Could do better - much better

Maggie JonesMaggie Jones on why Education Ministers must deal with the negative social impact of their schools policies

Tonight will see the first major speech by new Lords Education Minister, Lord Nash. He has chosen to speak on academies and free schools – perhaps as a more promising topic than much else in the Tory Education box of tricks. But as this policy rolls out there is a greater weight of academic evidence questioning its impact and I look forward to challenging the Minister on these issues in the debate.

The previous Labour government was passionate in its desire to drive up school standards and improve educational outcomes. Sponsored academies were part of our reform agenda. They were set up to address persistently underperforming schools in areas of high deprivation, providing a new school leadership team and a sponsor to support school improvement. They were, and are, a success story. 

It’s a measure of its success that this is one of the few Labour achievements that Michael Gove didn’t gratuitously rip up on coming to office. Instead however, the concept has been redefined and diluted to mean something different and has lost much of the unique transformative power that characterised the early experience.

The latest government research shows that the original model of ‘sponsored academies’  are now massively outnumbered by so called ‘converter academies’ – schools already judged good or outstanding by Ofsted and which have chosen to convert to academies backed by the offer of large financial incentives. Without the benefit of a fresh start with new leaders, their subsequent performance has been more mixed. 

Ministers’ push to extend the academies programme to all schools, even in the face of parental resistance, highlights an essential difference with Labour. We believe all schools, regardless of status, have the capacity to innovate and transform where their leaders are ambitious and focused. The key is understanding the importance of improving exam results, making a positive contribution to tackling disadvantage and earning respect in the wider community.

This approach was well illustrated by the London Challenge - something that we introduced in government and which was one of Mr Gove’s first casualties for the chop. When I first became a Shadow Minister I visited a number of these schools and was impressed by what I saw. Some were academies and some were maintained schools, but all were highly performing. They had all benefitted from the programme’s emphasis on strong and innovative leaders who worked collaboratively with other schools to drive up the standards of teaching. As a result London’s schools are now the best performing in the country.

Increasing national and international research shows that this collaboration is vital to school improvement. Yet the government has placed great emphasis on the autonomy of academies; and a recent report from the Academies Commission shows that many ‘converter academies’ have been allowed to break their original requirement to support a nearby struggling school as part of the conversion. The report also highlights how many of these schools have been allowed to introduce complex admissions policies, which all but the most determined parents find difficult to navigate. As a result, children from socially deprived backgrounds remain disproportionately more likely to attend a school that is classed as underperforming by Ofsted.

While Lord Nash is relatively new in his role, I would hope he and his ministerial colleagues will commit to tackling these concerns during the second half of the Coalition’s term of office. Anything short of that commitment won’t do.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a Shadow Education Minister in the Lords, and also a member of Labour’s DCMS team

Monday 4th February 2013

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