Focus on the beach and the barbie
Everyone is a bit tired, the beach is becoming increasingly attractive and the barbecue has considerably more appeal than the Parent Council meeting. Cleverly, the restored and newly austere Department for Education with its energetic newbie Ministerial team, now bereft of its cheery cartoon characters and its impossibly long name, has taken a leaf out of the schools’ book and decided to go for big change with the maximum of speed and the minimum of stakeholder engagement.
I thought I was joking earlier this year when I suggested that head teachers and governors might be spending their summer holidays turning their schools into Academies (Booked your holiday yet?) but it looks like that might be exactly what they will be doing.
Last week the Secretary of State for Schools wrote to all Heads of English schools deemed to be “Outstanding” asking them if they would like to become Academies and suggesting they could assume this supposedly elevated status by the beginning of September. Now he is rushing through the legislation to help it happen.
No time to talk
It is ironic that in the same week that the government announces it wants to “consult” the public about the planned cuts, and hot on the heels of “Big Society” and “Little Platoons of Civil Society”, the government is setting out new legislation which will allow the Secretary of State to issue a “Discontinuance Order” removing the need for schools to consult before they become Academies. So no need to worry then about the fact that there is not enough time between now and September for schools to run a consultation which meets the basic guidelines (12 weeks and not over a holiday period).
A spokesman from the Department for Education agreed that it was important to talk to parents and others about such decisions (but not, apparently, important enough to enshrine in the legislation itself):
“The governing bodies of the schools wanting to convert [to academy status] have at least one, but often more parent governor and teacher governor – they are there to be the voice of these groups and the governing body has to pass a resolution before it can become an academy so they will have their chance to oppose the plans then.”
You have to feel sorry for the one parent governor who gets lumbered with this one. “It’s ok, we won’t bother to talk to the parents of the 1200 children in this school. You are a parent – you know what parents think so just tell us and then we can get on with it.” This is not a “little platoon of civil society”. This is more like “last man standing”.
All aboard – whether you like it or not
Some of my daughters attend a good (officially “outstanding”) local secondary school which is not yet an academy and is monitored and supported by the local authority. In theory, by the time the kids come back in September, it could have removed itself from local authority control, changed its admissions criteria, changed its staff, set its own pay rates and been “freed” from having to follow the national curriculum. And all this without consulting the students, their parents, the staff or the wider community. Once it has achieved academy status there will be no democratic process of accountability whereby anyone outside a very small self-selected group can influence what happens in the school, not even the locally elected councillors. No wonder the lawyers are anxious.
“It is hard to escape the conclusion that this bill is undemocratic. What this does is remove the public process. Nobody, apart from the education secretary and the governors will be able to stop the process. It seems to be entirely out of kilter with the idea of a ‘Big Society’. You are handing power to the governors to steal the school. If they want to change the ethos or make the pupils wear the uniform of Etonians, they will be able to, and parents and teachers will be powerless to stop them.” said David Wolfe, an education barrister at Matrix Chambers.
Stand clear – doors closing
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of all of this is the very speed with which is it happening. My eldest daughter was told by her teachers that they had been asked by the Head not to discuss it because no-one really knew what was going on. I had a fairly similar response from the Chair of Governors. This would be fine if any of us had any confidence that at some point clarity would be achieved and someone would be ready to talk to us about it but the combination of ideas that have not been worked through, deliberate obfuscation and a legally entrenched unwillingness to talk does not bode well.
Decisions versus Consultation
It is clear that the government is failing where so many of the best intentioned have failed before in being convinced that consultation is the enemy of decisions. They fear losing that early opportunity for change and reform that new governments have for an all too brief moment and worry that their bright new ideas will be condemned to the rust heap of failed political and social agendas. They fear that any hint of hesitation will bring the change convoy to a halt in no man’s land exposed to the risk of being blown off the road by the IEDs of ‘events, dear boy, events’.
They will take an election campaign as an exercise in consultation and the votes they gain as a sign of citizen approval for whatever initiatives follow. For this they discard the rhetoric of citizen and public participation in favour of the managerial emphasis on implementing what they already know is right and if they do not do it now, the new government will feel that it will never do it.
Our point is that once abandoned, the principles of the Big Society can never be reclaimed by an incoming administration. You involve people in important things that matter like their children’s schools from the start or you don’t. If you opt for the latter approach, when you do turn round and say “now you can get involved but – hey – all the important decisions have been made”, do not be surprised if no one comes and the hall is empty.