Keven Bartle is the Headteacher of Canons High School in Edgware, NW London, which is a Teaching School as part of the Canons Park Alliance. He is a lifelong Labour supporter from one of the few remaining bastions of Labour support, the North East. He tweets as @kevbartle, blogs here and does so in very much a personal capacity.
Five years ago, the school of which I am now Headteacher, became an academy along with six other local secondary schools in what was not quite the first wave of Michael Gove’s converter academies. At the time I was a Deputy Head at the school and – as I remain now – very much of the left. Both my role and my politics led me to fight a determined and concerted fight for remaining a maintained school during a number of challenging, hard-fought SLT and Governor meetings. But convert we did, in spite of this rearguard action.
Of all the arguments lined up on the ‘academise’ side of the debate, the one that most bothered me then was that this wasn’t a choice between the status quo and a new status. It bothered me because it seemed, at the time, to be a ‘having your cake and eating it’ argument that insisted that because change was inevitable in some form or another we should accept the DfE imposed change. Having moved through middle to senior leadership under the New Labour years of plenty, a plenty that was usually channeled to schools through the local authorities, it was hard to give credence to the view that things would get so much worse even in the face of swingeing cuts to LA funding. More to the point, the unknown unknowns of being an academy under the direct control of the Secretary of State generally – and Gove in particular – did not inspire confidence. Thus, when the local unions came to talk with staff about the possible impact on terms and conditions, in spite of TUPE, I was there and fully supportive. When SLT meetings were convened I was abrasive. When governing body meetings were called to decide upon our fate I was persuasive, although clearly not conclusively so.
And now, as I consider my thoughts, words and actions with the de-fogged benefit of hindsight, I can see that I was completely and utterly wrong!!!!
As an academy our school has benefitted hugely in terms of finances, has played an improved role in supporting other schools (and has in turn been better supported by them), has maintained national benchmarks for pay and conditions (why on earth would we have done otherwise?), has taken control of its site strategy and maintenance, has engaged with the LA in clear-eyed and clear-headed relationship of mutual benefit and has gone from strength to strength as a result of all of the above and more.
Of course, it didn’t have to be that way. We could have tried to follow a different path and use our new-found freedoms to do all sorts of pernicious things: rip apart terms and conditions for our own staff; disengage from local relationships; remove local and representative groups from our governing body and suchlike. But we didn’t because, when push came to shove, academisation did not change who we are and why we do this job. It may have strengthened our school but it didn’t do so at the expense of our school community, like some zero-sum game. Instead, as we have strengthened, so has our school community of staff, students, families, feeder schools, TSA partners and local employers.
In light of this, and sensing that the DfE would enforce academisation at some point this parliament, we have even gone so far as to establish a Multi-Academy Trust (although we remain at presence the only members of that trust). Quite a turnaround for the non-believer from just half a decade ago. Perhaps it’s a case of power corrupting? Perhaps it’s a case of empire-building? Perhaps it’s a case of pragmatic capitulation of once-cherished values? I think it’s none of these, but then I’m biased when it comes to judging my own actions.
What I do know is that, in spite of this mea culpa, I fundamentally disagree with Nicky Morgan that academisation is a panacea that needs to be enforced by diktat. It is far from that. At its best it is bloody rewarding hard work at a scale and of a type that not every school leader wants or needs. At its worst it is bloody unrewarding hard work at a scale and of a type that not every school leader wants or needs. But even if it were the aforementioned panacea, why not let successful converters do the job of persuading the reluctant would-be converters anyway? That way we might get the school-led system the government has rightly prioritised and wrongly White Papered.
The truth is that in spite of all the benefits our school has experienced since academisation, there is still no coherent middle tier that was needed to complete the job and this is where the energies of government should be going. The answer does not lie in MATs because of the perverse incentives and potential conflicts of interest that creates. The answer does not lie with RSCs because of the lack of democratic and local accountability built into their currently conceptualised role. But nor does the answer lie in local authorities because their infrastructure for educational improvement has been swept away and because the limited and sometimes dubious outcomes of investment from the New Labour era proved that they themselves were not a panacea.
I don’t know if there is a panacea to be found, but I do know that this government, or its Labour successor, need to grapple with the issue of a coherent middle tier in a more coherent way if they are to even get close to finding one. The responses to academisation by our two dominant political parties – either wholeheartedly for or wholeheartedly against – miss this point, and do little to unify the staff of schools who, academy or maintained, simply want to improve the lot of the students and communities we serve.