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Elizabeth Truss is Reform’s Deputy Director and Laura Kounine is Reform’s Education and Crime Research Officer.

The main political parties have both spoken of their support for the academies programme as though it is the litmus test of educational reform.  A new report published by the independent think tank Reform argues that the current academies programme is just the first step in education reform – it should be deepened and widened in order to facilitate improvement and progress in all schools across the country.   

Richard Tice, Chairman of Governors at Northampton Academy and author of the report, shows that much greater freedom of management has transformed the school leadership’s ability and willingness to take decisions.  Specific improvements have included changes to the teaching and management staff and several changes to discipline policy including a new off-site centre for excluded pupils.   

As a result a badly underperforming school is quickly improving, though major challenges remain.  GCSE performance has significantly improved since the new management has taken over, truancy has fallen by a third, teaching absenteeism is much reduced and the school receives three applications for every place.  The school has strengthened ties with parents and other local schools

Richard’s practical experiences point to a key conclusion – it is the
management freedom, not the new buildings, which have transformed the
fortunes of this failing school.  He therefore calls for the academy
principle of freedom of management to be rolled out across the
maintained sector, not the capital investment of the academy
programme.  With very little cost, all schools would be given the
opportunity to radically improve.

In addition, there are more fundamental issues that need to be
addressed before the academy model can be rolled out.  Richard
identifies three barriers to reform which work to prevent making the
freedom of management granted to academies becoming a complete
reality.  These are the current regulations on discipline; curriculum,
testing and performance tables; and the power of the unions in
dictating the employment contracts of teachers. 

There is thus significant scope for educational reform.  The
Government’s current target is for 400 academies after 2010; the Reform
research suggests that self-government can go much further.  The
Conservatives have the opportunity to lead the debate on this issue.   

The Conservative Green Paper on education reform in December promised
to build on the academies programme by providing 220,000 new school
places, many of which would be provided through “New Academies”.  The
paper also pledged to reverse the re-imposition of the National
Curriculum, and to abolish appeals panels on exclusions.   

However, Richard Tice’s report demonstrates that the issues with the
education system are not simply about the role of Government.  It
identifies the teaching unions as holding huge cultural power.  If the
Conservatives seek to make academies work better, they need to think
about how the role of unions should change.  The report suggests they
should transform their role from a blocker of reform to becoming a
positive driver of change.  Unions must realise that the ability to
vary teachers’ pay and conditions locally is a key lever for driving up
teaching quality; and rather direct their energies to supporting
teachers by encouraging continuous professional development.  The task
now is to address the remaining reform opportunities, notably by
turning the teaching unions into partners in the reform process.

It is, then, possible to imagine education reform that begins with
support for the current academies programme but goes on to achieve much
wider benefits.  With the culture of the teaching unions’ transformed,
Government’s relinquishment of control over discipline, curriculum and
testing, and freedom of management granted to all schools, state
education in England could be significantly improved.  As Richard Tice
argues, the benefits would include better senior managers in schools on
higher salaries, schools that resemble successful businesses and more
motivated pupils and teachers.

Richard Tice’s report “Academies: a model education?” is available online at www.reform.co.uk.

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