“Our vision is for a highly educated society in which opportunity is more equal for children and young people no matter what their background or family circumstances”.
So proclaims the vision statement in the foyer of the Department for Education – and who could disagree with that? The sad fact is, however, that over the years, social mobility has hardly shifted.
The previous Government established academies to address the issue of low performance and poor pupil aspiration, particularly in the most deprived communities. These schools were given extra resources, extra responsibilities and extra freedoms. The Coalition has accelerated that programme, dramatically increasing the number of academies and, in so doing, profoundly changing the educational landscape.
We now see a radical change in the English education system: more than half of secondary schools and a growing number of primary schools have become academies, free schools, university technical colleges, studio schools and, of course, local authority schools. In May 2010, there were 203 academies. By November 2012 this figure has grown exponentially to 2,456 academies. The scale and speed of change has been rapid, raising a number of questions and issues.
First, you can have all the different types of schools in the world, with all the best resources, but in the end, it is the quality of the school leadership and the quality of the teachers and their teaching that make the difference. A child cannot repeat a year if they have had a poor teacher: the pupil or student is the one who suffers. That is why I was so pleased to read that the Academies Commission report, published in January this year, highlighted this point. Referring specifically to academies, it stated that there needs to be, ‘a forensic focus on teaching and its impact on pupils’ learning so that the gap between the vision for academies and practice in the classrooms is reduced and the words ‘academisation’ and ‘improvement’ become inextricably and demonstrably linked’.
The English education system has undergone continual change in the post-war period, with each incoming Government and Secretary of State wanting to leave their mark. If we have learned anything about that 30-year change, it is that improvement is likely to be accelerated and sustained if there is broad ownership at local and classroom level. We need to consider carefully the management of schools: with freedom comes responsibility. The Secretary of State cannot and should not micromanage academies from the centre. In a successful academy system, we will see schools supporting and learning from each other. They will operate as a community of schools, each independent, but working best if connected to the rest of the system.
Academies are not the panacea for raising performance and pupils’ life chances. The Academies Commission report said that the evidence considered did not suggest that improvement across all academies has been strong enough to transform the life chances of children from the poorest families. There have been some stunning successes among individual sponsored academies and academy chains that have raised expectations of what can be achieved in the most deprived communities.
However, it has to be about more: it has to be about the highest quality of teaching, with teachers who are well trained, highly motivated and – dare I say it – well rewarded. It has to be about inspections carried out in a fair and rigorous manner by qualified inspectors with classroom experience. It has to be about self-improvement: schools working together to develop their understanding and expertise and supporting each other. And it has to be about all schools having equality of resources and equality of freedoms. This Government is committed to ensuring academies fit these tasks. Only then will academies fulfill the aims upon which they were originally founded.
Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.