Why I don’t believe in Academies anymore!

26 July 2010

When I sent my son to a private school, I used to think the whole concept of academies was a good idea. Back then, I felt that “freeing” schools from state control would yield fantastic results because it would mean schools would be “free” to do what they wanted, to admit more pupils if they wanted, to set the curriculum they wanted, to pay teachers what they wanted. I was basically a supporter of private companies running education. I wrote about the issue and researched in a great deal of depth. The trouble was the more I examined the issue, the more I realised that while freeing schools from state control might make some rather wonderful, overall the education for ALL children would be considerably worse: studies of charter schools in Sweden and the US have consistently shown this. But the truth was that back then I was a “closet” elitist: I secretly believed that we should be educating an elite to be better than the rest. That’s why I sent my son to a private school. But seeing my son in this elitist system made me re-think things: it was becoming increasingly clear that even at seven he was being branded as a child who wasn’t one of the elite. Not bottom of the pile, but definitely not one of the chosen few who were going to do great things: he was put at the age of seven in bottom sets for English and Maths. I realised that he would not pass the exams for all the top public schools unless I really started paying for private tuition for him at that moment. This realisation made me see that an education system which has the notion of “winners” and “losers” at its heart is inherently unfair because it brands children, our beautiful children, as either triumphant arrogant winners or sad losers. I saw that elitism is actually anti-educational, that it doesn’t believe in learning for its own sake but only in the prizes accrued when you “win”: the top grades, the top university place, the top “job”. Seeing how destructive this was to my son’s confidence — feeling that he wasn’t good enough despite the fact that he was doing very well — made me pull him out of his private school and put him in the local state primary. The school believed in “inclusion” and he flourished as a result, not being stigmatised for being “stupid” or “clever”. The school believed in learning for its own sake, not for the prizes that it can accrue. It is a local authority school, which aims to raise the standards of ALL children not just a few. It has refused to become an Academy because it doesn’t want to take valuable resources away from neighbouring LA schools: it realises in the need to share things out equally. In other words, it believes in “inclusion” in the widest sense of the word. It doesn’t want a world of educational winners and losers. The trouble with the Coalition’s education policies at the moment is that it is covertly elitist in the way I used to be: while paying lip service to equality and helping the poorest, it doesn’t want to do anything of the sort. It wants to create even more of a system of winners and losers.

I was speaking on BBC Breakfast today about this with Patricia Sowter, who is the headteacher of a primary school, Cuckoo Hall Primary School in Enfield. She had been asked by the government to defend their policies because she has applied for her school to be turned into an Academy. She wants the extra resources that will come, she believes, with Academy status. Personally, I’m not that sure she’ll get them, but she was convinced. Furthermore, she was resentful of the extra resources the primary school near to her gets: Houndsfield Primary School in particular. Clearly, one result of her school becoming an Academy is that it will be able to expand and “poach” children from the Houndsfield catchment, forcing that school to become starved of resources and possibly close. She was cross about Houndsfield getting a better funding agreement than her school but close examination of the stats such that Houndsfield takes more children from disadvantaged backgrounds and more Special Needs students than her, and that’s why it gets better funded. However, those disadvantaged children are clearly going to lose out in the new system. Sowter said to me after the show: “I’m sick of a system which rewards failure.” But the thing is that I’m not sure it does at the moment: Sowter’s school is doing very well under the current system, achieving top grades with Ofsted. Sowter’s desire for Academy status is a textbook case of what’s wrong with the whole system: it creates a world of winners and losers. That’s why time and time again big surveys of these systems show that they don’t improve children’s education, but overall make them worse.

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