Conor Ryan was senior adviser on education to Tony Blair 2005-7 and to David Blunkett from 1994-2001. He blogs at www.conorfryan.blogspot.com. Here he defends Labour’s legacy on academies.
Academies are a Labour success story. They are raising standards, typically in urban schools with high deprivation and a history of failure. They are giving disadvantaged pupils a better education than before and sending more of them to university. And they are doing so as comprehensives, often providing some of the best community facilities in their area.
The coalition has extended the academies programme, and in doing so it has conflated two types of academy. Labour’s programme was focused on the poorest areas, on secondary and all-age schools, with sponsors from business, education charities, universities and college to help develop a strong ethos of success in areas where children had for too long been written off. There are now 335 sponsor-led academies, most of them put in motion by a Labour government.
The pace of improvement in these academies is remarkable. Each year their GCSE results – five grade Cs or above including GCSE English and Maths – have been improving at twice the national average rate of improvement. In 2011, for example, Harris’s Merton Academy improved from 49 to 75 per cent; United Learning Trust’s Lambeth Academy increased by 22 points to 58 per cent; and Ormiston’s Victory Academy in Norfolk increased from 38 to 65 per cent.
Across the country, schools where less than one in four pupils once gained the basic standard level of qualifications have doubled their results. At Mossbourne in Hackney, where the Labour council actively encourages academies, 82% of pupils on the site of what was once one of the worst schools in the country now reach the GCSE standard, and seven have been accepted at Cambridge this year.
Only those who haven’t visited academies in the toughest parts of the country – from Mossbourne to North Liverpool – and seen the hope, achievement and dynamism transforming so many young lives could condemn their existence.
So, we should not criticise the coalition for extending this sponsor-led programme – Tony Blair hoped for 400 secondary sponsored academies – or for bringing the poorest performing primary schools under its aegis. Where schools are not improving as traditional local authority schools, new leadership and a new approach is needed.
What of the criticisms? They are selective, we are told. Yet, their funding agreement requires them to be non-selective. Most have high numbers of FSM pupils, and many use banding to achieve fairer intakes than many comprehensives with middle class catchments. They will lead to privatisation, we are then told. Again, they are required to be charities by law, so this is also simply untrue. Not accountable? Have you read the academy funding agreements? They are accountable to the elected national rather than local government, though here there is an interesting debate to be had around the notion of local school commissioners.
They do have more freedoms to develop the right curriculum for their students, and over pay, school buildings and issues like the school timetable than other schools. Yet it is the freedom that comes with being an academy that is more liberating than the precise freedoms. Community schools can use existing pay agreements flexibly; few do. There is nothing legally to stop a maintained school running a longer day, though most feel bound to local authority norms. Yet both are deployed by academies to provide better teachers and more learning for pupils who need them more than most.
Of course, we can argue about the priority being given by the coalition to converting successful schools to academies. Yet, Ed Balls gave academy status to two highly successful secondaries that wanted to help improve weaker schools. Where Labour should focus its criticism here is on the extent to which converter academies are being expected to work with weaker schools – a commitment made by Michael Gove, but still taken up in too few cases.
Free schools may be new in name, but legally they are simply academies too. Many would have been set up under existing legislation – and were by Labour – but we should try to see a programme develop that is genuinely responsive to parents and disadvantaged communities, as the more interesting free schools are, rather than damning the whole idea.
There is a danger that by opposing academies and free schools, we lose sight not only of the benefits of a programme started by Labour in government, but that we fail to focus on the bigger issues of teaching, curriculum and standards, where there is a real debate to be had and where Stephen Twigg is starting to develop a promising agenda.
That failure would be game, set and match to the Tories.
Conor Ryan (@conorfryan)