New academies plan will bring chaos, say MPs

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington

Hackney’s MPs have slammed the Government’s new Academies Bill as a “recipe for chaos”, which will lead to a two-tier education system in the borough.

The Bill, passed by Parliament last week, allows all schools rated as outstanding by Ofsted to be ‘pre-approved’ for academy status, without consultation with the Local Education Authority (LEA). The fast-tracked schools will be able to open with their new academy status as early as September 2010.

The Bill is the first step in the new Government’s planned overhaul of the education system, which includes increasing the number of academies and expanding the academies programme to primary schools and special schools. The new laws also allow groups of parents, teachers, faith groups or businesses to set up independent ‘free schools’ where there is a local demand.

Education Secretary Michael Gove wrote to all schools rated ‘outstanding’ in May to invite them to register their interest in becoming an academy. Two secondary schools – Clapton Girls’ Technology College and Stoke Newington School – and four primary schools – Benthal, Parkwood, Woodberry Down and St John and St James primary schools have all requested more information on the programme, according to the Department for Education.

But local MPs argue that taking more schools out of local authority control will damage democracy, as schools are not required to seek approval from the local authority before converting into an academy. Whilst schools are encouraged to consult parents, staff and local communities, the decision rests with the school’s governors.

Critics say that bypassing local authorities, which provide education services such as supporting pupils with special educational needs, will create a free market in state education, with no overall local control. This could lead to a two-tier education system as the new academies are allocated more resources, holding back the remaining local authority maintained schools.

Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott says: “There are all sorts of issues like special needs that require strong LEA oversight. Giving complete control to schools may seem like an attractive idea in principle, but it leaves our children’s education at the mercy of a few, and most importantly, leaves schools unaccountable to anyone but their own governors. This is a recipe for chaos.”

Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier expands on this view: “‘Hackney’s academies have always worked with other Hackney schools and were, crucially, established in Hackney because of previous serious issues with education and so were targeted to areas where investment and support were particularly critical. The new Academies Bill creates a free for all with no accountability to local councillors or parents.”

But Hackney Conservative leader Cllr Michael Levy says that there is already a two tier education system in Hackney and that parents should have the chance to benefit from independent schools. “Does anyone need reminding that the schools that have improved most, such as Mossbourne, are those that have already had independence from the Council?

“Isn’t it fair that other schools also have that chance to excel and bring up the standard of education of all Hackney schools?”

As of 23 July, no Hackney schools rated as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted had submitted an application to be fast-streamed to academy status.

The Learning Trust, Hackney’s local education authority, says it will continue to work with all schools in the borough, regardless of whether they convert to academies. “We already work in strong partnership with existing academies, and will do so with any school that chooses to become an academy.”

The new laws

Academies are publicly-funded schools that are independent from local authority control. They are able to change the length of terms and school days, set their own catchment areas and curriculum and control the pay and conditions of their staff. The new law changes the way schools can apply to become academies.

Schools rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted will be automatically approved for academy status.

In the long term, all schools will be able to apply to become academies, including primary and special schools.
Faith schools will be able to keep their religious character if they convert to academies.

Local authorities will not need to be consulted before an academy is approved.

Grammar schools that apply to become academies will be allowed to keep their selection process.

Concerns

Critics say there is a lack of consultation as academies will be approved by the Government without approval from the local authority, parents, pupils, or school staff.

Local authorities may struggle to provide education services – such as special educational needs – if large numbers of schools opt to become independent academies.

What happens to the remaining local authority controlled schools when the local authority’s resources are transferred to academies – will it create a two-tiered state education system?

Who is accountable if things go wrong? This could place an additional burden on school governors.



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