Below is a contribution from a supporter of the Campaign. We are publishing it in the interest of debate and discussion please add comments or email us with a contribution and we will publish it.
Unfortunately, this comes as no surprise even though a House of Commons Select Committee found no evidence that academies (and free schools are a type of academy) improve school performance and indeed there is evidence that schools are less likely to improve if they become academies . One third of Free Schools have been rated ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ compared to only one fifth of Local Authority Schools. We know academies and free schools are unpopular with the public and recent revelations (for eg AET, England’s largest academy chain found to be ‘failing too many pupils’) only deepen concerns. But the government is not interested in evidence or public opinion – they are on an ideological mission to transform our education system and turn every school into an academy and keen to find any partner who will help them to achieve this.
As visitors to this site will know, we have real concerns about this development. Universities do not have a good track record as academy sponsors. UBAT is too new to have a track record but the University’s record as a sponsor of the Hastings Academies Trust (HAT) is not reassuring. GCSE results at the HAT academies last summer saw the proportion of pupils achieving 5A*-C grades at Hastings Academy fall from 44% to 35% . While the results for the St Leonard’s Academy improved, theirs were still below the threshold below which schools will be considered to be ‘coasting’.
More so than elsewhere, Brighton and Hove school staff, teachers and parents have always been sceptical. The two schools forced to become academies have not become popular and proposals to voluntarily convert other schools (Varndean and Hove Park) have given rise to vocal campaigns and been rejected by staff, parents and governing bodies. University statements make much of the ‘support’ from prospective parents but 350 indications that parents “would consider” sending their child to the new school does not mean it would be their preferred choice. University statements also make much of the ‘support’ of their School of Education but there is a consensus amongst educationalists that the fragmentation and privatisation of our education system is damaging and this view is likely to be shared by many if not most staff in the School of Education whatever the institution’s position.
The urgency of the proposal was justified on the basis of a projected schools places crisis – but just months later the estimates were revised downwards and the urgency and scale of the need downgraded. New school places will be needed but it is not the case that a new school is the only or best way to meet this need. Indeed the creation of an oversupply of places resulting from the new school could threaten the viability of other schools. No site has yet been announced although Hanover has been rumoured even though the bulk of the demand will be in Hove.
Who will this school be for? Wherever the school were to be built, there are only two options for its recruitment. It could recruit from across Brighton and Hove, removing demand from less popular schools but potentially doing nothing to ease pressure on the more popular schools or, if it proved very popular would have to introduce some means of selection with the problems that that entails. Alternatively, it will necessitate a redrawing of catchment area boundaries. This has proved very contentious in the past and would likely be again. If the school were to be built in Hanover for example, parents may find they are no longer in the Varndean or Dorothy Stringer catchment area.
It is instructive to consider why universities might be interested in sponsoring academies but also important to recognise that this approval simply gives the university the go-ahead to explore the feasibility and that the final contractual commitment between the DfE and the UoB will be subject to a funding agreement. There are better alternatives for Brighton than a free school , there is the possibility of expansion and/or annexes to existing schools. Even the Conservative-led Local Government Association is now calling on the government to allow councils to expand schools or open new ones and we should be doing everything we can to fight for new secondary school places for Brighton and Hove within local democratic accountability (please sign the petition).