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Phil Davis: Academies are Gove’s Maoist leap in the dark – and why I quit as a governor

Phil Davis: Academies are Gove’s Maoist leap in the dark – and why I quit as a governor

🕔15.Oct 2012

With many Birmingham schools now forced to become academies, what’s the likely impact of the shift away from local council support?

Over the last 30 years school governors have endured a revolution of almost Maoist proportions under both Labour and Tory governments. Back then the local education authority (LEA) pretty much called the shots in all local schools, with central government setting the framework. Arguably there was too little input from governors, including parents, but at least education provision was a genuine partnership between local councils and central government – with the emphasis on the local. Later sensible changes were made devolving more power to governing bodies, but the LEA remained. It provided (and provides) key back-up for teachers and governing bodies, taking on board issues ranging from child protection to teacher skills and substantial employment liabilities.

Like so many things Mrs Thatcher – no friend of local government – bust up this consensus. Along came City Technology Colleges. Despite some private cash in the mix, these took large lumps of grant from the local LEA and cut a swathe through local education planning. It was the beginning of a process that continues to this day. New Labour didn’t trust local government either and full of managerialist zeal, felt it must impose its own version of academies from Whitehall.

No-one wants to defend LEAs that let down local kids, of course, but Whitehall wasn’t too bothered about imposing its plans on high-performing councils either. This certainly happened to Shropshire LEA in the 1980s, where the Conservative Government imposed one of the first CTCs, Thomas Telford School. This ignored all the good work of the LEA, Tory dominated since the year dot. Whatever the party politics, old Salop was generally felt to have done a reasonable job with state education since the 1944 Butler Act laid its modern foundation.

In 2012 that chipping away of the LEA-Government partnership is now a demolition job. In Birmingham (admittedly not with such a good record) various ‘underperforming’ schools are being forced into academy status, with the Government effectively taking control of many primaries for the first time. The Government says this is not centralisation but ‘localism’. For governors and local communities this claim rings hollow.

Billesley Primary School in the south of the city is a case in point. In ‘special measures’ some two years ago, more recently the school has been improving steadily under a new head and governing body. Regardless of this progress, out of the Govian blue the school was told in March that it had to become an academy – control was shifting to an unknown sponsor. On pain of the sack governors were forced to opt for academy status and the major disruption this entails.

The anonymous Elliot Foundation is to be given control of the school, with a budget of some £2 million a year. The public assets at the Trittiford Road site – built up by local taxes since 1925 – will be passed over on a long lease. The governors, who have presided over the school’s improvement since 2010, have to re-apply for their posts, with the Elliot Foundation deciding who goes and who stays. The wider public interest will no longer be represented through Council nominees to the board.

Who are the new school bosses? If you look up company records for the Elliot Foundation you won’t get far. The company is too new to have filed any accounts. Only formed in 2012, it has no track record in either financial management or educational quality. It’s a completely new kid on the schools’ block. Its leaders are mostly former education bosses or inspectors – though there is also a banker lurking in the background – but there’s absolutely no track record to judge what kind of a job they will do for kids in an area like Billesley. None of them are local. What exactly will they bring to the party in an area with social and economic problems which are inevitably reflected in the local primary school?

The jury is out not just on the Elliot Foundation but on the whole policy of forcing schools into academy status by government diktat. Would any well-run company or public body give a multi-million pound contract to a totally untried organisation in anything but extreme circumstances? Apparently this golden rule doesn’t apply to central government.

More importantly for our city’s children, as the government breaks up the LEAs what happens to the city-wide support services? What happens to the vulnerable kids who need adults and their agencies to get their act together across the city to try and stop another Climbie or Kara tragedy? God knows we haven’t been good at this in the past in Brum. The imposition of academies can’t make things better. Multiple new school bureaucracies answerable to Whitehall adds more layers to monitoring who needs help, how to share information and how to intervene to protect kids at risk. It all adds a bit more confusion to the dog’s breakfast that is modern schools provision.

Let’s hope no Birmingham child out there is the next innocent victim of Mr Gove’s Coalition Maoism. It is simply too high a price to pay for any political experiment.

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Councillor Philip Davis (Billesley Ward) has just resigned in protest from the governing board at Billesley Primary School. He is a former Leader of the Telford & Wrekin council and was a Shropshire LEA school governor.

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