What is it about Birmingham and academies?
The country’s largest education authority has often found itself accused of being lukewarm about the many schools in the city that have applied for academy status in a bid to cut themselves free from council control.
And although the shift towards academy status was a flagship policy of the last Labour government, and is now embraced even more enthusiastically by current Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove, Birmingham City Council has hardly appeared to be pushing the agenda with any great vigour.
Former children’s services cabinet member Les Lawrence, a Conservative, made no secret of his deep suspicion about the entire project, doubting privately whether placing schools under independent control would by itself do anything at all to improve exam results.
Former Labour Schools Minister Lord Andrew Adonis lost his temper and likened dealing with the council over the issue of academies to having teeth pulled out, so painful was the experience.
“I cannot tell you how much agitation, and how many difficult meetings it took to persuade the city council, particularly the children’s services department, to engage half seriously in the academies programme,” Lord Adonis told the Lunar Society.
Adonis’s claims were repeatedly rejected by former Tory council leader Mike Whitby, who proclaimed publicly on a number of occasions that the council was fully behind schools wishing to become academies. Les Lawrence, however, was generally not to be seen or heard when his leader ventured onto the academies agenda.
Birmingham now has a new children’s services cabinet member, the young high-flying Labour councillor Brigid Jones, who will have to face up quickly to the fact that half of the city’s schools have either switched to academy status or want to do so. Does she believe in academies, or in common with many of her Labour colleagues would she rather see Birmingham’s schools remain in the iron grip of the Local Education Authority?
Conservatives put Jones under pressure at the last full council meeting, demanding to know whether she was in favour of academy schools. She didn’t say she was, and she didn’t say she wasn’t, relying instead on the mantra that she was committed to building a relationship with academy schools.
This is clearly a difficult area for Labour. Two teaching unions are considering striking in an attempt to stop the conversion of primary schools to academies. Coun Jones said she would be meeting the unions to discuss the issue, but stopped short of declaring whether she supported or opposed industrial action.
Conservative shadow cabinet children’s spokesman James Bird was quick to accuse Coun Jones of failing to back academies. He said: “It is quite clear that Labour is split on the issue of academies. There is no room for strikes, led by the trade unions, who are determined to stop schools moving forward and away from the umbrella of bureaucratic councils.
“The question is, are Labour going to put unions before children’s education?”
Some Conservatives regard Brigid Jones’s appointment to the cabinet as a mistake which they can exploit. She has never held high public office before and has only been a councillor for just over a year. But her first performance facing questions at full council suggested that, not only is Coun Jones a savvy politician, she is as hard as nails and unlikely to suffer fools gladly.
One of the questions she faced, from Conservative councillor Deirdre Alden, bizarrely, was all about the fact that Coun Jones benefited from being educated at a very good Church of England School in Eastbourne, Sussex, where exam results improved year on year when she was there. Surely Coun Jones must have learned something from this experience that she could bring to Birmingham?
It was in some ways a quite nasty question, drawing attention to the fact that a Labour councillor had received a very good education in a place other than Birmingham. A standard of education the equivalent of which, sadly, hundreds of children in Birmingham would not and do not receive.
Oh, dear. Bright middle class people who join the Labour Party is a trend the Conservatives generally don’t like and can’t understand, particularly if the person in question attended a church school.
Brigid Jones must realise, though, that the academy issue could badly damage the city’s new Labour administration if it is not handled well. It is a subject she will need to get on top of immediately.
Naturally she will want to meet the unions, but it would be unwise to give the slightest hint that a Labour controlled city council can somehow turn back the academy tide. The unions must be made to realise that the government will eventually force Birmingham’s hand on academies come what may.
It’s a tough call for Brigid Jones. There’s little doubt that a large number of Labour councillors don’t ‘get’ the academy concept and regard it as nothing more than a Tory attempt to hand education over to the private sector. Coun Jones may even take that view herself for all I know.
But the fact remains that the task of ensuring academy transfers take place smoothly lies fairly and squarely within her cabinet portfolio. Like it or hate it, Coun Jones has to deliver.