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Monday, March 28, 2016

How accountable are academy schools?

The news that the UK Tory Government has decided to turn every school in England into an academy school has caused consternation, not least amongst teachers.  Education Minister, Nicky Morgan had a particularly torrid time at the NASUWT conference if this report is anything to go by.

As a politician working in a nation where education is entirely devolved to the Welsh Government, I can only watch and be thankful that Wales is not being subjected to the same treatment. Except of course the Welsh Conservatives have already announced that they want the academy school experiment to be brought in here and that if they have any influence after 5th May they will ensure that happens.

It is instructive therefore to read this article in the Daily Mirror describing just how unaccountable academy schools are, to the extent that parents and local politicians are effectively disenfranchised and unable to influence decisions that affect their community - the exact opposite of the localism agenda which conservatives say they embrace.

The article describes the problems the journalist had in getting a reaction from the Halewood Academy to its governors' decision to close the school's sixth form and how, after there was uproar from local people at this proposal, could not find anybody who was responsible for holding the school to account for its actions:

Knowsley council later told me that “regional schools commissioners” were in fact responsible for overseeing academies, on central government’s behalf.

I hadn’t heard of them and suspected I wasn’t the only one, but eventually found an email address for our local - or as it turns out, Lancashire and west Yorkshire - commissioner’s office.

The commissioners’ website says they are responsible for approving changes to academies, monitoring academies’ performance and taking action when they underperform.

I asked what commissioner Vicky Beers’ involvement and views were on the increasingly controversial withdrawl of A-Level provision, hoping to finally find someone willing to be held to account.

But I got the now predictable response that I should direct my queries elsewhere - this time to central government, via the Department for Education.

Which was a little bizarre, because central government had already rejected a petition from Halewood parents because - you guessed it - “ the government and Parliament aren’t responsible ”.

The Halewood principal eventually contacted me more than two weeks after the announcement, but merely emailed a statement that largely repeated what was on the school’s website.

The only thing stopping me laughing at how difficult it is to find someone to hold to account is the fact children’s futures are at stake.

As the article concludes, if journalists struggle to get answers to their questions, is it as hard for parents to do the same? And with plans to make all schools academies, will every school become this hard to hold to account? Maybe the Welsh Tories should provide answers to these questions as background to their own proposals.
It seems to me that this is part of a Tory programme to diminish local government, to reduce its responsibility to "emptying the bins and filling in potholes" as one conservative expressed to me.
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