Forcing Schools to Become Academies is No Solution


The purposeful advance briefing of an announcement, to be meshed into the budget that all schools must convert to academies  should cause hearts to sink. Not because of the partisan, blunt and blanket nature of the instruction – but on account of the contradictions and short-comings of the policy.

The key criterion –surely – is academic prowess. But academies do not automatically make successful schools. Ironically given that the first wave of academies was directly aimed at rescuing failing institutions, it seems increasing numbers of that academies are under-performing. But local authority schools rated by Ofsted as Outstanding are prevalent,   which is not bad for an organisational model allegedly so irreparably flawed.

What other advantages will mass conversion bring? Academies do not have to follow the national curriculum.  This is the same national curriculum introduced to raise basic standards. I readily acknowledge the  risk  of concentrating so much on data that teaching can suffer –  but surely  we need some measurement, some national yardstick  to  see  if the education system  is delivering against  key performance indicators –  how will we do that in an entirely  fragmented  system?

There is also a contradiction and perhaps deception here too.  What will happen to the government’s currently much–vaunted standards-raising talisman, the EBACC, which schools have been heavily encouraged to adopt as a standard suite of GCSCE subjects? Admittedly there would seem to be few tears to be shed if this is to be its demise – but will non-EBACC subjects be regarded as inferior qualifications?   If such a situation does arise, the government will be guiltily of willing the ends but not the means.

And mass conversion is reportedly to mean the end of national pay bargaining, and fairly universal terms and conditions. Really?  Has anyone costed the new reality – thousands of localised pay negotiations?  Resources of both employers and unions bogged down in the process instead of  focussing  on making schools better and  working collaboratively  to  meet the many other challenges they  have –  from Prevent to crumbling school estates.

This is a key practical argument in my view.  Money is tight.  Time is also at a premium according to teachers I talk to. But the conversion process will be ravenous in resource terms – from the national political row to the local tricky detailed negations.  Given the benefits – described above – are so much in doubt, how can this be justified?

The pre-budget briefing talks about  academies being free  to  join  the  “chains”  that  have already  been  formed (we are due to have three  institutions run by the same group  in my  borough alone).  You can see the logic in terms of providing common back-office functions like HR, finance and facilities management. Hmm, just like local authorities do at present.

But  I also  see  a  strong likelihood that  in the  near future,  compulsorily converted schools who are struggling  with their new  “independence”  will  be  forced  to seek  refuge and rescue  by being  joined  to  such  chains.

What the price autonomy then?  And some chains make it clear that they have a particular philosophical viewpoint – one that is not to everyone’s taste. So forced unions would be hugely problematic.

And here’s the problem.  The government’s plans are, in reality,  a  straight  transfer of resources and responsibility. These move away from  local authorities, and the democratic control  that  they are subject to, in favour, ultimately,  of private organisations  who  are not accountable in anything like the same way. And who must as a reason to  continue to exist,  turn in  a profit.

This is not in any way a straight-forward issue – but the budget announcement is audacious for all the wrong reasons.

In defence of rugby – the real issue is choice


The call for schools to ban tackling in rugby is misplaced and would seem to do little credit to those making the suggestion.  Here’s why:

Tackling is an inherent part of the game. It has been suggested that tagging or touch-tackling could be used instead, but what of other physical contact situations – scrums, rucks, mauls, line-outs.

So if in reality we are talking about banning rugby at school, does that mean we are also saying it is inherently unsafe for young people? If that is the case, then surely under 18s should not be playing   rugby for the clubs that thousands and thousands of kids belong to.

And if it is not just  rugby ,  but contact  sports  that are the problem,  then  we have  a lengthening list  of prohibited activities.  Boxing, judo, GAA football, lacrosse, water polo.

If we are worried, ultimately,  about  our kids  engaging in unsafe activities,  then perhaps we need to  rule  out  school ski-ing trips,  or banning u18s from ice-skating or  surfing?,

No, no no the rugby-cullers will say – it’s all about what is proportionate. What is the level of risk?

Well one way of mitigating risk is through effective regulation. And the Rugby Football Union (RFU)  has a comprehensive programme – including more recently schools rugby.  There is considerable and never-ending debate about how to phase in certain moves, what the right   level of contact   is for each age group, how games are referred and clubs managed.

Could there be more? Yes – there is too much variation in the standards of referring.  Yellow or red cards are seen too rarely.  Schools should be regulated as closely as clubs. More auditing would be desirable.

But rugby is one of those games that are a true team sport. It caters for kids with a wide variety of builds, statures, innate speed and strength. The team can only win as a unit.  When properly managed, the unavoidable risk is contained by regulation.

And actually, getting kids involved in regular physical activity is a big issue  for our society. So is working collaboratively.  And so  is  providing  a sensible and staged pathway into one of our national  sports so  people  don’t get to  adult-hood and  dive straight in  without  any understanding  of technique or tactics.

And there is of course one further point about seeking to ban rugby (or tackling) in schools. Most educational establishments these days are independent of central control.  They have considerable autonomy, so it is unclear to what extent any instruction will be complied with.

I do not buy the argument that rugby is “character forming” or “toughens people up”. Often these are poor euphemisms for bullying or abuse. And is not that the real core issue?  This isn’t about rugby tackling or not – this is to do with choice, preparation, and support.

Our school kids and their parents should have the right to chose whether or not to participate in contact sports, and be encouraged by the knowledge that they will be well coached and managed. It is no fun and to no advantage for 11 year olds to be chucked into an environment that if poorly coached and badly managed, is as unsafe as the critics claim. That’s the real issue.