The TUC on Monday called on the government to ‘step back’ and initiate an ‘independent review’ of privately-sponsored academy schools.
Before leaving office, Blair announced 400 new academy schools will be built.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber says in his forward to a new TUC report titled ‘A New Direction’ that ‘a wide range of stakeholders have legitimately challenged whether the expenditure on the academies programme is the best means of achieving the government’s aim of tackling the legacy of educational underachievement that continues to blight too many of our communities.’
He adds: ‘Questions of accountability, in particular the disproportionate influence of sponsoring bodies and the weakening of the remit of local authorities, have led to concerns that the academies programme is undermining the cohesion of state education.
‘The decision to rapidly expand the programme at such an early stage has also called into question the government’s supposed commitment to an evidence-based policy approach.
‘Trade unions in particular have been quite rightly concerned about the potential negative impact of the “academy model” on the terms and conditions of teaching and support staff in these schools.
‘This research report was commissioned by the TUC following a motion to Congress 2006 highlighting concerns about the increasing marketisation of education and the role of academies in this respect.
‘Interestingly, the research has been undertaken during a period when the government has been taking forward some changes to the initiative, including enabling some local authorities to integrate academies into their overall strategy for education in their localities.
‘There is now a real opportunity to take stock of the academies programme and the range of related educational initiatives that currently make up secondary school provision and to set out a new direction supported by all major stakeholders.’
In its summary, the report says that ‘the academies initiative was described at its launch as a “radical new approach”, and it provoked immediate and widespread opposition.’
It stresses: ‘A key finding of the report is that the programme itself, and the context within which it operates, have changed so significantly since its launch that there is an overriding need to review and evaluate the current situation.
‘6. For example, the original aim of academies simply “to replace seriously failing schools” has been overtaken by a new policy approach which extends well beyond this and which appears to have taken on a life of its own.
‘Little or no mention is made of the fact that during the period between 2004 (when the target of 200 academies by 2010 was announced) and 2006 (when it was doubled to 400) the actual number of secondary schools in special measures halved, from 97 to 48.’
The TUC says ‘8. It was however very difficult to find evidence of the impact of academies on neighbouring schools (it is probably too early) and equally difficult to obtain information from academies themselves.
‘However, a wide range of other sources for information was trawled, including local authorities and the Academies Division of the DfES, and we have tried to use these sources to distil the facts rather than relying on speculation or opinion.’
The TUC adds: ‘10. Above all, the report concludes that there is no longer enough clarity about the government’s overall strategy for improving secondary provision, especially the basis on which the academies programme sits alongside other existing initiatives, and that this should be rectified as a matter of some urgency.
‘This will become increasingly important as additional policy initiatives come into play over the coming years, especially the roll-out of the 14–19 diplomas, the introduction of the new school admissions code and raising of the participation age to 18.
‘11. This report attempts to lay the groundwork for such a review, which would ultimately help the government to work with all its partners in order to develop uniformly high quality secondary provision for all young people, but with a particular focus on raising aspiration and educational achievement amongst our most disadvantaged communities.
‘12. The main recommendations set out below offer a “route-map” for developing a wider dialogue on building a new direction for secondary school provision that would support, and build on, the Government’s achievements to date.
‘The government should:
• establish an independent panel of experts to review each element of the government’s school improvement approach, including the academies programme
• in light of this review, restate and clarify the overall approach to school improvement
• reform key features of the academies programme, especially accountability issues and the role of sponsors
• continue the trend towards greater local authority involvement, including sponsorship, and work towards reintegrating academies within the local authority family of schools
• work with the school workforce unions to entitle unions to the same recognition rights as in other schools and also to protect pay and conditions in Academies.
In the section ‘a short history of the academies programme’ the report says that in March 2006, it was announced that ‘in future new academies would be delivered under the management of Partnerships for Schools (PfS), bringing them into line with the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative.
‘Instead of going towards building costs, sponsors’ contributions would instead be used to establish a charitable investment fund, the income from which would be used “to counter the educational impact of disadvantage and deprivation and/or for educational work within the local community”.
‘This new flexibility undermined a hitherto frequently repeated observation from the DfES that academies’ revenue funding was the same as that for other local secondary schools.’
The report adds that ‘it is worth noting here that although putting the building of Academies under PfS is likely to produce savings on Academy buildings, the NAO (National Audit Office) report (para 1.12) warns that “cost overruns could affect the availability of funds that will be needed to achieve the target of 200 academies”.’
The TUC report continues: ‘30. Using the Freedom of Information Act, CSN (Children’s Services Network, – then known as TEN) obtained the previously confidential Funding Agreements for the academies – which are now routinely published by the DfES on its Freedom of Information website.
‘These provided a lot of hitherto unknown information about such matters as Academies’ policies on admissions, discipline and appeals procedures, and other matters.
‘31. Disquiet had been growing about a number of areas in which pupils’ and parents’ rights were clearly diminished by the fact that academies are independent schools.
‘Law firms (in particular Matrix Chambers) used the Funding Agreements to identify a raft of issues over which, despite being state schools, some academies’ policies and practices were significantly different from those required of (local authority) maintained schools by education law.
‘32. CSN drew attention to one such issue, the admission (or potential nonadmission) of pupils with special educational needs (SEN), to members of the House of Commons Education Select Committee.
‘The concerns of Committee members, expressed in two separate enquiries, have been followed by a significant change in the DfES’s approach on SEN matters, though the position still falls short of that in maintained schools.
‘33. A new ‘model’ Funding Agreement now replicates far more closely the position of maintained schools. Also, rather than simply being the starting point for individual academies’ funding agreements, it is apparently now seldom varied in respect of significant issues.’
The report adds: ‘There can be little doubt the combination of identifying the anomalies and the subsequent adverse publicity through media coverage has led to these changes.
‘34. However, it remains the case that, should an academy act in contravention of its funding agreement to the detriment of a pupil or parent, there is no remedy in law (as there would be for a maintained school). Instead parents must rely on a direction from the Secretary of State to rectify the situation.
‘35. Probably the most significant change to the ‘academy model’ has been around the role of sponsors and in particular the move towards an increased role for local authorities.’
In conclusion, the report says: ‘36. The early period of extravagant, albeit spectacular, buildings – some designed by prominent architects, but some criticised as being less than fully fit for purpose – is clearly over.
‘Local authorities are not only more closely involved as managers of the process of delivering academy buildings, they are more involved (many under pressure verging on duress) in incorporating academies into their planned pattern of provision of schooling as described in their “Strategy for Change” which is part of the BSF process.
Indeed, as described in the next section of this report, they are increasingly involved as sponsors in what appears to be a relatively significant change in the overall pattern of sponsorship and development of the whole academies programme.
‘37. Looking back at David Blunkett’s original announcement, it is clear that seven years on the programme is quite different from the vision he originally described.
‘Indeed, since the announcement in 2004 of the 200 target (since doubled), there is a distinct impression of a different underlying agenda.
‘It otherwise makes little sense to greatly expand a programme intended to reverse chronic and persistent failure over the same period that the number of schools judged to require such intervention has fallen significantly, and now lies little above one-tenth of the new target of 400 Academies.
‘Data on the Ofsted website show that in April 2004 there were 97 secondary schools in special measures, and that this had fallen to 48 by December 2006.’