By Matt.Ross

21 Oct 2010

A teacher reflects on how turning a school into one of New Labour’s academies affects the quality of the teaching, the management – and the logos

“I’ve been teaching for several years now, working in the arts – which means drama, art or music – and moving from a relatively small secondary school to a much larger one. My current school recently became an academy, and at the same time joined up with another school to form a federation.

At my last school, the principal was very visible and hands-on. They’d be there at our weekly teachers’ meetings, really part of the team, and we knew the teachers in the other faculties. This school is very different. When I joined the principal wasn’t visible, and there were no weekly meetings. This means it’s hard to get to know people in other faculties, and makes the school disjointed; it’s tricky to get departments working together.

In part, that’s simply because this school’s so big; in part, it reflects the fact that the management here hasn’t been great. But it’s nonetheless an ‘outstanding’ or ‘very good’ school, according to the inspectors. The management do go out of their way to recruit good teachers; and it’s in a leafy, semi-rural area, taking kids from fairly comfortable homes. The families are supportive, and there are relatively few students with behavioural problems. All this does make it a nice place to work, which also helps the school recruit well.

The school recently became an academy, which means that we’re only required to follow the national curriculum in core subjects. It hasn’t made a great deal of difference in the classroom so far. However, there’s a danger that non-core faculties – such as the arts, humanities, PE and design technology – will become even less important relative to literacy and numeracy, as the principal now has the freedom to reduce the time spent on non-core subjects, focusing on maths and English in order to push the school up the league table.

There’s massive pressure for schools to perform on these headline statistics. In fact, it seems obsessive: students who are really practical or love arts subjects, but who struggle with literacy or numeracy, can be pulled out of the classes they enjoy in order to cram maths or English. If a student wants to be a carpenter, a musician or an artist, they should be able to consistently develop those skills. Of course they need basic literacy and numeracy skills – but some students, no matter how hard you try, are not going to get an ‘A’ in English, and they don’t necessarily need one.

Still, I do think that parents value a broad education, so I hope we’ll be able to maintain a balance between core subjects and other areas such as the arts, humanities, and design and technology. Maintaining a balance between teaching and management is another matter. Because our school has joined in a federation with another, there are now new managers to try to coordinate the schools’ work: when they showed us the new staff structure, there were three or four levels of new management between the teaching staff and the chief executive principal.

In practice, though, in our subject there’s currently no formal transfer of skills between the schools: the new managers only work on English, maths and science. There’s an expectation that heads of departments should liaise between the schools, but there’s no time allocated for it, so progress is slow.

It’s too early to say whether becoming an academy will have a big impact on our pupils’ experience or our results – but meanwhile, there’s another development which I find really scary. I think free schools will be really divisive. They’ll have the potential to function really well, but they may well pull all the best students in and leave state schools foundering. I think they’ll lead to further dismantling of our state education system: we’ve already got several different sorts of state school, and the local education authority-run comprehensive could end up being at the bottom of the pile.

I don’t see a long-run plan for the management of these schools. People who don’t know about education can set them up for their children’s education; but once their children have left, will they stick around? And if the schools fail, they won’t have the support of the LEA or an institutional knowledge of education. It makes me want to get a placard and march against free schools.

What’s more, setting them up will cost a phenomenal amount of money that doesn’t need to be spent. When my school became an academy, we had consultants in to rebrand us and research what the new academy needed to be. Reinventing a school with a new name, new motif, and new uniforms means spending vast amounts of money. Adults think this makes the students value their education more, but kids don’t see things through our eyes. They just think: “What’s this naff new uniform?”

Becoming an academy brought in some additional money, but large amounts of it has been spent on rebranding. Yet it’s what happens in the classroom, between teachers and students, that decides how well kids do. If there’s spare money, then take the students to a historic site, a museum or an art exhibition. We need to concentrate our funding on bringing learning to life, not fritter it away on headed notepaper.”

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