich areas; that education by Charters in poor areas has not improved, thereby suggesting that the programme has not reformed American education but thrown up more problems and that Charters, like Free Schools, don’t have the magic bullet to solve the desperate cycle of poverty and low educational achievement.

Worse, the obssession with results and data in America has led to a culture of fear, cheating, covert selection and exclusion. And that’s just the schools that have “succeeded”. Easier to trumpet about a handful of successes and punishing schools and teachers than addressing and talking about how to tackle the real problem, which is the cycle of poverty, despair, hopelessness and low school attainment. Unless that is tackled, no school system or reform is likely to work, so better to cut out talk of “increasing competition”, invest what little money there is to improving and nurturing the schools that we already have - and tackling poverty.

We may be moving into a new settlement, but what is the "post-war" plan for sustaining and developing a post-Revolution system? Neither the Education Secretary nor you have told us what the strategy is and how it is guaranteed to deliver. Without that, we won't have solved the problem but will be in serious danger of stagnation, division and importing from the US the same legacy of failure for too many kids and communities.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 07:33

Toby - it's illuminating that you use the word "shrieking" to describe my call for evidence-backed policies.

In defending your position you cite the "widespread choice within the Finnish system". As you know, there is little choice of schools in Finland. I have cited evidence from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) many times which confirms this. I do not think that providing evidence from a respected organisation is "little more than a rhetorical device" (unless the latter claim is a means to discredit well-researched and analysed data which inconveniently challenges a particular point of view).

Secondly, you cite the recent LSE report about academies. You will know that the researchers said more time was needed to assess fully the "academy effect". Channel 4 FactCheck blog agreed the report was a solid piece of research but after looking at other reports into academies it concluded that "the jury's still out on academies".


You say that the state is perfectly capable of regulating admissions. It's unclear how the Department for Education will cope with complaints about academies since they do not appear to have set up a section to deal with these. Perhaps they think parents will not complain - Thetford parents would disagree. In any case, if parents do not know how to complain then they will be unable to do so.

Concerns about academy status are beginning to grow. A conservative councillor in Rutland has voiced worries about academies being responsible for their own admissions and what effect it might have on Rutland secondary school pupils. Further information is here:


I'm also concerned when people talk about "your side" and "battle". Such language is inappropriate in the context of the education of all the country's children.

I'm also puzzled by your statement that "members of the local political class" don't send their children to local schools. I know that Londoners tend to think there is no country beyond the capital, but in the badlands outside the city I think you'll find that the majority of the "local political class" do send their children to local schools.

However, I do agree that there should be a code of practice, although this would have to be mandatory.

Steve Sarsfield's picture
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 10:40

Toby - here are a few points I would like you to note.

We think competition is good, you think it’s bad

We already have competition. I work in a London Borough that has at least five secondary academies. However, I feel that your fellow policy exchange guru’s treat education and schools all too often like they are commodities. A child is not simply a vessel that knowledge can be poured into. A child needs to develop values and an independent mind so that they can apply themselves into the real world.
We believe that the least well-off are ill-served by the present system and that the best way to drive up standards is to allow schools to compete more freely with each other
Your Academy proposals for the least well-off nearly always advocate a ‘wraparound’ approach to schooling, where the school becomes the primary influence. In this model the child may as well be away at a boot camp style boarding school.

Fundamentally, the disagreement is ideological.

No. I believe in pragmatism and accountability at a local level. My LEA had to provide a facility that met the NC. Your plans are to remove all of these obligations.
Schools should all have to compete on a level playing field, but I don’t think the only way to guarantee that is to entrust the management of admissions and so on to the local authority. The state is perfectly capable of regulating admissions through legally enforceable Codes of Practice and wotnot without playing a managerial role.
The new code of practice takes powers away from parents. The rewritten admissions code talks of schools choosing deprived pupils, not the other way round. Selective schools like WLFS will have a green light to expand.

I also find yours views on local elections and democracy a tad simplistic and patronising. I hope you treat the prospective parents of WLFS with a little more respect that you imply here!

Your final point...

I think we’re witnessing the emergence of a new settlement, something a future Labour government is unlikely to tinker with.

That’s wishful thinking. Given there is absolutely no mandate for these radical reforms.
I agree with Melissa – this battle is NOT lost and we will judge Academies and Free Schools in five years time. There will be plenty of issues arising I also predict

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 10:41

Toby raises an important point: how far should ideology trump evidence? If evidence, even from a respected source such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development can be dismissed as "contested", then how is it possible to come to a conclusion which is not based on preconceived ideologies? The answer is, of course, to decide which evidence carries the most weight. Data from the OECD which has been painstakingly gathered, analysed, and summarised is more reliable than that produced by a think-tank. And the latter carries more weight than a remark in a newspaper however popular that might be with the paper's readers.

But if ideology does trump evidence, then that begs the question: whose ideology? Neo-con? Marxist? Fascist? Neo-lib? Libertarian? Capitalist? Nationalist? Socialist? Stalinist? Govist? (I made the last one up)

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 20/06/2011 - 23:25

I really admire Francis’ honesty and to make his decision public, because he will know that by doing so he will be inviting accusations that he has compromised his principles. I don’t think he has because he has also taken on board that the school will still maintain it’s essential principles and the aims of the local comprehensive school, which is what it is. Reading his piece, it is pretty clear that the Head and Chair of Governors have made the decision to become an Academy but they will not be changing its ethos. Given that Academization is being enforced by whatever means, it looks as if Francis has had to embrace it and is lucky that the conversion may bring advantages to the school members, remain inclusive and continue to play a part in the local community.

I think it is wrong for people to try and politicise his decision or seek to score a cheap point for the Academy/Free School debate because this is clearly a situation that was enforced, a situation that Francis did not want to find himself in but, on balance, has accepted because to remain with the school would be to continue to support it and help it re-brand.

A lot of parents, teachers, governors, children are now being faced with seeing their school being disrupted in this way, with fears and concerns about what challenges and other disruptions await them so we should still be debating and questioning the motives behind education reform, how fairly school funds are being divided up, campaigning for transparency and accountability of schools which are only answerable directly to central government and that fair access is open to all children.

Francis is an educator, writes about and campaigns for education and understands the minutiae of the debate yet even he has had to absorb the consequences when the reforms come knocking at his own children’s door. He is fortunate that he has the knowledge and the luck to be able to stay put, rationalise the situation and see that, luckily, there will be benefits and no loss of ethos.

I suspect that the vast majority of people out there – informed or otherwise – remain, at best, confused about the changes and the consequences and, at worse, duped. They may well find that the changes affecting them and the complex decisions they have to make, are much more difficult ideologically, practically or even as a result of force, so it is essential that contributors to sites likes this one, and others out there, - including those hosted by newspapers – continue to provide debate, information, help and the exchange of information not readily given by the government or pro-Reform supporters.

Melissa Benn's picture
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 08:16

Francis presents a situation of reluctant pragmatism with typical chutzpah. I am sorry his school has been forced into this position. It’s a situation that many heads, teachers, parents and governors are facing up and down the country. My old school was given three days to 'consult' on whether to become an academy or not - a total democratic disgrace. No wonder, as Allan Beavis has pointed out, most parents and most communities are not in a position to fully grasp what is going on, nor what the long term implications are.

None of us can do that. Or not yet.

Toby Young uses the problems of BGTC to vindicate his own position. In the process, I feel he merely illuminates his own contradictions. He loves to present his opponents as choice denying, heavy handed Eastern European style statists. It's entertaining and works well on late night TV programmes but doesn't really have any political substance. It is becoming clear that the Coalition are the heavy handed statists, using their power and tax payers money to promote - and subsidise - free markets. ‘It’s like tanks rolling over your lawn..’ as one trade union leader said of dealing with this current administration.

As things stands, our own local school - an inner city comprehensive that has put in the slog over many many years, raising standards, providing a strong focus for a typically mixed urban community - now faces a demoralising array of cuts, while free marketeers like Toby rake in millions of public money. Surely some mistake?

Which brings me to my second point. The battle is not won. In fact, it has hardly begun. No free school has yet opened. The ink has hardly dried on the new funding agreements between Whitehall and the new academies. Let’s wait five years, at least, to judge the free schools, and two or three years before assessing how the new academies perform, particularly when government sweeteners have run out. And once the public understand exactly what the new academy chains represent and the power they have been granted over our childrens’ education, without any consultation and yes - accountability - I predict widespread parental anger.

Finally, this government is far too controlling. It is illogical to promote and entrench a system that gives freedoms - in terms of the school day or the curriculum or admissions - to one group of schools but not to others.

I’m with Henry on this. Get the broad framework right, with every school taking its fair share and spread of pupils: ensure genuinely fair funding: provide a light touch curriculum that ensures parents that their child will access a common core of knowledge and skills wherever they go to school. Train teachers to the highest standards. And then give all schools a far greater operational freedom.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 09:24

Agree with all that Melissa except the gov't sweeteners running out for acadamies/free schools.

I suspect maintained schools won't ever be competing on a level playing field against academies or free schools for gov't finance even after 2015 should there be a change of gov't. By then I think the programme of reform will be too far gone to turn the clock back with academy chains and free school sponsors in the vanguard of the education establishment pressing to run schools on a profit basis with all the mayhem that would bring to our childrens education.

Melissa Benn's picture
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 09:45

One more point:

Taking the long view of the school wars - as my forthcoming book on education just happens to be called! - the conversion of almost everyone on the right/Coalition to the cause of comprehensive education is surely a sign that we have won the most important battle of all..............

True, they may not criticise selection wherever they find it. True, some of them may secretly believe selection should be restored. But very few will openly advocate it.

Personally, I believe that Toby Y - and many like him - genuinely believe in comprehensive education. The argument is now, largely, about means, not ends.

It took a few decades - but we got there.. people!

Take heart and courage from that fact.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 10:27

Meliissa - when does your book appear?

Melissa Benn's picture
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 10:34

Early in September.

The full title is: 'School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education.'

Verso are publishing.

I will put something about it - and associated events - very soon.

Thanks for the interest Allan.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 15:31

Thanks for all these comments. They are all very eloquent! There is a very high level of debate here and, having read the comments many times already, I do feel I need to re-read all the comments a few times again to absorb the complexity of the debate being raised here.

On the specific situation that BGTC faces, Fiona hits the nail on the head, when she says: "It is very sad that more local parents are ignoring what is obviously a good school in which their children could get an excellent education."

For me on the big picture, Melissa really gets to the heart of the whole issue when she says:

"Get the broad framework right, with every school taking its fair share and spread of pupils: ensure genuinely fair funding: provide a light touch curriculum that ensures parents that their child will access a common core of knowledge and skills wherever they go to school. Train teachers to the highest standards. And then give all schools a far greater operational freedom."

Perhaps we can all find some kind of common ground. Given our "differences", I find Toby's comments interesting and will think about them further. Perhaps there is a "new politics" emerging?!(!) It's certain interesting when people as diverse in their views as myself, Allan, Melissa and Toby are finding some kind of common ground.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 16:02

I'd suggest that the biggest problem in Henry's argument (and I apologize if I am putting words into your mouth) is the assumption that LAs are going to carry on as if it was 2009. I simply don't see where the capacity is going to come from for LAs to be responsible for quality - and certainly not supporting those schools where the quality is lacking.

They simply won't have the resources particularly when the argument is put,as it certainly will be in two or three years, that we don't even need LAs with so many schools having become academies.

The view you paint of a future 'academized' Hackney is a genuinely compelling one but I wonder about huge rural authorities, like North Yorkshire or Northumberland where, in the future absence of a strong LA ,the reality of cooperation between schools serving very different communities, many miles apart is likely to be tenuous at best.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 08:40

About a week ago the Anti-Academies Alliance uploaded this:


While Francis's frequent journeys down the road to Damascus are well documented, this one must set a new record.

O. Spencer's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 08:43

''Free schools which are conceived with taxpayer's money because parents/others don't want to support the existing state schools that are available to them.''

I take Nigel Ford that your view is that parents should support the local state school no matter how bad the results, no matter how poor the discipline, no matter how un-academically focused the curriculum is.

Parents are taxpayers - and those who work 40 hour weeks to pay tax deserve a good choice of schools to send their children to. If that is not met by the state - why on earth shouldn't those parents establish the schools in their areas that they WANT?

By wider implication, your argument is that poor schools should be allowed to go on unabated by 'rival' Academies or Free Schools because any attempt to encourage parents to send their children to a 'better' school is somehow a heinous offence perpetrated by those aspirational middle-classes who want the best for their children (often because they themselves experienced a terrible education).

60% of free school applications have come from local community groups - to address a shortage of places and poor results from existing schools.

To try and accuse these parents, who have been failed by the state -of some kind of malice in 'not wanting' to send their children to the bog-standard comprehensive is missing the point entirely, to put it mildly.

Fiona says below that free schools/academies will not feel shame by 'poaching' pupils. Schools do not 'poach' pupils - parents decide to enrol their students at the best school they can. Again, that is not a crime against society.

The rhetoric from many of the posters here at LSN is that Academies and Free Schools are somehow going to select the well-to-do children of the aspirational middle classes and leave the 'dregs' to the remaining bog-standard comprehensives. None of the these claims have been substantiated.

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 12:48

Well I suppose I'm one of those "aspirational middle classes" to whom you refer, having been educated at public school (and university).

The best way I can address your points is to say that back in 1995 my eldest child started his senior schooling at the local, undersubscribed, comprehensive school. It had a 5 or more GCSE pass rate (at grade C or above) of just 22% which didn't include English/ Maths - only half the national average score. Coupled with a bad OFSTED report plastered all over the front page of the local press, the only kids from my children's feeder primary school who's parents endorsed the comp were those with older siblings already there. The remainder were destined for other non-neighbourhood comprehensive schools further afield.

By the time my eldest left after GCSEs to take his A'levels at 6th form college, the school was beginning to turn itself around and for the last few years demand for pupil places has far exceeded supply.

As parents, my wife and I, have never regretted the choice we made and more importantly neither have our kids who all believe they fulfilled their potential. I'd like to think that part of the reason for the reverse of the school's decline was because the school started to get a more balanced intake of pupils and one or two of us set the ball rolling. I never believed the hype that the quality of teaching was bad.

Without wanting to sound sanctimonious, I think my position was more principled than trying to set up a free school in competition with the existing state provision.

O. Spencer's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 13:25

Hello Nigel,

Thanks for the reply. It was good of you to share the story of your own education and the reasons behind you and your wife's decision to send your children to that particular school.

Forgive me if this is cheeky, but if you were educated at public school and attended university, I hardly see what it is you are still 'aspiring' to.. My point was that many 'working-class' parents long for the opportunity for their children to attend university as that opportunity was not afforded to them, as was the case with my parents.

Your children clearly did well at school and you feel your decision to 'balance' the intake benefited the school in the longer-term as it set the ball rolling. I have no doubt that your children were encouraged to learn by yourself and your wife as parents and were probably brought up in an environment of books, museums and other cultural activities.

For children who are not as fortunate as yours, they simply can't look forward to being encouraged to become 'bookish' at home or feel able to fully develop their academic potential. These are the children currently neglected in the current state provision. No hope of rigorous academic focus in classes of 30+ with an emphasis on softer, non-traditional subjects and parents who do not really see the benefit in academic education. Seeing as so few schools entered students for qualifications leading to the EBacc, it seems as though the schools, the LAs etc. are saying 'These local comps are for people who aren't cut out for proper, rigorous studies, so let's teach them the softer stuff to make our grades look good.' Again, parents like yourselves will know of these nuances and probably guide your children accordingly - many parents don't have this luxury.

I appreciate the angle that you are coming from: instead of setting up 'rival' schools - parents should trust their local schools and send their children there.

However, while not necessarily sounding sanctimonious, your comment that 'parents don't want to support the existing state schools' mistakes the motives of many parents.

I'm afraid it comes down to the question of choice: given the choice between an academically rigorous school and a bog-standard comprehensive, you yourself believe the interests of the child are best served in the latter, many parents will opt for the former.

In the end, is there actually a problem with giving parents this choice?

I disagree that the free schools arise out of a need to 'compete' with state provision. It is precisely because existing schools have failed to deliver academic excellence to poor, working-class children that these schools have been set up in the first place!

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 14:41

O - You raise some good points with which I agree on the whole.

Nearly all parents irrespective of their class want their children to fulfill their academic potential and working/middle class parents (rightly or wrongly) believe that goal is more likely to be achieved if the child can attend a school which has a sound record or the potential of delivering good exam results. If your child is being educated in the state sector and the local schools meet the criteria, so much the better.

I think my problem with free schools is the motives behind them. There is a blogger who is unhappy with his local comprehensive school and with some colleagues is starting a free school with a view to introducing a more formal curriculum from which he was hoping to attract the offspring of "aspiring middle-class parents." He is now most unhappy that in his subsequent dealings with the DfE and county council, the kids who have been selected at the top of the list of his notional school are statemented children, those in care homes, those with special needs, with siblings after that.

I do accept that the former Labour advisor (who's name I forget) and Katherine Birbalsingh want to start free schools for altruistic motives and if there is a demographic demand for such schools they shouldn't be criticised. I think the problem is whether there are adequate safeguards in respect of their accountability and suitability of school building and teaching staff as they don't have to meet such strict standards as maintained schools within the LA.

O. Spencer's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 18:07

Hello Nigel,

When you describe 'a blogger' is this Toby Young you're referring to? The best exposition I can find of his ambitions for the WLFS are in a post here (http://www.westlondonfreeschool.co.uk/blog/west-london-free-school-signs...) where he says that;
''The next step will be to deliver a classical liberal education that’s every bit as good as that provided by Britain’s best independent schools but which is accessible to all, regardless of income, ability or faith.''

- This seems pretty clear. There's no covert favourtism toward 'our people' as Mrs Thatcher used to describe them.

Toby Young has admitted that under current plans, the percentage of children on free school meals at the WLFS will be slightly below the average for the borough, but in line with the national average. He makes clear here (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tobyyoung/100089781/michael-goves-prop... - paragraph 6) that the new Admissions Code will allow the school to set aside a proportion of places for those on free school meals, thus addressing the imbalance.

I'm struggling to comprehend your view that the 'motives' behind free schools are suspect. You accept that, for example, Katharine Birbalsingh has altruistic reasons for setting up a free school.

From reading Katharine Birbalsingh's speech to the Conservative Party Conference, the issues she has with state education chime perfectly well with Toby Young's. A culture of low expectations, 'dumbing down' of exams, 'all must have prizes' etc.

It is clear the Michaela Community School is the logical next step to those fears, which are shared by many. The values of the MCS are to me almost identical to the WLFS. Am I missing any glaring differences?

Of course you are right to have concerns about accountability, so am I. At present, a parent has little real alternative when faced with having children at a failing school other than to pull them out and send them elsewhere.

I'm not sure LAs have such 'strict standards' if so many schools can side-step teaching rigorous, academic qualifications. Note the rise of 'Applied' subjects in place of traditional GCSEs - much easier to pass - to boost the exam figures. There is also a drive to divert 'borderline' students away from subjects like History or Geography to softer subjects.

Parents of these children have no way of holding the school to account over the decision to enter their children for second-rate exams that will hold them back in the future. A member of my own family tried this when her daughter was told that she couldn't study media studies because the school had decided it was better to teach film studies. It must be pretty bad if a soft subject is replaced by an even softer one!

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 20:11

O. Spencer -

One of the great failings of American Charter schools is to address solving the huge and complex problem of educating the poor working class, especially in states with high deprivation and amongst the black and Hispanic communities.

Broadly speaking, they have done little to improve standards and in some cases, standards have actually deteriorated and schools and states have taken to litigation, suing the companies running charter schools. It would be a mistake, therefore, to assume that a new system, promoted here will, as you say, deliver academic excellence to poor, working-class children". Charters tend to deliver better results in more affluent areas and there have been accusations and evidence that in some of these schools, less able children have been excluded so as not to sit tests and drag down results or, as in Washington DC, wholesale cheating and adjusting of results. Sadly, this is just one example where lack of accountability has allowed the system to become corrupt. The Poverty/low attainment cycle is complex and the poverty issue has to be tackled even before costly educational "reforms". It is easier to glorify a handful of successful charters in wealthier states like New York or Connecticut than to find and implement policies to stem the cycle of poverty and the other social and health problems this also generates.

I am anticipating that you will call for "evidence" to back up my assertions. Therefore I ask you respectfully to use the great resources of LSN and read up on Charters. Failing that, google Diane Ravitch, look on her website and find the facts there and beyond. Stanford University's much respected study on charter schools is available from their website.

O. Spencer's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 21:00

Hello again Allan,

Thanks for your suggestions for reading on charter schools. I will investigate.

I agree wholeheartedly that the challenge, or problem if you like, of educating poor working class children is the major issue of our time, here and around the world.

While I am in favour of local groups of parents coming together to set up schools because of need - either other schools are poor or out of sheer demand for places, I am most uneasy about importing the American private provider model. As I said elsewhere, the vast majority of free school applications have come from local groups of parents.

I take the point that research shows Charters deliver the best results in more affluent areas. However, most of the proposed free schools will not be in affluent areas.

In the case of the Bristol Free School, the admissions policy is heavily slanted towards those with particular social needs. (http://www.bristolfreeschool.org.uk/admissionscriteria.php)

Looking at Mossbourne Academy, 41% pupils eligible for free school meals, 30% on special needs register, 80% from ethnic minorities - these are clearly the criteria for 'poor working class' and yet it has achieved some truly fantastic results.

I take your point about accountability. I probed in my previous post if it was really much better here.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 22:36

I believe the numbers of pupils on free school meals at Mossbourne have been dropping since it first opened. Last time I looked they were about 36%, certainly not particularly high by London standards.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 08:16

Can I just point out that these Bristol Admissions Criteria are no more 'heavily' slanted towards SEN or particular social needs than any other schools. All schools are legally obliged to give places to students with statements, if the school is named on the statement, although there have been a number of legal challenges to academies who have tried to dodge this and the redress for parents in those cases is complicated as it has to go via the Secretary of State rather than the LA. I expect we will see more examples of this as the numbers of free schools and academies expand.
Children in public care also MUST get priority and all schools accept particular social and medical needs.

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 21:21

O - It wasn't Toby Young I was referring to but a sponsor of a free "comprehensive" school in Cambs.

O. Spencer's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 21:24

Thanks for the clarification Nigel, I'll chase that up.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 22:39

O. Spencer

You are right to be uneasy about Gove's importing of the American Charter model into the British system but that is what he has done and that is what is still promoting, even days ago when he spoke at the Policies Exchange. Once you're read up on the controversies surrounding Charter Schools, I suggest to write to Mr. Gove and articulate your concerns to him

O. Spencer's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 06:40

Good morning Allan,

I appreciate the unease we both share about some of the shortcomings of the Charter system in America, but as is clear from here (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tobyyoung/100093060/can-private-firms-...) - none of the proposed free schools nor any of the Academies established since Michael Gove became Secretary of State have been run by private companies.

The regulatory framework here seems very tight indeed, to the extent that the WLFS received legal advice that getting private firms in was a 'perilous' route.

I welcome Francis Gilbert's approach of maintaining concern about some areas of the free schools and Academies policy but supporting schools on a case-by-case basis where it is clear that the school is the right thing for the area. So far, I don't know of many Free Schools that are being 'imposed' upon communities where no need or want for them exists.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 08:57

O. Spencer

Young may have his view on this but along with other people I have posted on here fairly regularly about dangers of for-profit making companies being allowed to run schools, unfettered even by charity status. Here is a comment I posted, along with an article published in the Guardian http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2011/06/google-ads-for-academy-bus... a few days ago. When Michael Gove repeatedly states that he has no "ideological objection" to free markets in state school, it is wise to treat Young's - and the ASI Report by James Croft, on the same subject - "reassurances" with a pinch of salt. I think the coalition and its cronies are denying this is on the agenda so as to get their project up and running, close down as many schools as they can, centralise authority as much as they can, then let the gates open to the free market, "reluctantly" of course but under great advice from people like ASI or the Americans.

You say that the regulatory framework "seems" very tight but so much government initiatives and consultations "seem" to be a lot of things. This is the problem, where there is a deliberate lack of clarity. The government has performed so many U-turns - not just in education - that is is increasingly difficult to either believe they have a clear strategy or if they are competent. Or even evil. Russell T. Davies on Radio 4 today said that the coalition's bumbling, shambolic performances were a clever device to hide the they fact that they are as savage and evil and "lethal as a laser". I think the man who had the intelligence and vision to re-create Dr. Who has a point. So I say - what appears very tight today might open up as a floodgate tomorrow.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 07:21

0 Spencer - in reply to your 9pm post, 22/06. You mention the Bristol Free School in your post and say its admission policy is heavily skewed towards pupils with social and medical needs. These are indeed included (after SEN, children in care, and siblings) but the school has not said what these are. It said it would make this clear in its prospectus but the on-line version doesn't contain the definition. To say that the policy is "heavily" slanted towards these pupils is a little disingenuous.

As far as disadvantaged pupils are concerned, the Bristol Free School includes two areas of deprivation in its catchment area. But not all of these wards are in the catchment area - only those parts which border the "inner" catchment area which comprises three affluent boroughs. And the two areas of deprivation are included in what the school describes as the "outer" area which will receive an allocation of 20% of places. The inner area will receive 80% allocation.

You also say that most of most of the proposed free schools are not in affluent areas. Channel Four FactCheck blog has this to say about the free schools policy to date: "Publicly, ministers insist they’re not disappointed by the number [of free schools]. Nevertheless privately, some in Government admit they are a little embarrassed that independent schools and parents in better-off areas are in the vanguard."


Melissa Benn's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 07:47

Janet - I find that last comment of yours v interesting; about C4 inside info about what government ministers say in private. Funnily enough, it chimes perfectly with a scene in Little Platoons, the excellent play put on by the Bush Theatre about free schools recently, in which a civil servant was shown trying to help a group of disillusioned middle class parents set up a school present themselves as more inclusive than they were in order to justify public funds.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 08:08

I wish I had seen the play! I wonder if the civil servant was based on a former Conservative political adviser turned impartial civil servant?

O. Spencer's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 08:07

Good morning Janet,

I agree with you that it would be helpful if BFS makes available its definition of 'significant medical and social needs.'

I don't accept that it is 'disingenuous' to state that the founders of the BFS are trying to increase the proportion of children who may be classed as 'disadvantaged'.

You are right to suggest that the weighting of the school admissions code reflects its desire to be a 'local' school. However, the admissions policy makes clear that in addition to the most proximate areas, two extra areas are included in order to create a 'more socially "balanced" intake.' That seems like a good indication that parents in the better-off areas are not monopolising the BFS for 'their own'.

Indeed, the priority given to children with SEN and children looked after by local authorities suggests that in fact, the school is deliberately seeking out those children who might be considered 'disadvantaged'. I appreciate that the major measure of 'disadvantage' is the % on free school meals, but we can take 'disadvantaged' to mean much broader social, economic and medical difficulties.

As far as I can make out, the admissions policy operates in a specific order: Points 1-4 (dealing with SEN, local authority and social/medical needs) come before the geographical application of places based on the inner and outer zones. The priority for the inner area comes after the 1-4 criteria. Parents living in the deprived 'outer areas' can perhaps use point 3. to claim to claim admission on significant social needs - but of course I'll await how the BFS define this before making a definite comment. If they did, this would 'trump' parents in the inner, more affluent areas.

If the founders of the BFS truly wanted to make the school exclusive, and for the children of parents in affluent areas, how do you account for the criteria 1-4 above?

Thanks for the link to FactCheck. They state that 'nine [out of 24] rank in the top 50 per cent better-off areas in England.' That means the majority are not in the better-off areas of England.

Further, there are clear problems with sourcing facilities for Free Schools in inner-city areas. Secondly, we accept that the rise of Free Schools also has to do with a shortage of places, not just parental demand for an academically-rigorous curriculum. Now, a shortage of places might occur in an affluent or a non-affluent area. But if there is a shortage, then surely it is right that a new school opens to fill that shortage?

I'm not sure I can comment on what ministers may or may not say in private, but the data so far shows that it is a minority of new Free Schools that will open in 'affluent' areas, and part of the reason for this is the shortage of places.

Therefore, my comment that most of the proposed Free Schools are not in affluent areas is not contradicted by what you've put forward.

O. Spencer's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 08:47

Good morning Fiona,

Thanks for the clarification. Sorry if it seemed my post was trying to suggest that the admissions policies of Free Schools were somehow superior to those of other comprehensive schools, or that Free Schools were doing anything different in terms of admissions.

As it is, you've made my point for me. the BFS and others like it adhere to the same procuedures re: children with local authorities and statemented children.

I was trying to establish that such new schools do not operate covert selection nor are they 'for' the children of the middle classes. I've yet to hear convincing arguments that this is the case.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 09:22

As I mentioned in my last point, the real problem is ensuring they comply with their obligations on admissions. Parents can't turn to the LA if the free school or academy is not doing things by the book, there is a much more convoluted process and ultimately only the Secretary of State can resolve the situation because these schools are not governed by the legal framework for maintained schools but by a funding agreement with the S o S.
This will become problematic, as I indicated in my post yesterday, because eventually the DFE will be centrally responsible for managing thousands of schools. It is easy to see how some may slip through the next and if parents don't complain or seek to assert their rights, schools may easily get away with non compliance.
I know of several current and past legal challenges to academy schools on this point. Often parents give up rather than fight a long costly legal battle to get their child into a school where it is ( by then) apparent that they are not wanted.
Incidentally I have had a quick look at the Bristol admissions and I looks to me as though they are attempting some sort of social engineering with their various catchment areas.
Much better if there were locally agreed admissions criteria for all schools that ensured no school could benefit at the expense of another, and also that they were all held to account in the same way.

O. Spencer's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 09:52


In what way do you mean the BFS is attempting 'social engineering' in its admissions policy. That the school is trying to establish a good balance in the intake between those living in proximity to the school site in the so-called 'affluent' areas on the one hand and those from the less-affluent areas and those with particular needs on the other? That's not to say many in the affluent areas won't have SEN or particular needs!

There's a pretty good argument that comprehensive schools themselves are an experiment in social engineering.

I'm not convinced by this idea that parents 'turn to the LA' in cases where children aren't admitted. Surely parents challenge the decision by the LAs (well, a school controlled by the LA) not to admit. This makes it seem like the LA is the parent's advocate against a school. I'd expect in most cases that the LA would stand by the decision of the school unless the school had for some reason flagrantly failed to accord to the code.

When and if free schools and Academies number in the thousands - perhaps then the time would come to set up a kind of independent adjudicator for challenges to the decisions of Academies and Free schools.

How would these locally-agreed admissions criteria operate? As has been pointed out elsewhere, the local authorities are elected on a small turnout with very few people knowing who is in charge of education in their area.

I'm not sure I see how one school can benefit at the expense of another if all have to abide by the same regulations.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 11:33

Free schools and academies don't have to abide by the same regulations as they are independent state schools so only government by their funding agreements ( contracts) with the Secretary of State.

Jane Eades's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 09:59

One aspect of the education in Hackney which is ignored is the demographic change which has taken place. It would be interesting to know if this is what has had a greater impact on educational outcomes, than the governance of the schools.

Big Jim's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 14:10

BGTC has received a large amount of funding and support from Tower Hamlets LEA to get it's results turned around. Other schools in the LEA stepped aside and allowed BGTC to go first in the BSF and jump the queue accepting that their need was greatest.

For BGTC to then turn round, stick two fingers up to the LEA and all the schools that have supported them in turning their results around is a disgrace.
Without the support and funding from the LEA their results would not be what they are know. Without the support of Tower Hamlets LEA and the other schools in the borough they would not have their shiny new building.
Rather than repay the other schools for their support they have made a decision to spit in their faces. This decision while pragmatic is selfish and could backfire spectacularly if their results do not hold up when LEA support is withdrawn.
They are hoping that a shiny new building and the word "academy" in their name will attract parents. It might even work. However I think it will take a lot more than that to change their reputation.They are on their own now and it will be interesting to see how they do.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 23/06/2011 - 15:43

The FactCheck blog chart shows that only two free schools awaiting approval are in the most deprived areas (the bottom 10%). Of the 8 approved free schools, none are in the most deprived areas (the bottom 10%). Andy Burnham gave the figure as two in Parliament recently - Mr Gove did not contradict him. As the Government said the free schools policy would encourage schools to open in deprived areas, then the policy is a failure on that criteria.

As far as the Bristol Free School is concerned, I think you'll find that all schools' admission codes list SEN (as long as the statement names the school) and children in care first (that's points 1 and 2). Then comes point 3, the children with unspecified social and medical needs (again, a professional has to name the school as the only one able to cope with the child). The number of these will be small. Point 4 covers siblings. 80% of the rest is allocated to the inner area of three affluent wards. 20% is allocated to those parts of the deprived areas that border the inner area (note - this area does not cover the whole of the deprived wards).

I think I have accounted for criteria 1-4. And siblings would be much larger number than those children in points 1-3.


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