Academies will not bring a new culture of independence to schools

The founding rule for academies from day one was that they would enjoy “Greater freedom and independence”.

Academies will no longer be a way of saving failing schools unlike in the Blair days, but for schools keen to show their excellence.

In addition to the “system-wide reductions in bureaucracy”, as it was put by Michael Gove, echoed by many others in the Con Lib coalition, the Academies Bill will ensure schools enjoy:

  • freedom from local authority control
  • the ability to set their own pay and conditions for staff
  • freedom from following the National Curriculum
  • greater control of their budget
  • greater opportunities for formal collaboration with other public and private organisations
  • freedom to change the length of terms and school days
  • freedom to spend the money the local authority currently spends on their behalf.

That word again: freedom.

But we’re still unsure by the word freedom, as we are with independence. Forgive my peculiar desire for word play, but is this freedom to or freedom from?

There is a difference; freedom to involves carrying out the above from the school setting itself, creating what the kids are learning, being very creative, turning a blind eye to others because this is the me revolution, and I’m demonstrating the reason why I’m running this joint. Freedom from, however, simply designates a loss, and demands the filling of that loss.

This latter example, I imagine, is the type freedom employed when we look at the new Academies.

My educated guess is that many business-minded people who know a thing or two about the education system (or, indeed more likely, know how to employ – perhaps through unpaid internships – people who know about the education system; recent graduates for example) will be rubbing their hands together devising plans on how to capitalise in on that initial feeling of abandonment school leaders and headteachers will feel on the advent of their schools being granted academy status.

Consultancy is a business model that will thrive even in times of economic hardship and budget squeezes. Cambridge Education, for example, is an educational consultancy that a local authority can outsource the running of a school to, like which can be seen – in a way that  has dubiousness written all over it – in this insightful article written by Respublica researcher Sandra Gruesco.

But something even more strategic than consultancy is emerging in the business world; that of so-called intelligent services. In brief, this is a type of service that an organisation can buy into or become a member of as a way of gathering information necessary for the success of the service they provide.

It’s not consultancy, since this will often require one to one activity with an individual offering advice and expertise. Rather, the intelligent service provides best practice examples, stores them up on a database in the form of an article, for example, and makes the database public for a fee.

Such a service was once provided by the local authority, and is currently a service offered by trade unions in addition to legal advice. But a void has been allowed for enterprise to fill that gap, creating the potential for curriculum to be varied and part of the market place; competition perhaps for Avail – who run the Consultancy for Schools programme as delivered for the Department for Education (DfE) by a unique team of education and programme management experts.

Academies themselves are not without their own network organisations. United Learning Trust is one example of an Academy Trust Network, and is largest single sponsor of academies in the UK with 17 academies currently open.

A person who I spoke to recently – an assistant head for an Academy school within the ULT network – spoke not about the dawn of a new culture for schools, reinventing the wheel and loving it, but rather the assurance of the school that information will still be available to them from the network.

This kind of attitude might explain away Gove’s recent embarrassment when it was revealed the disparity between schools that wanted to become Academies and those who simply “expressed an interest” – which you would have to do in order to receive information about what Academy status would mean for the school you work in.

Schools are naturally places that want to feel aligned to something; be that other schools through the state or within networks. This is the preferred method; academies will only gain popular appeal if other schools in the local area are doing it, because schools won’t bring on their own abandonment themselves.

The culture of freedom in creating curriculum would be far more impressive, were it not for the fact that this will not happen. What critics may have once called top-down curriculum creation from the state will simply move houses to these largely unaccountable trusts, charities, or worse, impatient consultants or idealistic entrepreneurs.

For all his talk, Gove’s moves will not create a new culture of freedom and independence. It will move the dependence elsewhere, and those places could potentially be unaccountable pits set up solely for profit creation – now given new legitimacy by the abandoning state. But hey, that’s the big society.

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