The huge increase in the number of academies in English education has been a key part of the Gove Revolution and has produced a rapid increase in standards. So why isn’t it more popular?

The Sunday Times/YouGov poll at the weekend asked if the following policy should be pursued or abandoned:

“Schools becoming academies – schools that receive funding directly from the government, are outside the control of local authorities, and have greater freedom over setting their pay, opening times and curriculum?”

32 per cent favoured continuing with it while 40 per cent favoured abandoning it. Now it coould well be that parents whose children attend academies are the ones more likely to be supportive – and also the ones more likely to actually care about it. Those in Wales and in Scotland – where the policy does not apply – were included in the poll. Had it just been among English voters the result might have been rather different.

Even so this has been a huge success, so why is it not overwhelmingly popular? I think the Trojan Horse saga concerning Muslim extremism within Birmingham schools is part of the answer.

There is a perception that being an academy allows a school to do anything it likes – for instance failing to teach children to read or inculcating a belief in hatred and violence. Some might imagine that academies are exempt from Ofsted inspections. But the schools must still operate within the law. Furthermore if a school that has become an academy is failing, intervention is rather swifter than if they under the remit of a Local Authority. If it falls below the required threshold for exam results it will be put under new management.

The true lesson from the Trojan Horse letter is that reliance on Local Authority “oversight” of schools is a great mistake. Ian Kershaw’s report – commissioned by the Council itself – is a strong indictment.

It says:

“The proper commitment of Birmingham City Council to community cohesion has at times, and disastrously, overridden the even more important commitment to doing what is right. In other words, there is a culture that has been allowed to develop inside BCC’s Services for Children and Young People that causes senior and more junior officers to shy away from confronting and dealing appropriately with unacceptable behaviours of some governors and some governing bodies. As a result, there are some head teachers who have lost their positions and there are schools where head teachers continue to be placed under unreasonable pressure to comply with demands in ways that amount to bullying and harassment.”

Among some of the detailed points were problems with the LA-appointed governors:

“There is clear evidence that a significant number of those governors acting unreasonably have been local authority governors. Such governors might normally have been expected to set an example of high public service standards in displaying integrity, honesty and objectivity. Instead, they have played a part in leading unacceptable bullying and harassment of head teachers and members of leadership teams.”

Birmingham Council had the information but failed to make use of it:

“Data suggesting that there may have been an unusual number of compromise agreements being proposed, or high levels of staff absenteeism, or high levels of complaints about bullying received from staff in schools, have not been regularly scrutinised. No one is using intelligence to look at trends and to spot any significant issues with governance or leadership.”

Furthermore “the whistle-blowing process is not effective in securing the trust of employees of Birmingham City Council working in schools.”

The report concludes:

“The investigation has shown numerous instances where issues about the conduct of some governing bodies have gone without investigation or challenge by Birmingham City Council and others. It is also clear that prior to receipt of the Trojan Horse Letter, BCC and others were aware of head teachers’ concerns in relation to governors acting in a disruptive and inappropriate manner but ultimately considered this a community cohesion issue rather than a potentially serious school leadership issue. We have seen evidence that, despite this prior notice, BCC were slow to respond to the allegations made in the Trojan Horse Letter.”

I suppose it is to Birmingham Council’s credit that they commissioned the report. But we should be clear that these problems have been going for years when these schools were maintained schools presided over by Birmingham Council – many of them still are. The problem was ignored. On March 27th, Michael Gove commissioned Ofsted to inspect the schools. Only on April 14th did Birmingham Council announce Mr Kershaw’s investigation.

Peter Clarke’s report published by the Department of Education is, in anything, even more damning on how the council was alerted to problems but looked the other way:

“There is incontrovertible evidence that both senior officers and elected members of Birmingham City Council were aware of concerns about activities that bear a striking resemblance to those described in the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter, many months before it surfaced.”

To put it rather midly it is not at all clear that the problem of Islamic extremism would have been lessened had all these schools remained the responsibility of Birmingham Council. On the contrary it would be more likely to have continued to be ignored.