I prepared this post before the announcement of the government’s –U- turn on forced academisation. We still need to see the small print of any Bill to know how far the government has really made concessions. As a result, I thought it worth posting my thoughts.
Now that the Police & Crime Commissioner elections are over it can be back to normal again for this blog. The big debate over the past few weeks has been about forced academisation. Much of the debate so far has failed to address in depth any of the three main points behand the argument about changing the structure of schools: the place of democracy in education; how important is geography in the organisation of our schools and does the primary sector need a middle-tier to ensure the survival of small schools?
None of these issues are new. Indeed, the last one has been around ever since the 1988 Education Reform Act revealed the depth of the Thatcher government’s mistrust of local authorities. However, the first one is the most important. Do we want our public services increasingly managed from Whitehall with no local democratic involvement? As I have pointed out before that is what has become the lot of our National Health Service. There is a case for education to go the same way; a national funding formula backed by a National Curriculum and testing regime and a uniform arrangement of school types that does away with anomalies such as randomly scattered selective schools or 14-18 UTCs and Studio Schools could create such a system. But, allowing free schools to spring up anywhere without fitting into this pattern suggests either a degree of anarchic thinking or a lack of understanding about the delivery of effective and efficient public services. The same arguments can be made for random collections of schools being formed into academy chains. How important is the need to have community involvement in schooling and if it is important is this aim weakened by chains with no link to the community where they operate a school?
I think everyone that wants to retain small primary schools, whether in rural areas or urban settings, recognises that they need support and help that larger schools could provide for themselves. This raises the issue of how such support should be arranged and paid for? If we knew the outcome of the government’s thinking on the National Funding Formula then this issue might be easier to resolve. A formula weighted towards pupil-based funding that did away with a lump sum for each school would probably spell the death of small schools and make the argument unnecessary. However, if the pressure on a Conservative government is to design a formula that allows small schools to survive, then it has to address the question of their organisation and support. Many years ago, pyramids were suggested with clusters of primary schools linked to their local secondary school or their nearest secondary school of the same faith in the case of church schools and those of the other faiths. This would argue that geography is important but harks back the part 3 Authorities of the 1944 Education Act that operated within the larger counties. Do we wish to go back to the pre-Taylor Committee Report of 1976 position with one governing body for all schools in an area? Does such a system produce rotten boroughs or community cohesion? My guess is that it depends upon how the system is regulated by the next tier upwards?
Any system is also only as good as the people operating it. The government needs to take a long hard look at the size of the leadership cadre, both professional and political and ask what the cost of increasing the size of the pool will be. I have watched leadership salaries increase in response to the economics of supply and demand and to ignore this basic principle of economics and to create say 500 new multi-academy trusts without working out how they could be funded doesn’t strike me as good government. To return to the Police & Crime Commissioner elections for a minute, it would be poor government that were to impose cuts on police forces to fund the academisation of all our schools.