Teachers, parents: take control of your school and oppose academisation

Academisation is not helping pupils, teachers or parents. As communities start kicking back, three schools in Lambeth show the way.

It feels like the tide is turning on the privatisation of our state education system.

It feels like people are starting to recognise that academisation is privatisation, that the “freedom” and “autonomy” afforded to academies is just another form of deregulation.

Academy conversion is often sold to staff by pointing out that academies have the freedom to pay “successful” teachers more. What they fail to mention is that they also have the freedom to pay all teachers less. They have the freedom to completely ignore the regulatory framework that dictates staff pay and conditions in local authority schools.

The result is predictably neo-liberal: teachers in academies are paid less, on average, than those in local authority schools. Leadership – head teachers, executive-head teachers, heads of school, academy CEOs – are paid generally more than their counterparts in local authority schools, sometimes astronomically more.

And what about the students? How does this deregulation help them? In short, it doesn’t.

The House of Commons Education Committee in 2015 reported that it found no evidence that academy status has any positive impact on attainment in primary schools, while a 2017 report form the Education Policy Institute found that academy conversion doesn’t improve GCSE attainment. More worryingly, Sutton Trust research reveals that disadvantaged pupils do less well in academies than in local authority schools.

Your child’s attainment will not be positively impacted by going to an academy, but high staff turnover and lower pay means they are more likely to see their teachers leave.

In Lambeth, south London, there is a campaign underway. Three primary schools are due to become academies on May 1st. Staff at St Luke’s, St Leonard’s and Christ Church have been told that becoming an academy is necessary to protect the Christian character of the schools – but their Christian character is not under threat. St Leonards states proudly on its website that it has been at the heart of the Streatham community for over 200 years – it’s an outstanding Church of England school, maintained by Lambeth Local Authority. There is absolutely no threat to its Christian character or its position at the heart of the community.

Academisation threatens to compromise that community link. Local governing bodies, made up of staff, parents and the community lose their policy making power. Policy and direction comes from a centralised board, in this case from the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education Multi-Academy Trust (or SDME MAT). The SDBE MAT used to display images of their board members on their website. The teachers union pointed out that they were all white – when the pupils and staff they will be making policy for are proudly diverse. The images of the SDBE MAT board have since been replaced with a table of names.

Staff have been told that nothing will change when they become academies, in fact St Luke’s website states that staff pay and conditions will stay the same. Sure, staff that are transferring from local authority to SDBE MAT employment contracts and some of their conditions will be honoured. But new teachers to the schools will have worse terms and conditions.

For example, new staff will only be entitled to half the occupational maternity pay of their Lambeth employed colleagues.

Current teachers in the schools who are promoted or take on new roles, with new contracts, will also lose their entitlement to the hard-won terms of the Lambeth Occupational Maternity Leave scheme. The irony of a school purporting to protect its Christian character by halving maternity pay has not gone unnoticed by staff.

The SDBE MAT says it will honour current national agreements on teachers’ pay, terms & conditions – many of which Lambeth local authority schools exceed – but only as they are now. If new national agreements are struck, the SDBE MAT is under no obligation to improve their staff conditions in line with these and they have stated this in their communications to staff.

St Luke’s, Christ Church and St Leonard’s are not being forced to become academies – their governing bodies have made a choice. Legally a school must hold a consultation on whether the school should convert to academy status.

According to the Department for Education this means:

“Your governing body must consult formally about your school’s plans to become an academy with anyone who has an interest in your school. This will include staff members and parents, but you should also involve pupils and the wider local community.”

The staff unions are very clear: the consultation on academy conversion was inadequate.

In one school the consultation consisted of a single email to parents. In another it was a meeting that two parents attended. Seemingly no attempts were made to engage with parents for whom English is not their first language. Staff consultation was also unacceptable. In one school, staff were asked to vote on the school becoming an academy, they voted against it. It was a great surprise to them that they were invited to a meeting with a consultant some time later and told they would be academy employees, not Lambeth employees, within a month.

Thanks to a group of teachers in one of the schools raising their objections, the date for the conversion of these three schools has been moved to May 1st. However, none of the questions staff raised about their job security, about the rapidly expanding Multi-Academy Trust, about their concerns for their pupils, have been answered.

Now the staff, through their unions, have decided to do what their schools failed to do in any meaningful way: they are holding a community consultation. They are inviting parents and staff to discuss what academisation means for the communities these schools serve. They have sought out volunteers to translate for parents previously disenfranchised from consultation. They are also inviting the CEO of SDBE MAT – none of them have met him and they’d like to give him a chance to answer their questions.

May this pave the way for other actions across the country.

Leah Williams is a former teacher turned trade union organiser. She writes in personal capacity. 

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