Reflecting upon the academy movement

When the first City Academies opened in 2002 they were described by some educational commentators as an ‘aberration’, which heralded the end of the comprehensive ideal. Much the same had been said about City Technical Colleges and Grant Maintained Schools. While they remained for over a decade as peripheral to the rest of the system, they were in many ways the vanguard of the system change in which we now find ourselves.
I could never fully understand the logic of the argument about the first academies presenting the end of the comprehensive ideal; City Academies took over some of the most depressed, dysfunctional, dystopian schools in the country. Many, if not most, were characterised as unsafe environments where little learning took place and the local community had lost faith in the school. Other schools typically resented the cost to them of keeping the school afloat financially, and despite the costly efforts employed to revive the schools, nothing had worked.
Democratic accountability
The argument about democratic accountability being lost if the schools became academies rang hollow when considering what such ‘democratic accountability’ had, in fact, achieved. Although there were some embarrassing failures in those early days of the academy movement, these were outweighed by the startling successes of the majority.
As the policy developed it evolved and changed with first the nomenclature, when the word ‘city’ was dropped from the title and academies started up in less highly urban areas. It was in 2010 with the English coalition government that the biggest change occurred, when the governing body of successful maintained schools could choose to convert to academy status.
This decision, I believe, was one that enabled ‘system change’ through the development of ‘system leaders’ to actually gain a foothold. Education policy makers had, for some time, spoken about the need to involve those who lead schools in raising standards to develop a self-improving system. As a result of the coalition’s decision, public education has moved in a direction from which I doubt it will turn.
When the first iteration of City Academies was seen, they were different to today not just in their context and legacy, but in the active involvement of sponsors. Most of these having an interest in but little experience of education invited in a new dimension to the discussion about how the academies should operate, what they should stand for and what would be non-negotiable.
City Academies would not have to follow the national curriculum, they were free to set their own working days, term dates, contracts and pay. They were to abide by the LEA admissions policy, set and achieve pupil performance targets, and be part of the local arrangements for pupil managed moves.
Freedom and autonomy were the magnetic words used as encouragement for accepting academy status. The intense media interest on this highly political education initiative allied to the promised professional autonomy proved to be a lethal combination for some with the consequence that hubris triumphed over humility, and a number of careers were damaged in the fall out.

Governance control
The changes to the programme since 2010 are producing system leaders almost by default. The head teacher of a school judged to be Good or Outstanding, irrespective of its context, is being encouraged to sponsor other schools and become de facto the executive principal and then CEO of the multi academy trust created. This can happen with little or no experience of working in and with diverse and challenging communities, and a lack of the phronesis that successful practice in such places develops. Recognition of this has led to the piloting of a professional development programme for a number of recently appointed CEOs.
 This may well be the answer but the time is out of joint and supply has to catch up with demand. Sound and effective governance can mitigate this – as Onora O’Neill commented: “Intelligent accountability requires more attention to good governance and fewer fantasies about total control.”
However, some of the failures of governance controlling the excesses of hubris have been exposed and have damaged the professional credibility and integrity of the whole academy programme. Because of the expectation implicit in how the system leader’s role will work, the excesses of one leader damages more than just the one organisation which is how it was with Grant Maintained Schools or CTCs.

Just as freedom and autonomy were a toxic combination for some, procurement and autonomy are a lethal mixture for others. The type of entrepreneurialism referred to in the latest ‘National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers’ has always been important for head teachers, but we need to be careful of the type practiced by some of the banks in recent years.
So, the changes to the academy programme mean that the type of schools now called academies are different, and the type of leadership they have is different. Two fundamentals of the movement when it began, were the nature of the school and the leadership. Has the programme lost anything as a result of the changes?
I am not one to favour hyperbolic and emotive language but can find no other way to describe my view on this. To me, the original movement was as much to do with social change and social mobility as it was to do with educational policy. An IPPR report, ‘Freedom’s Orphans’, published in 2006 described the way that the efficacy of low SES communities was depressed, and how a particular approach to education both inside and outside of the classroom could impact on this.
The original City Academy prospectus specified that the academies were expected to play their part in the regeneration of low SES communities. The obvious way in which they did this was by improving the standards of education and the outcomes pupils achieved.
But this was not the only way. Employability requires more than just good examination grades. Young people need to have an understanding and awareness of social cues and how to present themselves in formal and semi-formal social settings. Whilst understanding and awareness are critical, young people from low SES settings also need to feel comfortable and confident that they have a right to be there as a reward for their work and effort.
Early City Academies did this, but I am not sure that it has remained as a distinctive feature of the ‘brand’. In the academy I led (one of the first 13), I wanted all its alumni to feel middle class. By that I meant that they should be proud of their identity but not see it as limiting their destiny. Mossbourne Academy did the same as did a number of others. We believed that this was a key element in social mobility and increasing community efficacy.
When it worked, it improved examination results and also impacted on reducing community disorder, neighbourhood nuisance, the number of NEETS (young people Not in Education, Employment, or Training), and saved the public money that would otherwise have been spent for many years on students who were now employable and would become net contributors. That was the vision for the original City Academies and it remains for many who now lead academies. My hope is that the multiplicity of organisations that now exist will only increase in the future, and choose to hold dear the legacy that the original programme has bequeathed.
The national data shows that the group of young people who have yet to see education as the cultural passport it is, are the white British and in particular white British boys. A test for the ‘academisation’ of the education system is how successful it will be on this apparently most intransigent and hard to reach group. It is a cultural change that is needed and one that the system leaders need to agree upon as a system wide and collective responsibility.

The next stage of development
Those who were the first to make a leap of faith into the academy programme and were still standing after the first period, were experienced educational leaders having already undertaken multiple leadership roles. The new system leaders are a more heterogeneous group. It is possible now for a relatively inexperienced head teacher with limited experience to become an executive principal and then a CEO of a multi academy trust. Does this matter? Can the System afford the uncertainty?
The experience of being the head of a successful low challenge school does not necessarily equip anyone to lead five challenging schools and the impact of things going wrong is five times greater than it is in one. The lobbying of HMCI has succeeded in enabling MATs to be inspected which should reduce the risk to the system, but whether Ofsted is the right organisation to fulfill this role is another matter.
When someone in 30 or more years looks back on the academy movement to write the history, I believe that they will describe the first few years as a watershed in state education characterised by high risk and high returns and which its Alumni credit with giving them life chances.
I hope this next stage of development will do the same. There is an awful lot depending on it.

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