Forced academisation is as brutal as it sounds

academyThe academy trust taking over my daughter’s school have a slick presentation. A room of parents listen and nod as men in suits explain their plans to transform the school using a mix of firm discipline, rules about exercise books, and other schemes to grind out results and please Ofsted. The school is in trouble and we know a change is needed. This is the only option and everybody wants to be convinced it is the right plan.

The school achieved poor GCSE results and Kent County Council advised the governors to hand the school to this academy chain. In just two weeks this academy trust will move in and run the school as ‘school improvement advisers,’ when the paperwork is done our school becomes their school. This has been decided before parents know anything. A token consultation will take place but we know it can’t change anything.

We try to get a feel for our school’s new owners.

We are told behaviour will be drastically improved. This trust’s schools have a hard line no-excuses policy.  Detentions for infractions, high standards and tough rules. Children will be excluded, those ‘troublemakers spoiling it for the rest’

Exercise books are to become the ‘teacher’s CV.’ Tidy books full of work will show parents how much their children are learning. The learning process involves effective written exercises that lead to satisfactory exam outcomes.

To achieve the high level of discipline and impressively marked exercise books the right kind of teachers are needed. Teachers will be assessed and encouraged to improve. If they don’t wish to improve they will find a school where they are ‘more suited.’

In a troubled non-selective school in Kent this confident pitch from the trust’s principle is welcomed by parents. Our school had a poor reputation and disappointing results. The school has no permanent head and a shortage of quality teaching staff. Something has to happen; it has to be this.

A few days ago the school’s white paper told us every school would become an academy. I wondered if schools throughout the land would organise meetings like this. Meetings where executives who know nothing about a local school pitch their confident improvement plans. Our school needs a change, I accept that.  But what about the schools that are working fine? Maybe some schools don’t need a head office and an improvement plan.

I thought of my son’s primary school with its painted pictures and teachers succeeding with an inspired mix of silliness and learning. I couldn’t imagine a business education leader improving this lovely school. The school worked, all it needed was to be left alone to get on with things.

I don’t think education experts can agree on the magic formula to create a  successful school. So why does every academy trust boast that they have the magic formula? It feels like smoke and mirrors.

The question and answer part of the school meeting was managed carefully. I expected hands raised and a mike passed around, but instead there were printed cards for parent’s questions. It was just as efficient as the seat allocation system.  I was placed at table 6 which meant I couldn’t sit with my friends. It felt like the academy trust takeover  meeting used techniques for conflict avoidance.

Table 6 discussed the questions we should write on the cards. The parents at my table were mostly positive. “They mean business.” “We need discipline.” “It must be hard to get good teachers, all the best teachers want  to teach at the grammar schools.” “Well kids behave in the grammar schools.”

We had been told what to think already. A school governor told us the trust takeover was the best thing. A lady from the council education department told us this academy chain was right for the job.

We were told academies were the way forward, the white paper was mentioned, we were told this was inevitable. Our school was some kind of early adopter of a fine new academy vision. No one cheered this news.

I was confused by the presence of the council officer. Our council‘s education leader was mentioned in the Guardian this week, he said the white paper was unnecessary and academies were not the answer for every school. So did the council want to keep its own schools? They didn’t want our school. Maybe councils only wanted successful schools? Perhaps they only wanted the schools with good Ofsted ratings. I didn’t see any evidence the council cared much, I didn’t know what the council  had done to look out for our school. Maybe academies were the best answer after all.

Pent_Valley_Technology_CollegeI learned something of our council’s work with failing schools in the meeting. Kent County Council gave Chaucer Technology school to Swale Academies Trust when it was in trouble, then a few months later they said the school must close. Pent Valley Technology College was in trouble next, the council hired Swale Academies Trust to improve it, then a few months later told parents the school must close. The parents were hurt by this decision because the council say they will open a new school in a few years. North School in Ashford was troubled too, so the council hired Swale Academies Trust again here, and soon the school will join this academy chain.

My school is in trouble now, so what do the council do? Yes, it’s Swale Academies Trust.

I learned that Swale Academies Trust offer a school improvement service. I know that when they take on a troubled school the trust sometimes hire a school consultation company called Richard Slee Ltd. This consultation company is  owned by one of its directors. I don’t understand the modern business of education,  but I know academy trusts hire their own director’s companies and oddly that’s allowed.

A member of staff visited table 6. This was our a chance to chat with someone on the school’s side.

“Are the teachers happy with this?” a mum asked. I’d heard rumours from teacher friends that this academy trust makes tough demands of its teachers. “The teacher’s want strong leadership at the school,” was her reply.

I could see she was in favour of this change, and how could we argue? We were a school no one wanted. We were a school in trouble, no permanent head, too many supply staff and poor GCSE results. It all made sense. Even the silly exercise book thing and the tough behaviour rules.

It was all so completely sensible that I was at a loss to know why it made me feel so sad. I scribbled a couple of questions. How would we find a new head? Would the governors be allowed to stay?

The questions were taken to the front of the hall where the academy boss scanned the large pile and selected a few.

“Can we keep the uniform?”

I’d read a news story about one of the trust’s schools changing uniform twice in three years. I clearly wasn’t the only one to Google things before the meeting.

“Oh yeah, we change uniform sometimes, but if you like this one that’s no problem.” We felt grateful. It felt like a small victory. They let us keep our uniform!

“Are children allowed to go to the toilets if they need it in a lesson?”

A national newspaper reported on this trust’s policy that children couldn’t leave classrooms if they needed a pee in lessons. We got a jokey reply and, “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.”

Someone asked how long it would take to turn the school around. The answer was, “These things take time.”

We were invited to visit the trust’s other schools. I doubted any one would take up this offer. There seems little point. I expect if I do I will see good discipline, and I’m sure someone will show me the exercise books. Perhaps I could check if the toilet doors were locked?

There was a question on the trusts plans to take on other schools. They mentioned their school improvement business, and taking on another school in a neighbouring county.

I suddenly had a question that I wanted to ask. It was too late, but it mattered.

What is your motivation?

Why do you care about our local school?

Pointless questions. The answer was clear as soon as the question came to me.

The motivation was money or business growth, or perhaps economies of scale. They cared about our local school for  reasons to do with these things.

All the parents in that room had a personal reason to care, all the teachers and the governors had a genuine motivation to see the pupils do well. To the men in suits at head office the pupils were numbers on a performance graph. I am sure they have professional pride in the school’s success. I know they want GCSE passes and an Ofsted ‘good’, so maybe it’s irrelevant that the reasons are only financial. My daughter’s GCSE sucesss will make a good business case, but they will never know her name.

This is an organisation with a method that works. If you’re a Kent non-selective you have a tricky kind of school. Your pupils are less likely to get good exam results. Your poor results mean your school is likely to get a ‘requires improvement’  Ofsted rating. Your school has more disadvantaged pupils and pupils with Special Educational Needs. None of this matters to Ofsted who judge the school by the same standards as any school in leafy Islington where an au pair helps with a child’s French homework, and parents pay for after-school maths help. On top of this we are a non-selective school, so we are full of pupils who were told they were bad at exams by a council-run test. Maybe those pupils don’t feel motivated to work hard to get a a C in a GCSE exam?

A method to succeed with this tricky kind of school is probably tough discipline and rote learning. I am sure Ofsted are impressed by homework in books, disciplined pupils and micro-managed teachers following a plan.

I believe my daughter’s new school leaders will do the job. A satisfactory number of pupils will achieve 5 GCSE passes soon, and we will please Ofsted in a couple of years. The children will enjoy a stable education and results to show for it.

The method seems so good.

The classroom troublemakers will be silenced, they will reform their ways, call in sick, move schools,or find themselves excluded.

The teachers will accept the workload demanded, work to the methods set, or move to new schools. I hope our best teachers like this trust’s system.

The exercise books will be full of facts memorised and tested, and it will ensure GCSE pass marks.

Everything is fine, except for the fact that our school has become an exam factory.

tumblr_ns6sebujv91snt1oto1_1280Anyone who believes education should involve enthusiasm, relationships, after school clubs, community, laughter, creativity, individuality, and all the personal, human, emotional bits of life will despair. This academy trust, like many others, farms our children to produce GCSE scores to make neat  graphs in a business report.

We all want pupils achieving 5 GCSE passes, and an Ofsted ‘Good’, but I don’t want that at any price.

I don’t want teachers too tired to run after school clubs. I don’t want children claiming headaches to avoid a place where a forgotten pencil means a mark on a report card. I don’t want to see teenagers on medication because of a pressure to behave, revise, and have perfect exercise books.

I remember my school with affection. I remember clubs week and learning to invent board games. I remember lending computer magazines to Mr.Green and discussing tips for coding. I remember making upside down cake, a recipe I still make for my family today. I remember my friends giving me the bumps on my birthday. I remember the head teacher’s talk about awareness. I remember the smart way I avoided PE but still stayed within the school rules. I remember selling sweets and making a profit for charity. I remember the day the pupils had a strike.  I remember being nervous in the school play but managing public speaking. I don’t actually remember my results in GCSE geography.

I believe there are many things about education that are not measurable and that will not show in any league table or on any graph.

This academy trust will grow and gather more schools under its belt, because all good businesses like to expand. I believe there is a danger that their method will be rolled out and implemented by people who don’t fully understand the system. It may become less effective. I think there might be cases where a memo passed from head office to many schools might get a bit ‘chinese whispers’ and be interpreted incorrectly. Maybe something about a rules change, and maybe that will lead to a school exclusion that changes a child’s life.

Maybe the academy trust’s methods works fine, but then the Department for Education will change exam methods, and then a one-trick-pony results-focused chain of schools will all fail because they can’t adapt. Maybe this could lead to children failing exams and not reaching university.

I don’t need to worry about wholesale academy changes, but I do worry. I don’t need to think about this academy trust, it’s too late so there’s no point. But this is the only secondary school in my town.  I care about my town and I care about it’s school. I know that something has to be done to fix things. This is it. Here’s hoping.

I don’t think exams results alone make a school. I don’t think proof of work in an exercise book is really proof of learning. I don’t even think a ‘good’ Ofsted  rating always means a good school.

Academy trusts are supposed to spread ‘best practice for education.’ I think some trusts are cloning an education system that isn’t a kind of education I admire.

So our local school now belongs to an education business. Who do I blame?

I don’t blame the school’s governors. They had a non-selective school  with poor results and a head they couldn’t replace. They looked to the council for guidance.

I don’t blame the council. The council have little money for school improvement, so they offload troubled schools to ‘expert’ academy trusts.

I don’t blame the academy trusts. Academy trusts fit the needs of a school system that demands results. The education business needs efficiency and money often drives change.

I don’t blame the money men of education, our school’s exam results are the  KPI target set by our government.

I don’t even blame the government. The government creates policies people want. Parents like exam results and league tables, so the government focuses on these academic targets.

Of course I don’t blame the parents. We want the best for our children. But we certainly don’t want academies everywhere.  I hope the fight against this government white paper will focus parent’s on thinking on the reasons why.

Academy trusts are businesses, but schools are not. The personal, human, laughter, painted pictures, chat with the governors, unstressed teachers, side of education, matters as much as numbers on a spreadsheet. The answer to an exam culture is exam factory academy trusts. We need to say that we don’t want KPI we want relationships with our schools.

It’s too late for my school. The meeting closed. The people went home. The days of a friendly local school are gone. Maybe in a few years we will plug  the children into Swale Academy  Trust learning machines until our children become fully educated products of the system.

If your school is not yet an academy, take your time and choose your new management carefully. Ask your academy trust for their policy on children’s happiness. Ask if they believe in love of learning. If they tell you to sit at table 6, tell them you won’t. Tell them you’re going to sit with your friends because you believe in people not numbers.


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