By Mark Steel, The Independent, 1st May 2014
One success of this Government has been the number of schools that have transformed into academies, so they’re no longer ruled by remote local authorities, and are now controlled by men of the people, like Lord Harris who donated £2m to the Conservative Party.
This makes schools so much more accountable as parents see a chap like carpet millionaire Lord Harris every day in their area, and he’s always available for a chat, even when you bump into him at the bus stop, or at the drop-in centre where locals pop by to donate £2m to the Conservative Party.
Academies account for nearly half of secondary schools now, and Michael Gove claims this shows how popular they’ve become, which seems fair as a school can only change its status after “consultation” with teachers, parents and students.
But at a meeting this week of hundreds of teachers, parents and students from Hove Park School in Sussex, I discovered there’s apparently some confusion about this word consultation. Because when the headteacher announced the school wants to become an academy, the teachers held a ballot – and 90 per cent opposed it. Parents and pupils are furious. Yet this headteacher has so far not replied to any letters or questions and seems adamant he’s going to do it anyway.
This must make for some interesting lessons in the school. Teachers must say “Can anyone tell me a system that does lots and lots of consulting? Yes that’s right Nathan, North Korea. If anything in North Korea they do so much consulting it’s a wonder they get anything done at all. Still, that’s the price of democracy.”
This apparent mix-up over what consulting means isn’t down to one frazzled headteacher, it appears to be how the process is designed. As long as the school tells people it’s going to become an academy, its deemed to have consulted them. Maybe it’s one of those changes in language that’s come from modern youth, like “sick” meaning “good”. So when a gang robs you they say “give me your mobile right now or I mash you up innit, I’m consulting you bruv, u get me”.
The headteacher at Hove Park insists it’s a “moral imperative” that the change takes place, so anyone opposing it is not only mistaken, they’re also immoral. Maybe this will become law, and teachers working at schools that haven’t become an academy will be charged with living off immoral earnings.
Perhaps this code comes from The Bible, in the chapter that goes “And GOD was angry with the Israelites for he saw they had become filthy and immoral, for they did refuse to leave the local authority of Jerusalem and serve the prophet who maketh carpets. And so GOD did send famine and locusts upon them, but only after he did consult them first.”
One result of schools becoming independent of the national system, say critics, is that they become embroiled in competition with other schools, obsessed with exam results at the expense of anything else, and more likely to exclude students, as they can’t afford to have kids lowering the pass rate. So if a school wastes time encouraging its pupils to be imaginative, generous, witty and other useless pursuits not measurable in UCAS points, it will fall behind those that boast a student with an exceptionally high A-star chemistry, but overlooked the fact he used his knowledge to poison his entire village and is now in maximum security prison.
Schools that become academies are also likely to sell themselves piece by piece to raise extra funds. Buildings, fields, catering and equipment become dependent on sponsorship, until even the lessons will be sponsored, with history teachers saying “What was the most unpleasant aspect of the First World War? Well, disease and death were unwelcome, but even worse they didn’t have M & Ms back then.”
But more of a problem is none of this can even be questioned, if you’re simply consulted and then it happens.
The pamphlet from Hove Park school informs parents that failure to become an academy means “we will inevitably lose staff”, although most staff oppose the plans, presumably because they enjoy being lost. It goes on to explain essential new building “will not be approved without academy status”.
Is this a threat? Maybe the next pamphlet will say: “If we don’t become an academy there might be a fire in the music room. And it’s inevitable that the school rabbit will explode.”
A recent opinion poll concluded that 55 per cent of parents in schools that have become academies believe it has taken a turn for the worse, while only 14 per cent say it’s improved. But there’s no official forum for this dissent. Instead the change is always presented as another thing that we have to accept as inevitable, because everyone supports it these days, so we can’t let the fact that no one supports it be an obstacle to that.
This may be why Hove Park school is surrounded by posters, banners and badges opposing the change, and the meeting ended with a unanimous vote for direct action. It’s not certain what form that will take, but I’m sure those taking part will be polite enough to consult the headteacher and Education Secretary Michael Gove about what it will be.