Of all the policies that have been adopted in education in recent years it is the creation of Academies that has caused the most concern on the left. It is therefore tempting to give a commitment that these will be abolished as soon as the Conservatives are voted out.
But I think we might need a slightly more intelligent response. Well over half the secondary schools in the country are now academies and a large number of parents with children at these schools and teachers who work in them haven't noticed a takeover by religious zealots determined to make a fortune out of their children whilst teaching them about the dangers of Darwinism. Rather the reverse. The majority of these schools have done quite well and are liked by those who use them. This means that any policy approach that looks like a blanket attack on them is doomed to create a lot of unnecessary opposition from ordinary people who care about their kids and about decent state education.
We are in a new situation and we therefore need some new and more intelligent thinking. Instead of straight abolition we need to focus on how we can ensure there is proper local control and accountability over academies. The Conservatives have wasted a lot of time and energy of some very good Head Teachers and governing bodies by forcing them to engage in the hugely bureaucratic exercise of becoming academies. It is not a great idea to repeat the exercise in reverse especially when there is nothing much wrong with the governance of most academies.
The Co-operative movement sponsors several academies, so do a number of Universities and many completely honest and sincere charities. Many sponsors are well intentioned people who aren't interested in taking money out of education and a very high proportion of them are strong opponents of any drift towards privatisation. Equally an enormous majority of the Head Teachers in academies are genuinely interested only in improving their schools and not in the size of their executive reward package. Any attack on these people easily rebounds on those making the attack when parents are happy with the service.
But parents do want to know what they can do when they are not happy with the way things are being run. It is this that needs to be the focus of any change after the next election.
When something goes wrong in a school looked after by a local authority a parent can talk to their local councillor and have the problem checked out. If the local councillor checks it out and finds that others feel the same way then the councillor can quickly get hold of their Director of Children's Services and make sure something happens.
Consider what happens if the same problem arises in an academy. Do you know who you would go to in order to complain about your local academy? Do you know who you would ring if you worked at an academy and discovered the exam results were being laundered? By what means would central government discover it if a Head Teacher was buying large amounts of equipment from a company that was owned by that Head? Who in an academy school would be brave enough to complain if the teaching was actually propaganda?
Very few people know the answer to these questions. Indeed the vast majority of parents with children at a school still think they can complain to their councillor if they discover a systematic problem at their local school. They would be shocked to discover that actually they are expected to complain to the school itself or some obscure sponsor they may never have heard of and then if that process is exhausted they can ask for an equally obscure branch of the Department for Education to check whether their appeal has been heard correctly.
This isn't right and proper and most parents would easily recognise it as such regardless of how much they liked their school and its sponsor. No school where child abuse is suspected should be left to investigate itself without any serious outside challenge. The same is true of schools where there is a suspicion that children are being subjected to brainwashing whether that comes from an Islamic extremist sect or a Christian extremist sect. Nor should schools with excessive exclusions or neglect of those with disabilities be allowed to exonerate themselves. We need some rigour back in the accountability and it could be achieved easily, quickly and popularly.
What is needed is to give the local authority the kind of rights that most people think they have already, namely:
1. The right to fully inspect the accounts of every school in the locality on demand.
2. The right to ask a Head for an explanation of any change in exam results and to see internal information on entries and results of any exam results
3. The right to require a governing body to organise an independent enquiry into the behaviour of a Head teacher and to suspend that teacher until it is conducted.
4. The power to initiate a process that can result in the change of a sponsor of an academy
5. The right to conduct an independent investigation into treatment of those with disabilities, excessive exclusions, bullying or child abuse and to have full access to the information required to conduct that investigation.
6. The right to conduct an independent investigation into allegations that what is being taught is inappropriate
Simple measures along these lines could put local communities back in proper control of the education service they are paying for in their locality. Most of them do not require legislation and they could be introduced within days of a new government being elected. Most importantly they are about empowering local people and local parents.
Few parents feel brave enough to challenge the decisions of a Head Teacher or a Governing Body when they know that their child is exposed to the tender mercies of the people that they are challenging. Similarly, few members of staff want to risk their career by whistle blowing. We need to put the power to obtain effective redress in the hands of a body that can't be bullied and has to listen to the public. The ideal way to do that is to give local authorities back a sensible degree of oversight over academies without wasting time and energy on making yet another set of bureaucratic changes to how schools are governed.
What would you like the next government to be remembered for? Making another bureaucratic top down change to school governance? Or putting proper democratic controls in place whilst letting teachers, heads and governors focus on improving the quality of education and training?
The author has worked at every level in education from inner city teacher, Head of Department, Deputy Principal, Director of a College, Executive Director of the Learning and Skills Council in the Black Country, and Regional Director of Young People's Learning for Yorkshire and the Humber.