Graham Brady is Chairman of the 1922 Committee and MP for Altrincham and Sale West.
Raising standards in schools and returning rigour to public examinations have been among the greatest achievements of the government since 2010. Academies and Free Schools have been an important part of this drive to spread opportunity more widely. This effort to extend parental choice and to give greater autonomy to schools has a long and proud heritage in our party.
The progenitor of much of what has been done is Kenneth Baker, whose Great Education Reform Act in 1988 set out the model of Grant-maintained (GM) schools that allowed some of the best performing schools to strike out on their own, freed from interference or control. New Labour dismantled this good work but quickly discovered their mistake: they soon found that giving more control to schools was the only way to invigorate state education. Labour’s u-turn saw the recreation of GM in the guise of academies. As the legislation was put in place through the 2002 Education Act, Conservatives welcomed this Damascene conversion and urged ministers to give greater autonomy than they first proposed. I was Shadow Schools Minister at the time, and have been an enthusiastic supporter of academies ever since (just as I had been a wholehearted backer of GM before that).
So I have no qualms about a continuing, even accelerating, move to academies. We should make academy status attractive to good heads and it should be clear where these schools can obtain any support that they need – especially where the LEA has failed them. The main growth of academy freedoms should be through schools seeing the opportunity and choosing to seize it. Alongside this organic growth we might expect to see a continuing element of compulsion where schools and/or their local authorities are failing. It is much harder to justify compulsion in an authority like mine in Trafford which is one of the best in the country: it doesn’t stand in the way of good schools and is usually credited with a having a light but supportive touch.
Nonetheless, as the number of academies increases, it is obvious that a tipping point might be reached at which the LEA in its current form might cease to be necessary, or even viable. It is right that the recently published White Paper seeks to chart a course to a future world where the role of local authorities in education will necessarily be different.
Much opposition to GM or academy status was based on the erroneous assumption that an LEA was self-evidently the best mechanism for grounding a school in its community: in practice, many schools once running their own affairs became more closely rooted in their communities. Certainly, the outstanding schools in Altrincham and Sale have been integrated in the community at least as well as academies as they were before. This has been a great success of ‘stand-alone’ academies. It is obviously the Government’s aim however, to push for all academies to form or join Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), as the White Paper says:
“MATs are the only structures which formally bring together leadership, autonomy, funding and accountability…and are the best long term formal arrangement for stronger schools to support the improvement of weaker schools”
It is harder to see how schools can continue to be grounded in their communities, in this world of MATs which might extend across the country and include vast numbers of schools. Looking at this from Greater Manchester, there is a worrying parallel with the imposition of a ‘Metro Mayor’. There, too, we see the danger that in the name of devolution, powers might gradually transfer to a level that is actually more remote, not closer to the people. We need to think very carefully about how parents and the wider community can continue to have genuine involvement in the life of a school when it has transferred to a MAT – and the MAT might be run from the other side of the country.
At a Friends of Grammar Schools event in the House of Commons a few years ago, Michael Gove once thanked me for being one of the few people who urged him to do more and do it faster, I want to give the same encouragement to his successor. There is no doubt that a well-run academy is often the best route to raising standards and that many academies and academy chains are providing the support to help less successful schools pull themselves up by their bootstraps: but if we are to ensure that this new world of autonomous schools is accepted and embedded in the coming years, it is essential, that we find the right way to give parents and their communities real involvement and ownership.