As an ex journalist, Michael Gove will be familiar with the three basic reporters’ questions: ‘What happened?’, ‘Why did it happen?’ and ‘What can we do to stop it happening again?’ There are still serious unanswered questions over the allegations, motives and investigation relating to Birmingham academies and schools but it seems Michael Gove is now grappling with the third reporters’ question and it’s likely that his decisions will have consequences for all academies and schools. What, then, might be the consequences for the ‘freedoms’ that can make conversion to an academy seem attractive to Governing Bodies?
Worryingly, Michael Gove now seems unclear whether academies are freer or more accountable than LA schools. Until yesterday the view expressed by the Head of Hove Park School was not atypical. He described the process of leaving the local authority and conversion to an academy as being “more about creating freedom. Academy status brings greater freedoms.” Not surprisingly, this view echoes Michael Gove. at the London Academy of Excellence only a few months ago, he described how schools now had “ increased autonomy” that had been achieved “most of all, by giving every school in the country the chance to become an academy, with the same freedoms long enjoyed by private schools.” Yet in the House of Commons earlier this week, Michael Gove said: “Academies are subject to sharper and more rigorous accountability than local authority schools”. This latter interpretation comes closer to the view of an Academy Principal who, having believed his school would gain more freedoms by conversion, recently blasted the Department for Education for “micromanaging” academy schools and said the reality was “more government control”. Who should we believe? How should we interpret Michael Gove’s seeming change of mind? Is the freedom promised to schools on conversion to an academy simply a mirage – seemingly always in the distant but never actually found?
Michael Gove has also championed the freedom of academies not to teach the National Curriculum. The DfE puts it very simply: “Academies don’t have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own term times”. This has led to some, like former Secretary of State for Education Estelle Morris, to query the point of a National Curriculum if only some schools have to follow it. Others have gone further and questioned if the ‘freedom’ from teaching the National Curriculum is open to abuse. Changing Schools – a website established to support school change based on principles of social justice, and to encourage more enjoyable and successful learning – has published research showing how academies have marginalised some curriculum areas, including History, Geography, Sociology and Modern Foreign Languages. Indeed, teacher unions and the British Humanist Association both warned some time ago that curriculum freedoms to academies could result in narrow and limited teaching and, potentially, allow religious academies to have very restrictive teaching? These warnings seemed to have been largely ignored until this week. Now, Michael Gove, too, seems to think that freedom over the curriculum needs caveats. He has agreed that Ofsted should “better enforce” curriculum requirements and in his response to a question from a backbench MP proposing a “curriculum entitlement” he proposed a “debate” about the “correct balance”. Ofsted’s letter to Michael Gove goes further and includes the recommendation that Government should provide “much greater clarity to all schools (including academies and free schools) on what should be taught in a broad and balanced curriculum”. A proposal that one education commentator has suggested: “potentially strikes at the heart of Gove’s reforms”. Is another freedom for academies likely to turn out not to be such a good idea?
Two years ago Ofsted announced that from 2012 schools that were judged to be outstanding at their most recent inspection would be free from inspection in the future. Only a few months ago, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Michael Wilshaw, announced he was planning a lighter-touch regime for schools that are deemed good OR outstanding. Yet now, Michael Wilshaw wants to review the current exemption that applies to the inspection of outstanding schools and Michael Gove wants to introduce unannounced inspections. In a further twist, Michael Wilshaw told BBC Newsnight that he first called for more unannounced inspections two years ago and had been rebuffed by Michael Gove so was “…really pleased that minds have been changed” before changing his mind and agreeing that he had decided against this type of inspection.
So should we trust a lighter touch approach or the unannounced approach? We’ve also learnt this week that Ofsted inspection conclusions can change from ‘outstanding’ to ‘special measures’ within a short period of time. Does all this suggest some inconsistency or unreliability in inspections and/or that school inspection grades are very susceptible to short term change? Can even outstanding schools be confident that their inspection grade gives them the freedom for conversion and/or the confidence that their grade is secure and/or could cope with short term significant change?
Finally, Michael Gove has long had harsh words to say about Governing Bodies. In 2012 he was very dismissive of Governors. Now, the Ofsted Chief Inspector, has recommended to Michael Gove that Governors be bound by and follow prescribed procedures if they wish to change the status or character of their school, that all schools must publish a governors Register of Interests and that there be mandatory training for all governors. But these recommendations followed an investigation focusing largely on an academy governing body! What does this say? Is Michael Gove beginning to agree with the Local Schools Network’s observation that: “there is no doubt that this process [of ‘packing’ governing bodies] is made easier with independent state schools like academies and free schools, contracted to the Secretary of State but with little local accountability and with governing bodies effectively chosen by the sponsors”?
Parents and staff at Hove Park School have been told that the landscape of education has changed and this week maybe it changed even more. This week it seems even more ridiculous to think that Whitehall could oversee an academy in Hove and properly regulate an Academy Trust made up of still unknown, unproven and unelected governors and directors. It seems even less likely that the claimed freedoms will add up to anything at all and even more likely that there are significant risks in converting a good school into an academy.
If Michael Gove is having second thoughts about the ‘freedoms’ he’s talked of giving academies perhaps Hove Park School Governors should have second thoughts about the claimed attractiveness of conversion.