Yesterday, as a school governor, I attended a seminar on converting schools to academy status, organised by the London Borough of Lambeth. The paradox of the education profession was clearly evident; however good they may be at teaching the nation’s young to be clear and rational, the profession’s members seem unable to promote a rational debate about the future of education.
Lambeth tried to put forward a balanced debate with four speakers broadly supportive of conversion in the right circumstances, four vehemently opposed and one complete fence-sitter. Of the supportive speakers, one, Bill Watkin of the Specialist Schools & Academies Trust (SSAT) was a model of clarity, addressed his arguments to the audience (headteachers and chairs of governors), and was easily the most impressive speaker of the day. The others included a head and deputy head who had taken their schools into academy status and somebody from the Cooperative School Society promoting a particular model of academy operation; their focus was quite narrow and presentation tended to be a bit plodding with too much PowerPoint. All four managed to be pretty dispassionate, and none was evangelical for the academy model or government policy. Each had different light to shed on the issue.
The “anti” speakers were awful; they seemed to be addressing the public or feeding the paranoia of staff, rather than trying to influence senior school management. Two stood out, though neither stayed for the panel session. One, Phil Beadle, makes regular appearances on TV and writes for the Guardian. His arguments were as chaotic as his hair, and amounted to a rant about the way the academies he had worked in were run, mixed in with tribal anti-Tory paranoia. The other was Alasdair Smith of the Anti Academies Alliance; his grey suit, purple lanyard, grey/white hair, general bonhomie and habit of laughing at other speakers,during their presentations, all put me in mind of an archetypal UKIP candidate. His arguments were no more coherent than UKIP ones either: a general rabble rouse about how damaging academies would be to the overall education system, how all academies were run like grasping businesses, that it was a lonely world out there for academies, and nothing about how senior managers should weigh up the pros and cons. The other two speakers, one a headteacher and one from the Campaign for State Education basically said the same thing, but were a little duller. The arguments were polemical rather a serious review of the evidence, scattering numerous horror stories to support their arguments. What Lambeth thought it was doing by inviting all four to speak is a bit mysterious.
A few important and interesting points did manage to emerge. There isn’t much money in converting to academy status; for that you need an outside sponsor. Since education departments are being cut back drastically (Lambeth is no exception, with the key decisions all being taken before last year’s election, not as a consequence of the Coalition’s cuts) the amount of support they can offer to LA schools is pretty minimal. Most of the things that schools might want to do (including forming relationships with their neighbouring schools and local authorities) can be done under either model, which cuts both ways. The best part of the process, one of the academy heads said, was that it forced the school to think about its vision and strategy, and how to carry it through.
But the standard of debate was pretty awful. Most speakers complained that the government wasn’t offering a clear vision, but they had little or no vision to offer themselves. The antis seem to want the outside world to go away, so that schools can bumble in their own comfortable little worlds as before. There was no horror at the awfulness of so many schools, unless they happen to academies, of course. And then there is the hate and anger. Mr Beadle quoted extensively from former Conservative education secretary Ken Baker to prove that this was all an evil Tory conspiracy to destroy public services. I am not so much horrified that he says this sort of thing, but that so many people seem to be listening. I have seen something similar on local forums about our proposed new “free” school in Wandsworth: a complete inability of the leading anti-campaigners to listen, or to weigh up arguments and evidence – even if they are at least more polite and better tempered than some on the other side of the argument.
But leaders of schools need to do the best for their children and communities schools by working with government policy as they find it. The academies decision is a delicate process of weighing up pros and cons, often with no killer argument on either side. What is coming out of the anti academy movement is no help. It is so tempting to think that if that is the best their opponents can do, academies must be a good idea. The movement is its own worst enemy.