21 October 2018 | OPINION
Academy schools have been the beating heart of education reform in England and Wales since they were first introduced under the Learning and Skills Act 2000. The schools have supporters across the political divide, and the Coalition government followed in New Labour’s footsteps by passing the Academies Act in 2010, which strengthened the ability for academies to shape its own curriculum and encouraged schools to convert to academy status. As such, academy schools are no longer a small project of a specific government, they are the beating heart of our education system.
The evidence suggests that academies have helped to reshape our education system for the better, driving up standards for all students regardless of background and circumstance. Academies put education back in to the hands of professionals who are dedicated to modernising and improving education standards across Britain.
However, academies have continued to be extremely controversial, and many critics have argued that they increase segregation and leads to the break-up of the state school system. These are far-fetched conclusions, especially given that central government continues to play an important role in the financing and oversight of academy schools.
Yet, it is concerning that both major political parties are now turning their back on academies, despite all the success they have had. The Labour party are now pledging to scrap the academies programme and introduce what they are calling “co-operative academy trusts” which would include greater involvement for local authorities. This would create needless bureaucracy which would serve to do nothing but make it more difficult for school professionals to do their job effectively.
The current Conservative government are focusing energy on the reintroduction of grammar schools, which would be equally regressive for England’s education system. Education policy should focus on supporting equality of access and equality of excellence, and selection at the age of eleven years old would do nothing to achieve this.
It would be wrong to not acknowledge that there are problems with academies that will need to be addressed as part of a programme of further reform. Some multi-academy chains (MATS) have issued warnings about funding, and it is vital that more money is made available from government to support MATS.
However, whilst it is too early to say with any real accuracy just how far academy schools have improved education standards, there are several tangible signs that demonstrates that they have been a force for good. For example, 30% of academies have been judged as outstanding, compared to 21% of all other schools. In addition, a report by the London School of Economics found that moving to a more autonomous school structure through academy conversion generates a significant improvement in the quality of pupil intake and significant improvement in pupil performance.
There have been two other important long-term changes that the academies policy has also unleashed. The first is that they have put the decision about learning development in to the hands of professionals, and out of the control of local authorities. Local government does everything from collecting waste to licensing – they are not bodies that are set up to be dedicated to education. For too long the bureaucracy of local government was hindering the ability of underachieving schools to reform, and the academies policy rightly put an end to this.
The second and most important aspect of the academies policy which has helped revolutionise education in England and Wales is the greater freedom it has given to schools to set their own curriculum. The pace of change in today’s job market in terms of the skills required to fulfil emerging opportunities means it is vital that schools can adapt their curriculum to remain fit for purpose and not be constrained by a rigid national structure.
Academy schools are the beating heart of England’s education system today, and they should be maintained and supported. Of course, further reform is always necessary to continue to modernise our schools, but academies have gone a long way in ensuring that every child can fulfil their potential.