Mostly, I love educational change; you need to if you have the privilege of leading an English secondary school these days! However, the latest budget that appears to encourage rushed school academisation for all, with the usual underlying backing of Ofsted, is I think, a development to be treated seriously and cautiously. I write this as a Headteacher whose Worcestershire school became a converter academy, seduced by the essential extra £150,000 funding, in 2011. This saved redundancy and safeguarded the development of our inclusive ethos, within a framework where our disproportionately large staff costs could be accommodated. Academy freedom has allowed us to become an 11-18 school with greater numbers and improved infrastructure. My school has benefitted from academisation. However, if I am brutally honest, I am not sure that long term inter-school collaborative support has improved or that the impotence of the local authority is good for our education system. The monitoring of our school and ensuring an overview of some practices such as home education and exclusion does not now occur. The local authority provided a crucial handbrake of some headteachers and this control is needed and missed.
The next step, in our generally successful development plan, is to consider forming a Multiple Academy Trust, with potential promotion for some, to create a group of schools that will work together with one vision. The obvious advantages of this being greater bargaining power and stronger support within what would effectively be a “mini local authority”. This makes educational and economic sense on paper and has clearly been explored by the Department of Education advisors who have already developed the model throughout the country, with varied results.
My nervousness about this potential major change is based on my unfulfilling experiences of meeting three CEOs. This has been underpinned by Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments on the failure of academy chains to address fundamental weaknesses of schools, some admittedly in challenging circumstances. His criticism with regards academic standards, pastoral care and the impact of this major educational change is, I believe, fair.
The CEOs I have met shared similarities and undoubted qualities. They were all white males of intelligence and strong opinion, with belief in their systems but sadly had an underlying view that their schools were businesses. I did not see the pride and passion of someone leading a school and developing staff in the business of children’s education. This is not a vision that can easily be developed via a balance sheet. It would appear this is probably not the job for me, salary apart, as they are forever in meetings or between schools; they do not teach or interact with children. Many of their staff resent their salaries, the corporate branding and the lack of accountability. This was demonstrated by a young NQT PE teacher who was struggling with a year 11 class on a day when his boss was always at one of the other schools, thus lacking the necessary support. My further concern was whether a highly paid CEO is value for money or an expensive layer of bureaucracy that is not needed, especially one with values that I would question. In one of the chains, huge numbers of students were placed in a windowless exclusion room and a number seemed to have “disappeared” to be home educated. Vocational education and the arts appeared to be extremely limited, devalued and largely missing in a league driven, EBacc world.
This is not what I, or my school, are about. I am proud of every one of our children. For example, (names changed):
- Joe, who despite his drug addiction and 40% attendance gained limited GCSEs and was superbly supported into a job working at the cricket ground, highlighting the true value of proper work experience and testament to our tenacious careers advisor who has just secured zero NEETs for the third year in a row.
- Freya, the three stone anorexic whose time at the amazing James Brindley Centre was supported by weekly visits from our staff led by my deputy Saira. She is now on the cusp of attending Oxford University.
- Molly, who gained her maths GCSE C grade by one mark and has now finished her master’s at Birmingham University after receiving a first class honours degree. The lure of the Ball ticket was a worthwhile trade for extra maths lessons at the age of 16.
The success of my school has been working with the children, the community and some fabulously talented staff. This has not been easy and at times the results and the students have tested our faith. However, as a school, and as individuals, we have developed despite financial constraint denying pay rises for anyone. We have a shared vision that we are ‘In Pursuit of Excellence’ (sometimes we achieve it) and a genuine pride in our school and students, which could be lost if we overreach ourselves and lose the camaraderie of the staffroom.
Would a CEO have this vision? Would she/he keep their moral compass when the latest results are confused by an exam board irregularity or by inexperienced staff? Would this destabilise our united staffroom? Would they have confidence to ignore some of the ridiculous, irrational educational announcements that I cynically believe are used as a smoke screen for the latest real story such as ‘Panama Tax Dodger’ or ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’. “Let’s have an educational news story instead”, would appear to be the politicians default position.
Multiple Academy Trusts are clearly intended to be a replacement for the local authority with CEOs held accountable by the regional commissioners. However, in the scramble for bigger schools and longer school chains, let’s not forget we came into teaching for the business of educating children. As Pink Floyd gloriously highlighted:
Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and you’re ok
Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
– Worth thinking about if you are an aspiring CEO, but not the ethos of someone who should be entrusted with leading a school.