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.