St Albans and Harpenden education experts offer a different take on academies

Chancellor George Osbourne wants all schools to become academies by 2020 or have plans to do so by 2

Chancellor George Osbourne wants all schools to become academies by 2020 or have plans to do so by 2022 - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima

The government’s recent announcement to convert all schools to academies has been met with mixed feedback from the district’s education community.

Although St Albans’ academies speak highly of their experience since converting, two former St Albans and Harpenden school teachers have spoken out about the detrimental effects the change could pose.

Academies are funded by the government but independently run with the help of outside sponsors. Chancellor George Osborne announced in last month’s Budget that all schools must convert by 2020 or have official plans to do so by 2022.

Several St Albans academy trusts have spoken to the Herts Advertiser about their positive experience after converting, despite national concern.

Androulla Peek, executive headteacher at Fleetville Junior school and CEO of Spiral Partnership Trust, said: “We likened being a local authority school to being a grown-up living at home with their parents.

“Becoming an academy was like leaving home and setting up for ourselves. We have been able to make independent choices and use our resources to follow through our beliefs.”

But Dr Jon Berry, senior lecturer in education at the University of Hertfordshire, who taught at Samuel Ryder Academy when it was Francis Bacon, expressed concern.

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He said: “I think academies divert time, money and attention away from what schools should do - teach. I think the changes proposed are there to eliminate the last vestiges of democratic accountability because all of these schools are democratically accountable to Whitehall.”

He continued: “The academies, because they’re in a pressurised and competitive environment, all live and die by their test results. If you’re becoming concerned at the never-ending testing implemented at the expense of creativity and enjoyment then it’s only going to get worse - and you’re not going to have your say in it because there are going to be no parent governors.”

A white paper has been issued by the government entitled ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ which outlines the proposals.

It says parents should be dropped from all school governing bodies in favour of professionals: “Governing boards need to be skills-based and focused on the strategic functions of setting a vision and holding school leaders to account for the educational and financial performance of their schools.”

Christine Hood, who taught at a Harpenden school for 33 years, disagrees that this is the best move for schools.

She said: “At the moment all academies still have parents on the governing body. The white paper takes away the need for parents to be on the governing body.

“Now who would object most if an academy started to employ more and more unqualified teachers, had bigger class sizes, decided to increase the salaries of the chief executive officer of the trust? Who would object most if that money wasn’t going into education? It would be parents wouldn’t it? So knock them off the governing bodies.

“I heard [education minister] Nicky Morgan speaking about it recently saying she wants to get more business people involved. Well, around here, parents are businesspeople. They’ve got the expertise, their financial services, and they’ve got the added incentive of their children being at the school. Why lose that?”

Christine is further worried about the switch in general as: “Ultimately some people want to make a profit out of schools, and that’s what I think is wrong about it. There are other aspects before you reach that stage but that’s the ultimate goal.”

She added: “What the white paper is proposing is that within these academies teachers need not have qualified teacher status, so they could be paid less, with larger classes.

“Schools need not follow the national curriculum so you could have all sorts of things going on in these schools. There would be some limits of course because of the national tests, but there’s a certain amount of scope, and there were some academies in the early stages who were, for example, refusing to teach evolution. There are quite serious downsides.”

There is currently just one secondary school left in the St Albans district that is not an academy - Townsend Church of England School - which did not respond to this paper’s request for comment at the time of going to press.

The district has just five primary academies, one primary free school, and 34 primary community schools which would have to covert.

Christine added that primary schools would find the change much harder due to their smaller size and would notice the cost of converting far more.

Cllr David Williams, county council cabinet member for education, said: “We have always supported schools which believe that becoming academies would be a positive step for their future. This includes running a programme which helps schools to convert to academy status.

“We will work constructively with schools to find the best way to achieve the government’s objectives while maintaining the high standards of education in Herts.”