Baker sees  a return of GM-but is it the same?


Mike Baker in a comment piece on the BBC education web site sees the Coalition Governments Academy scheme as a return to  the Tory GM schools initiative that ended in 1998.

Ed Balls has labelled the  Coalitions Academies scheme  as a perversion of the Labour initiative (invoking the GM model)  introduced by Tony Blair  which was targeted almost exclusively at disadvantaged areas. He claims that that fast tracking outstanding schools to Academy status is against the philosophy behind the last Governments Academy scheme and is  in effect shifting the focus  and resources away from the most disadvantaged  .  The central allegation made against GM schools was that they cream skimmed the best pupils, badly affecting neighbouring schools  many of which ended up as sink schools. This is what seems to fuel Ed Balls  opposition to the new Academies scheme.  The irony of course is that Balls himself  has been criticised by many in the Academies  movement of  perverting the  ‘Blairite’  Academy vision, by re-establishing Local authority influence over academies, so  undermining their independence, a crucial element of the Blairite vision, articulated  by Andrew  Adonis.

Academies developed out of previous Conservative Governments’ City Technology Colleges (CTCs) established in the mid-1980s, and city academy programmes. CTCs, which were established under the Education Reform Act 1988 were the first state schools to be free from local authority control. That Act also enabled local authority maintained schools to opt out of local authority control by becoming Grant-Maintained (GM) schools. The Labour Government’s School Standards and Framework Act 1998 overhauled the categories of school and brought GM schools back into the local authority maintained system.  The Learning and Skills Act 2000 made provision for the creation of city academies, subsequently renamed academies under the Education Act 2002. The 2002 Act permitted academies to be set up in any area, not just in urban areas. The first academies opened in 2002, with just over 200 now  up and running.

Initially, it is true  academies were established to replace poorly-performing schools, but subsequently the programme included new schools in areas that needed extra school places and in this  latter period there was  less focus on whether or not an Academy was   being set up  in a demonstrably  disadvantaged area. So,  Balls outrage  and accusations about social engineering  looks, in this context,  somewhat contrived and  overblown.

Baker points out that the political philosophy behind GM schools was to recreate the recipe for success that existed in the private sector – autonomous institutions led by confident and entrepreneurial head teachers. And the stark difference between Labour’s academies and the new version lies in the underlying philosophy according to Baker. The former were about central government intervention to rectify the problems of market failure. (although its hard  to   see how   the schools system at the time could be described   as a ‘market’)  They rescued children who were left in the schools that few parents would choose. By contrast, the new generation of academies are about releasing market forces in the belief that autonomous schools responding to parental choice will raise standards. But the important point about this new initiative the Government argues  is that it  is seeking ultimately to offer  Academy freedoms to all schools. The idea is that it is permissive rather than coercive. No school will be forced to change status but they should all ultimately  be given that opportunity.  But, crucially, they  will not be disadvantaged by not changing their status, and certainly not financially. Indeed the Government has indicated that it doesn’t believe that most Primary schools will take up the autonomy  offer and is easy with that. If the GM initiative could be accused of  not   fully taking  into account the possible impact on neighbouring schools, which some critics argue was the case,  the Government  counters  by   saying that   new academies will be expected to support weaker neighbours, and indeed this is written into the funding agreement .  Before a free school is established there will also be an assessment of its possible impact on neighbouring schools. Academies  will have to comply with the national admissions code, and the pupil premium will give extra aid to schools in deprived areas. Indeed on SEN support the Government argues that changes brought about by the new  Act will ensure that pupils with SEN will be better protected and supported now than they were under the last Governments Academies legislation.

Baker takes particular exception to the perceived lack of parental involvement in decision-making over status change. There is  one important difference between the old GM schools and today’s new academies he says  – the former required majority support in a secret ballot of parents, the latter do not even need a show of hands at a parents’ meeting.  “With GM Mark II, it seems, the parental voice has been forgotten.” However the Government has made it clear that a school wishing to change status must consult with ‘appropriate’  interested parties  and  have explicitly stated that this will include parents. For free schools anyone wishing to establish a free school must demonstrate that there is a demand for such a school in that particular area. Of course one can quibble about the detail of  how this will be done   but  one has to trust school governors and yes parents, often one and the same, to make these kind of judgements and if we really want decision-making from the bottom up rather than the  top down this seems a  good  enough place to start.