Academies

Academisation should not be creating second-class families

The DfE’s culture of secrecy and expediency over forced academisation needs to change, writes Mark Boylan, and there is an obvious place to start

The DfE’s culture of secrecy and expediency over forced academisation needs to change, writes Mark Boylan, and there is an obvious place to start

28 May 2023, 5:00

Research shows that whether a school academises makes no long term difference to exam outcomes. On the other hand, parental  and carer engagement in their children’s education does make a big difference.

For just about any other issue in education, evidence is usually mixed and different sides of a debate can find evidence to support their views. Not so when it comes to the importance of families; the research and the experiences of school leaders and teachers all point in the same direction – involving families matters.

Unfortunately, the Department for Education in England appear to think differently, at least when it comes to academisation. The result of its policy is that there are essentially two types of families: Those whose children attend schools where leaders and governors have decided that the school should become an academy, and those whose children go to a school where the decision has been triggered by an Ofsted inspection.

For the first type of family, there is a clearly defined process of consultation about becoming an academy and which multi-academy trust the school joins. This makes sense as a nod to parental choice and is the most likely way to sustain community cohesion around the change.

For the second type of family, however, there is no say. Indeed, they might not even be told which trust is being proposed as a sponsor until after the decision is made. Instead of transparency, these families get no information.

This happened to my family this year. The DfE posted an agenda for my daughter’s school to join a particular trust without publicly announcing a proposal or even a meeting planned to discuss it. Shamelessly, the agenda was actually posted with a tag that publication was for ‘transparency’.

The Department for Education didn’t just disregard parents, carers and pupils. The headteacher,  governing body and local authority officials were all left in the dark by the DfE’s proposal.

Those charged with crimes have more rights

The only conclusion to draw from this is that the second type of school – the kind that has lost the Ofsted inspection lottery – has not just foregone its rights to basic information, let alone consultation, but sacrificed its parents’ rights too.

No other government action is so lacking in scrutiny. Those charged with crimes have more rights than families whose school has received a poor Ofsted judgment, and all evidently for the convenience of the DfE.

It is hard to see how the DfE’s academisation policy meets the UK’s commitment to the United Nations declaration on the rights of children, which states that children have the right to consultation on decisions that affect their lives. But rights notwithstanding, picking a trust for a school in a meeting in a regional  office or on a Teams call is simply a bad way to make decisions.

Before proposals are made, DfE staff should visit schools, talk to senior leaders, consult with trade unions and gather views of parents, carers and pupils.  In our case, the Department has accepted that it may not have got things right and are rethinking, though still without asking for parents’ views.

A more thoughtful and careful approach is also fairer to potential sponsors as it allows them to make a more informed decision about whether bringing a school into the trust is a good move.

The 2010 Academy Act sets out a legal framework for the DfE to follow.  The department says the act does not require them to consult with school leaders or families following Ofsted downgrades. But the regional directors’ guidance is an operational policy that could and should go beyond the legal minimum.

Trust leaders say transparency is also lacking from DfE decision making about schools that are already academies. Clearly, there is a culture that places expediency above all else. This models a lack of care and undermines schools’ efforts to engage parents in other important decisions. It needs to change, and a good place to start would be a consultation on the new guidance itself.

Parents’ and carers’ priorities about what makes a good trust differ from officials’, and there should be no second-class families when it comes to that.

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