As the smoke clears around the Birmingham Trojan Horse investigations, a real sense of the scale and seriousness of the issues is finally emerging. With five schools being judged ‘inadequate’ and 11 more identified as ‘requires improvement’ there are substantial concerns that need to be addressed and lessons that need to be learned across the system.
But it is also clear that these issues are not unique to one particular type of school. Almost all of the 16 schools – academies and maintained schools alike – have been told to review their governance or safeguarding arrangements. With oversight of these schools spanning variously the local authority, Education Funding Agency, Department for Education and Ofsted everyone has serious lessons to learn.
Unfortunately though we are starting to see this case being used as a scapegoat by those that remain opposed to the growth of academies and free schools, even after 15 years in which governments of all stripes have sought to expand the freedom and autonomy of schools. They are seeking to co-opt this Trojan Horse in all senses and use the events in Birmingham to overshadow the very real and positive developments that the growth of academies has had on the system as a whole. But we should all be wary of efforts the question the positive impact of putting responsibility in the hands of Headteachers by conflating academy freedoms in general with the specific concerns raised by these recent cases.
The bottom line is that the freedoms enjoyed by academies have allowed headteachers to run better schools. Schools that offer extended days; give students more teaching time; pay staff according to performance; or give children who would not usually have the chance the opportunity to access extra-curricular activities. But, most importantly, academies have helped raise standards and educational achievement for pupils around the country. The reward of putting headteachers in control is also evident in the entrepreneurialism that has allowed schools like Perry Beeches – one of the best academies in Birmingham – to open three new free schools (four come September) and so enable hundreds more students in one of the most deprived areas of the city to access an excellent education.
The fear being exploited in this case is that autonomy is coming at the cost of effective oversight. What this fails to acknowledge is that the proposed alternative – local authority oversight – is by no means a flawless alternative. The fact that two maintained schools go into Special Measures every day shows that local authority oversight is no guarantee of high standards. And it must be remembered that Academies were introduced in the first place to address concerns about the quality of educational standards under the previous local authority controlled system.
Of course, autonomy and accountability must be in lock step. And in fact the early years and evolution of the free schools programme offers a number of lessons that could usefully be extended to the system more broadly. For example, as brand new institutions, free schools are subject to robust background checks on the governors involved in setting them up – more so than other state schools. They are also required to prove in their proposals how they will provide a broad and balanced curriculum and how they will work with all sections of the community to promote a culture of inclusion – things which Ofsted found were sorely lacking in some of the Birmingham schools.
And where there have been challenges in a tiny minority of free schools – issues have been addressed decisively and quickly. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the over 150 maintained schools that have been in special measures for over a year, showing again how free schools can be part of a solution for our education system.
All parties are agreed that oversight and governance of schools are of critical importance. They are all looking at options for a regional structure that could help address some of the issues that have arisen in Birmingham and, although they may disagree on the detail, the fact that everyone is moving in the same direction surely suggests that this must not become a political wedge issue: it’s too important for that.
The lesson of the original Trojan Horse was to ‘beware Greeks bearing gifts’. In this case it is perhaps more ‘beware critics bearing easy answers’.
Natalie Evans is director of the New Schools Network