Fiona Millar: The Gove plan: Why so quiet, Labour?

The coalition favours localism, but its new academies can be set up without asking the parents. The Opposition should speak up

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There was something both poignant and ironic in the news that a Birmingham secondary school, previously judged outstanding, had been failed by inspectors following its conversion to an academy.

The fall from grace of Shireland Collegiate Academy must be a crushing disappointment for staff, pupils and parents alike. Being publicly named and shamed is deeply depressing experience. My children were in a school that went through a similar experience in the mid-1990s, and I can still remember the horror with which friends and neighbours viewed our decision to keep them there.

However the news coincided with what can only be described as the Education Secretary Michael Gove's almost hysterical impatience to get as many schools as possible to become academies, and "opt out" of their local authorities, with a fast-track process for those already judged outstanding. If anything, it should cause him to pause and take stock of a few basic facts.

The first is that giving school "independence" is not a magic bullet. The history of the academies has been mixed from the start. For every stunning success, such as that of Mossbourne Academy, in Hackney, north-east London, there have been failures. The verdict on Shireland comes only two weeks after it emerged that the United Learning Trust, the country's largest sponsor of academies, has had three of its schools branded inadequate by Ofsted in the past year. Another school run by private management in Michael Gove's Surrey constituency recently failed an Ofsted inspection and had to go back under local authority control.

The second is that the very essence of the "academies" movement – independence and control by sponsors with minimum input from teachers, parents and the wider community – runs completely counter to the Gove/Cameron idea of a "big society" in which local people are allegedly enabled and empowered.

Probe the detail of the new Academies Bill and what do you find? The decision to opt out can be made by the head and governing body alone without any consultation with parents. Once the decision has been made, the Secretary of State can order the immediate closure of the existing school, enabling it to open overnight as an academy contracted to the Department for Education, thereby ensuring that this could be one of the biggest acts of centralisation, rather than devolution of power, in the history of English education

There will also be consequences for parents, pupils and social cohesion. If scores of local schools opt out, taking with them a slice of local authority funding, there will be less to provide central services, usually in areas such as early years and SEN, for the schools left behind.

Most schools are not currently "run" by faceless bureaucrats in town halls, as the Tories like to pretend, but by heads and governors in touch with their communities. However, they are all bound into a common framework on admissions and provision for children who are vulnerable, have special educational needs or are at risk of exclusion.

Creating thousands of academies which lie outside that framework will almost certainly lead to the emergence of a school system even more segregated, especially in urban areas, than the one we have now, with the poorest and most vulnerable children the losers. This is already happening in countries such as Sweden, where similar experiments have already been tried.

No one would deny that there are plenty of challenges facing state education, but state schools are not in crisis as the Tories and many sections of the media would have us believe. Last year 69 per cent of schools were judged good or outstanding, proof that the current system of local authority "control" can't be all bad.

The gap in attainment between the best and the worst off children is still a scar on the whole nation. But creating an increasingly fragmented and hierarchical structure of institutions, free to pick and chose the children they want to teach, and kick out the ones they don't, is not the answer. Finding outstanding heads and teachers for all schools, within a strong local framework, is.

My hunch is that this "revolution" may not be quite the whirlwind Gove is yearning for. The signs already are that many parents sense unfairness in this proposal. A poll carried out on the policies in the Queens speech found that the plans for academies and parent promoted "free" schools were the least popular of all.

The National Governors Association has already fired a warning shot – advising its members not to rush into changing status without a full consultation of parents and the wider community. And we don't yet know what the reaction of the other two main political parties will be. Virtually every detail in the new Academies Bill conflicts with the education policy that was carefully crafted by Liberal Democrat members in the run up to the general election. Will they stand by and allow their MPs to support Gove shredding their cherished belief in local oversight of all schools.

However it is the Labour MPs and peers, having been the midwives to the original academies, against the wishes of many party members, who are now in the trickiest position. Do they continue the logic of their earlier position and vote with the coalition on this Bill? A chilling prospect.

Or do they finally wake up to the fact that the "direction of travel" set in train by the hotly contested 2006 Education and Inspection Act, has been worse than even their fiercest critics predicted, and start to craft an alternative argument.

The silence from the leadership, and from those aspiring to it, two of whom were education ministers and supported academies at the time, is deafening. But the Bill is about to be rushed through Parliament, so someone will have to speak up soon.

www.thetruthaboutourschools.com

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