The Blog

What London Parents and the Academy Movement: Future Education Failures in Westminster

There are draconian changes taking place in state education right now; changes that will directly affect the social, economic and political landscape in the UK for years to come. The Department for Education has embarked on a radical process of education reform; they are severing state schools from local control and aligning schools with business sponsors to create state-funded academies. These academies will be free to choose their own curriculum, hire and fire unqualified teachers and find their own suppliers and vendors to provide services like catering and IT; the idea being that experts in business are better able to manage schools. To date, along the lines of 53% of state secondary schools in the UK have turned academy with 9% of the primary schools having done so already. The Westminster neighbourhood of Pimlico; where I lived, worked, and sent my own children to state schools for many years; is a very good place to look to where the future of state education is headed with the academy movement.

Future Academies is the sponsoring organisation of the academy chain now running most of the schools in Pimlico. These are the flagship schools of the academy movement in the UK; they have a plum postcode; a beautiful, £34 million refurbished secondary school and one of its sponsors is a minster in the Department of Education. Future Academies began with Pimlico Academy, then acquired Millbank Academy, went on to build Pimlico Primary and lastly took over Churchill Gardens Academy. During the process of the acquisition of Churchill Gardens School, one of the Future Academy sponsors, John Nash, was given a lifetime peerage in the House of Lords and was immediately appointed Under Secretary of State for Schools.

According to the Future Academy web site, the sponsors are bringing their backgrounds as hedge fund managers, venture capitalists and business consultants to the schools of Pimlico. To be very clear, the sponsors are not and never claim to have been in the teaching profession before getting involved with Future Academies. Nowhere on either web site in the Future Education organisation can I find someone listed with a teaching credential. As part of the academy movement, there is absolutely no assumption that anyone teaching at an academy school has any teaching qualifications or teaching experience. Further, the only teaching experience sited on the Future web site is teaching at the Future Academies; this is a very indicting view of the teaching profession on part of the Under Secretary of State for Schools and a poor reflection on the Department for Education.

The schools in Pimlico have formed what is called an "academy cluster", Churchill Gardens, Millbank, Pimlico Primary and Pimlico Academy making up this group. This is very important as the "academy cluster" is largely the blueprint for the future of education in the UK, this is the organisation state schools are being encouraged to use. And here is why: it easy to cut overhead costs when you have an academy cluster; the first thing the Future Academies has done with their cluster is removed all the heads from each school so that there is one "super head" managing all three primary schools. One simple way to trim the budget is to cut the top salaries, but you cannot run a school effectively without a head. By the looks of the Deputy Head job description on the Millbank site, the new Deputy Head with 40% teaching responsibilities will be managing curriculum and learning outcomes. Perhaps this is effective business management, but as a parent and a teacher I find this arrangement highly problematic.

In addition to taking my children to museums and playgroups, I have a Master's degree in Teaching and Learning. I have taught at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, in Chicago Public Schools, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and currently for an independent school in London. When I was working in RBKC, my head would periodically call me into her office and together we would pour over my planning, my lessons and look at the learning outcomes. There was 100% transparency and accountability for the teaching and learning in that classroom and my kids learned at an incredible pace. My Year 1 students were a highly mobile, economically disadvantaged group who were primarily EAL (English as an additional language), a group I had little previous experience teaching. With the help of the head, who leveraged the support of the Local Education Authority, we adapted the curriculum to the learning environment, and my kids thrived.

Here is the first point where I see the academy movement of leaving questions unanswered, who is going to replace the educational support of the Local Education Authorities? I have yet to fully understand where new teachers (who do not have to have any teacher training or education experience) are going to get support. What's more, what is the LEA support for children who are physically, mentally or emotionally impaired? This is an excellent question we need to answer - what provision will the academy system make for children with special educational needs? What role does the local council play in ensuring these needs are met? Churchill Gardens Academy has a specialist speech and language unit, what assurances do families with children dependent on these services have that they will remain?

The next question I have under the academy cluster/super head arrangement, as a parent, how do I access the wonderful knowledge of my children's school's head teacher? As a parent of children in state schools in Westminster, I have greatly benefited from the tremendous wealth of insight into my kids they have given me over the years. What's more, they have always taken the time to advise me how to navigate the bureaucracy when I have been unsure. As far as my friends can fill me in at Future Academies, the classroom teachers now take on this role; a job that can easily fall on a young graduate with no teaching qualifications, teaching experience or knowledge of the local neighbourhood.

As a result of becoming part of the academy cluster, Millbank, has lost its Ofsted-praised, highly-effective, results-driven, child-centred, play-based, hands-on curriculum. It has been replaced by another curriculum; one developed with the help of John Nash' wife, Caroline Nash, at the Curriculum Centre - all referenced on Millbank Academy's web site. From what one Millbank parent with a very young child describes, the new curriculum involves maths tests for Year 1 children - 10 questions each week. That's great if your child is up for it, but what do you do if your child is not ready for this kind of advanced work? Another mum was telling me her child in the infants was required to write a story when he is not yet reading.

Again, here is another issue with the movement which purports to raise standards to the levels of the independent schools. Independent schools can quickly and easily remove children for whom the curriculum is inaccessible. What exactly are the academies supposed to do when they are confronted by normal, intelligent, capable children who are simply unable to do work previously determined to be work for a 7 year old at 4 years of age? How are the teachers and students supposed to work around this problem? Where is the flexibility in the prescribed page by page, step by step curriculum described on the Curriculum Centre's web site for children who are not ready to learn that day, that week, that month, or even that term? This is a genuine concern as this was one of the reasons Analise Biggs (the 27 year old with no teaching qualifications hired as head of Pimlico Primary) suddenly left her position; she simply did not have the skills, expertise or support to get the kids to access the rigid curriculum.

As my friends who are parents and teachers at the Future academies have been grappling with these dramatic changes to the learning environment, who are they to turn to for help? These schools are now free from the Local Education Authority and the ward councillors are not stepping forward to help out. One exception would be Paul Dimoldenberg, who has stepped out of his constituency in Queen's Park to come and help raise the concerns of the teachers and parents to the council. In reality, the academy movement abdicates the council from responsibility. Its between the parents/teachers and Michael Gove to work out how to address disruptive 4 year olds who are not learning how to read.

This is an incredibly intimidating position for parents who have concerns with an institution that is giving primary care over their children. Who is going to advocate for the parents, teachers and the school if there is a problem? They can bring it up with the school and if that does not work they have to contact the Department for Education. In the meantime, there is a team of perhaps, unqualified and untrained young men and women looking after their children.

The academy movement is the best way for the government to look like they are doing something about education reform without making any real investments. These changes have had an undisputed, negative impact on the families in Pimlico at Future Academies. The sponsors behind Future Academies are in the professions of growing wealth, stripping assets and cutting costs and these skills are not complimentary to state education. If you Google the sponsors names you will find out they develop property in SW1, they chaired companies that ran care homes for the NHS (check out Churchill Garden's proposed "enhancements, they include an NHS care home), and lead companies that landed major contracts from the Department for Works and Pensions. Our ancestors created state education to ensure we had a productive, democratic society and the academy system puts us at odds with this goal. Citizens of Westminster need to keep an eye on our assets and make sure our children are not handed over to be guinea pigs for the development of a very expensive curriculum scheme for sale to the next academy cluster or that our playgrounds don't get developed into NHS care homes by academy sponsors.

I think we all will learn that we are a bit too late, thank you Misters Gove, Cameron, Clegg and Nash.