Academies – not as big a deal as you think

Of course, where better than the graceful bastion that is Islington Green to start this blog post?  I, being a teacher in North East London, was perusing the shelves in Waterstones just off Upper Street, as one does of an evening when one isn’t marking or planning lessons.  To my surprise, a familiar face from my past appeared.  I recognised her first as the fiercest Head of Year I have ever worked with; she was reknowned for the fact that her bark and her bite were equally menacing.  We hadn’t seen each other since I left my first school, nearly six years ago.

Cue phatic communication of the most banal sort – oh, don’t mind the deliberate omission of my first school’s name; this is my attempt at discretion.  “How are things at — School?”  I asked, genuinely interested but conscious that a friend of hers was waiting patiently to move on, doing that shuffling feet thing that only happens when you really don’t want to have a quick chat and would much rather be sat in Ottolenghi, eating a giant pink meringue.  Former fierce colleague kept it short and conspiratorial.  “He – ” she lowered her voice, referring to the dreaded relatively young and upwardly mobile headteacher whom everyone pretty much disliked, ” – is thinking of turning us into an academy.” 

I oohed, as was expected.  “Well, you know…” I shrugged.  She was not to be dismissed so easily.  “You’ve worked in two academies now,” she pointed out, as if I hadn’t noticed.  She leaned in closer, possibly so as not to be overheard.  “What is it, you know…like?”

I pondered for a moment, as my mischievous streak debated whether to inform her about the secret document all academy staff are forced to sign, in their own blood, waiving the protection of the European Working Time Directive and how TUPE staff are regularly forced to eat dry bread and marmite during lunch break. 

You see, here we must pause and consider my first school, as it may go some way to explain the fear in my former colleague’s face when she announced the possible conversion to academy status.  If I were to say that the atmosphere there was somewhat combative, somewhat antagonistic and certainly somewhat resistant to change, I would be making three of the biggest understatements I have ever made.  The school was characterised by its absolute inability to recognise the good in anything new.  I think, to this day, it is the only school I know of that voted against BSF funding on a variety of so-called principles, even though Ofsted had declared the building unfit for purpose – and won!  Former colleague, as much I respect the work she has done over the years, was a product of that environment.  Change is bad.  We don’t know what’s going to happen, therefore, we don’t like it.

So, after two academies, I feel I am in quite a good position to make comment.  There is nothing wrong, in principle, with the idea of academies.  Where successful, they have been funded by interested and valuable contributors, private sector or not.  Where successful, staff and students have, in most cases, benefitted from new buildings, a wealth of resources that LAs couldn’t afford and didn’t have the imagination to think they were needed.  Where successful, academies have had to fight to prove their worth and when staff teams fight for something together, it drives improvement. 

Yes, there is always the question of those academies that have been less successful.  Having worked in one, I can, without malice, state that the problems were not caused by concept of a school becoming an academy; problems were caused by individuals, as they often are in schools.  Individuals, who for various reasons, didn’t want to see change – who were caught up in the strange mythologies associated with academy status.  Or, just as difficult, individuals who couldn’t lead change. 

Former colleague, I wanted to say, we are so far past the debate as to whether schools should become academies, here in 2011.  Academies are doing great things – the children are happy.  They don’t care whether their school is a comprehensive or not; they want to know whether their school will provide them with laptops, and a recording suite, and a multi gym they can use after school, with their parents.  They want to feel proud of the building they spend time in every day – and believe me, it shows when they are proud of their building.  Call me brainwashed and thrust some anti-academy NUT leaflets under my nose: I like my academy.  It’s a good place to be.

Former colleague was still waiting for me to respond.  I gave her a smile, which may have been patronising or reassuring, or both.  “You know, academies,” I said, “they’re not as big a deal as you think.”

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