During the general election the Tories promised to turn thousands of schools into academies, free from local authority control, and to allow groups of parents and others to set up so-called “free schools” which would also be academies.
After the election the new Education Secretary, Michael Gove, rushed legislation to allow all schools to become academies through Parliament. Schools rated “outstanding” by Ofsted could be fast-tracked through the process and open as academies from 1 September.
Weeks later Gove boasted that nearly 2,000 schools had expressed interest. On that basis he claimed that up to 1,000 schools would open as academies from September. However, when the new school term began Gove had to admit that the number of new academies was just 32!
The right-wing press have launched an attack on teacher unions for their role in frustrating Gove’s plans.
The front page of this month’s Spectator magazine shouts “The New School Bullies” and accuses the NUT of thuggish behaviour, frightening school heads off a move to academy status. The Daily Telegraph on 30 August headlines its report “School reforms held up by trade union militants”.
For certain, trade union opposition and campaigning has played a major role in persuading the vast majority of those schools who expressed an interest that they should not rush to become academies. This was done mainly through well-targeted letters to heads and governors, meetings with staff in schools, material to parents, and street stalls and public meetings.
The evidence for “thuggishness” and aggression cited by the Tory press is laughable. The Telegraph refers to the NUT warning schools to comply with all their legal duties and using the Freedom of Information Act to check that they have.
The worst example of intimidating behaviour, cited in both the Spectator and Telegraph, is a union email to heads which said: “We regard these proposals as a fundamental attack on state education and will do everything we can to stop a school becoming an academy up to and including industrial action.”
In fact, this material to schools was produced jointly by all school staff unions, and there is nothing remarkable or aggressive about any of it. If anything, some of it is much too soft with, for example, a petition to governors asking them to ensure that they consult before becoming an academy and ensure that “both sides of the debate” are heard.
But there is more to Gove’s failure than union opposition. The attempt to rush huge numbers of schools through a significant change in their status raised suspicions right across state education.
When governors were being asked to commit to this plan the legislation had not been approved. Key questions, such as how the governing body will change and how much money will the school get, could not be answered. The initial long list of schools expressing an interest was just that, and never an indication of serious intentions.
The other explanation of the Tory press for this slow take-up is that a Labour amendment to the Academies Act has led to a requirement on schools to consult before changing status.
Apart from being a basic democratic check, this will be a useful campaigning tool, but it is unlikely to have had much effect on keeping the numbers so low this September. The 32 new academies needed to apply before the Bill, including this amendment, had passed. They should now be challenged by unions and parent campaigners to prove that they did consult and that they properly carried out their legal duty to consult under TUPE.
It seems the Tories cannot accept that academy status is not popular, and that very few people in education believe it solves any of their problems.
Other encouraging news is the announcement that the number of “free schools” likely to open in September 2011 is “up to 12.” There are over 20,000 state schools in England and Wales.
To the extent that trade union campaigning has contributed to this we should be proud: use it to demonstrate that you can win, and call for more of the same.
We cannot, however, be complacent. There are around 140 schools proposing to move to academy status this year. Some of those who thought better of a rush to leave their local authority this September still intend to go ahead, albeit at a slower pace. Gove will regroup and consider ways of injecting his plans with more dynamism.
The Government and those heads and governors who support their plans need to know that when unions say we will do whatever we can to oppose moves to academy status, up to and including strike action, we mean it and can deliver it.