Bullying academy brokers are bad policy in action

Michael Goves fixation with academisation overlooks the great strides made wherever staff, parents and governors act together

Tue 14 Jan 201407.30 GMTFirst published on Tue 14 Jan 201407.30 GMT

Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw visits Park View Business and Enterprise School in Alum Rock, Birmingham. But improvement is not exclusive to such academies. Photograph: Andrew Fox

It is just over three years since I helped to set up theLocal Schools Network(LSN). Originally intended as a forum to celebrate the successes of local state schools, the LSN has become much more than that. The contributions of parents, teachers and governors across the country mean it has become a place to discuss the implications of education policy, to share experiences and to meet other like-minded citizens.

Many issues have been hotly debated, but the one that has probably caused most anger and resentment is the policy of forced academisation, which gives the Department for Education power to hand over failing schools to academy sponsors, regardless of the wishes of parents.

This policy may have drifted out of the headlines recently, but it is still being pursued ruthlessly byacademy brokers. Many of these people are freelance advisers, employed by something called the Brokerage and Underperformance Department in the DfE. Paid up to 1,000 a day, often via tax-friendly personal service companies, they are engaged in what can be a lucrative business. Allegations ofbullyingand intimidatory behaviour and a lack of regard for thecivil service codeof practice are commonplace.

All in all it is a nasty, rancorous business, and for what? The original raison dtre was that only academy status could guarantee improvement. The education secretary,Michael Gove, has variously described opponents of this scheme as being enemies of promise and satisfied with failure.

But, as with so many of his grandiose claims, the hard evidence proves otherwise. One piece of research, carried out by London academicsSteve Machinand James Vernoit, into the original Labour academies, was heavily used as justification for forced academies in the early days of this government. ButMachinhimself was quick to denounce this, pointing out that the two programmes are entirely different and that the inclusion of primary schools by the coalition makes the comparisons even less reliable.

Meanwhile, my fellow LSN founder Henry Stewartsanalysesof the DfEs school data sets have shown a remarkably consistent trend. Sponsored academies do usually outperform their predecessor schools. But in both the primary and secondary sector the improvement in similar maintained schools starting from a low base and with relatively high numbers of children on free school meals is as good as in academies. And if you strip out the GCSE-equivalent qualifications used by many sponsored secondary academies, the improvement in non-academy results appears to be better. In short, you dont need to be an academy to improve.

This fact is now being borne out in some of the schools where parents and governors have focused on school improvement while vigorously resisting the DfE brokers. Several have been removed from special measures and are flourishing without the help of the DfE. In a couple of cases, inspectors even noted that time spent on discussions about academy conversion had become a significant barrier to improvement.

It is the interaction of Ofsted and the forced academies programme that has perhaps been the most destructive part of this absurd piece of dogma. School inspections are necessary and should be rigorous, fair and productive. Sadly for many heads, they are now simply feared and mistrusted, with serious implications for recruitment in the most challenging schools.

The public line is that Ofsted is not politically motivated in its actions, but the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) recently found an example of an academy broker contacting a school before the head had even received the draft copy of his inspection report. Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary, has written to Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, pointing out that this sort of behaviour is unprofessional and may undermine the independence and objectivity of the inspection service. Ofsted should be an independent voice on school quality, not an arm of the DfE, he wrote.

Ofsted should also be a genuine spur to improvement. It has never been the case that only one type of school has a monopoly on improvement. It is leadership that matters and the arduous task of turning round a failing school is more rewarding and easier if all members of the school community believe and have a stake in it. This was after all the original Big Society idea set out by the prime minister. Anything that leaves people feeling disenfranchised, bullied and dictated to from on high, as this very bad policy does, flies in the face of that.