Nicky Morgan’s so very public stand down over forced academisation on Friday was no doubt received joyously in schools across the country, I know our leadership team were high fiving one another as though we’d nailed an Ofsted inspection when the BBC news feed came in. Alas, the more I read, the more I am inclined to agree with Geoff Barton, this is not a U-turn but more of a change of tack to seal schools’ inevitable fate. Mike Cameron’s brilliant blog post illustrates this here. Academies seem to be like Marmite among educators, they are loved or hated with no place for middle ground. A conversation on Twitter about a week ago together with the events of last Friday have caused me to consider my true feelings about academies.
Throughout my career, I’ve always been a strong supporter of the union movement and believe that headteachers can work with the various representative bodies to achieve worthwhile outcomes for students and staff. The academy movement has been viewed as something completely at odds with this philosophy, so, like many others I adopt the stance of resistance, especially to the notion of forced academisation. Over the years, the horror stories of working in academies have filtered through: redundancies, unqualified teachers, lack of union representation to mention but a few, an endless list of terror. As time has passed suspicions have been compounded by underhand tactics to force conversion and hostility towards such movements has grown. However, if I reflect on all of statements damning academies, none were first or second hand experience, quantifying little more than hearsay, folklore. I’m sure there are examples to support the stories and personally, I believe that academisation is a government drive to privatise yet another public service for all the wrong reasons. Furthermore, I continue to stand united with Geoff Barton (who will be dragged kicking and screaming to the academisation line). I am however, beginning to question the cause of the horror and is it the fact that these schools are academies or is it perhaps the people who are leading them? More importantly where is the evidence to support my views?
My first experience of academisation goes back about seven years, it seems a lifetime ago now and when I held a very militant position on this matter. I visited a school in Yorkshire, a school which was in a very deprived area, high numbers of disadvantaged students, high proportions of international new arrivals and equally high numbers of students for whom English was an additional language. It is safe to say that the odds were stacked against them. Yet, with everything pointing in the direction of failure, this school was succeeding. They were succeeding across the board. This wasn’t just recognised by Ofsted, this was recognised by students, staff and parents as well as the SSAT who invited delegates to visit. At the time the school was a comprehensive school but the headteacher had talked to his staff and parents about the notion of becoming an academy. They had welcomed the news and he had their complete support. This completely bemused me, why would anyone choose to become an academy? I remember talking to a number of teachers from NQTs to SLT, every single one echoing the same sentiments “We trust him”, “It’s giving him the freedom to do what’s right”, “We know we’ve got to look beyond our LA as they don’t share our vision.” Was I receiving messages from a well-practised mantra? Was there a script that staff had to adopt when visitors came in? My cynicism led me to talk to the students and to observe the school in operation, out of the mouths of babes and all that. Every child I spoke to and every action I saw reflected everything I’d heard from the staff. The ethos of the school was warm, welcoming and caring with the value of education running throughout. Every decision that was made had a purpose. Results were brilliant but there was no game-playing in sight. Increasing students’ life chances by preparing them for university or further education was at the forefront of every programme of study, “It’s all about giving our students every opportunity to succeed.” That message came from the headteacher and resounded throughout the school. Within the year, the outstanding school had converted to an academy and has remained outstanding since. There have been times when I have had cause to question judgements of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate but their inspection report findings fully supported my experience on numerous visits. What made the difference here? What made this school in a bleak area of West Yorkshire stand out? Without a doubt, the single biggest influencing factor was the leadership of the school with the headteacher being a leading light. Decisions made were thoroughly thought out and the partnerships were not chosen lightly. More importantly, the school had a choice, they didn’t have to become an academy but felt it was the right decision for them. The headteacher had won hearts and minds, he took his staff, students, parents and other stakeholders with him. Clear vision, purpose and ethos were his tools and he executed them perfectly through continual, constant and unrelenting authentic practice.
Now, I wear a different hat and get to visit many schools. This is a fantastic opportunity to learn from some amazing communities but it also gives me the opportunity to reflect, take stock and realise how lucky I am to work in a place which I love. On my travels I get to visit a number of academies. Not once have I had a negative experience. Never have I seen any underhand conduct which the stories would suggest. Again, I’m not saying that bad practice doesn’t exist, I’m merely saying that I have never witnessed it. Additionally, LA schools are having to make difficult decisions due to funding which we would have never agreed to five years ago (arguably this is due in part to the government protecting pots for academy conversions) so the differential between the ruthless procedures in academies and the cuts which state schools are making is becoming smaller. The metaphor of frogs being boiled slowly without noticing springs to mind. The academies with which we collaborate are no different than our LA run partners. We are fussy. We work with like minds or at least ones who share our fundamental core values. And herein lies my point. The schools we work with are a reflection of their leadership, as is every school. I’d go as far as to say that they are a reflection of their headteacher. When schools are led with integrity, they emit integrity. When they are led with fear, there is a climate of unhappiness and reluctance. If they are led with love, then instantly any person coming into the school will feel that love. And it all starts with the headteacher and senior leadership team. We are what we lead. Tom Bennett’s recent tweet summed it up perfectly for me:
If headteachers are complaining about staff behaviour, attendance or attitude then maybe they need to consider why staff are feeling/acting this way? The job is a difficult one, there’s no denying it but the best leaders help staff to do the best job that they can by empowering, enabling and enacting. They add value by appreciating the work that staff do. They lead courageously and support their team. They praise publically and challenge privately. Great leaders will be great leaders whether they’re in an academy, a state school, a fee-paying or free school. What about the not so great leaders? Maybe this is where we need to focus our attention rather than on the slight of hand from the government delivering an inevitable fate? Schools are a reflection of their headteacher, their characteristics, good and bad. In state schools the personality of a school is tempered by the governing body and the local authority whose job it is to remain impartial. Occasionally, it may seem that LAs and governors may appear to be a hindrance to headteachers but they add balance at all times. They sometimes offer an opposing view or something that hasn’t been previously considered. They can sometimes inhibit the creative and visionary leaders who like to do things differently but their influence can also have a positive effect on any negative attributes which some headteachers may possess. We are lucky, we have a brilliant governing body who both challenge and support us, their expertise and experience is invaluable and their insight always worthwhile. Academies who are run by sponsors suggests a lack of impartiality so who is responsible for tempering the characteristics of headteachers which don’t necessarily support the greater good? Additionally, if the vision of the sponsors of is congruent with a headteacher’s misguided intentions then is this not going to magnify any negative behaviours even further? Perhaps this is one reason why behaviours in academies appear to be extreme? Sadly, our regression to the mean is making them less noticeable.
It’s worth considering are we fighting an inevitable losing battle with academisation? Would it not be more worthwhile to ensure the growth of great leaders? People who lead schools in the right way for the right reasons, the ones who are not afraid to stand up and be counted, who will speak out when they feel something is wrong, who are not afraid to take risks and will hold their hands up when mistakes are made; these are the people we want to be looking after our education system. If either my current headteacher or my previous one had made a decision for our school to become an academy, though I disagree with academisation, they would have had my full support. I would trust them to do the right things for the right reasons and know it wouldn’t change how the school was led. Can every headteacher say that they would do it in the right way and would their sponsors allow them to at a financial cost? Headteachers are well paid caretakers who deserve every penny as their vocation is to look after the school and its community.
For any headteachers reading this, go out there today and look at the school which you have been entrusted to take care of and reflect on what you have created. Hopefully you’ll be proud of what you see and be greeted with smiling faces. If you look around the school and don’t like what you are faced with then perhaps it’s time to take stock and consider what you can do differently to make things better. If you’re like me, hoping to one day lead a school then it’s important to learn from the right leaders. If you’re not fortunate enough to see that in practice every day then look outwardly to people like John Tomsett, Jill Berry and Mary Myatt. Don’t be afraid to stand alone if it’s the right thing to do. What we practise will become what we do and eventually who we are. Remember that schools will always reflect their leader, whether they’re an academy or not is irrelevant, leadership is what will create the culture.