Lincolnshire County Council is advising all of its schools to become academies - but campaigners tell Darshna Soni the move raises questions about private interests in the schooling of our children.
It has been described as an education revolution – the first development of its kind anywhere in the country. But it is a development that raises questions about public and private interests in the schooling of our children.
Lincolnshire County Council has advised every single one of its schools to become an academy, including primaries and special schools. That means the schools will be independently run. Over half of its secondary schools have already converted and so they get their funding directly from government.
But the government is keen to stress that the academies scheme is a permissive policy and that it is for schools, not local councils, to decide whether or not they seek academy status.
Lincolnshire's education budget has therefore been reduced and so, it argues, it is no longer financially viable for it to support those schools left under its control.
It is, in effect, proposing the abolition of its own education department - something that has enraged local campaigners.
Sarah Dodds is a mother of four and a part-time teacher.
I think we're looking at the wholesale privatisation of education. Campaigner Sarah Dodds
She told Channel 4 News: "I think we're looking at the wholesale privatisation of education, and before we allow that to happen we need to have a full debate on the implications."
She runs the campaign group Save our Schools from her front room in Louth. She has the support of other parents, school governors - and even some headteachers who are against the move.
"What we're looking at is Whitehall taking back from local communities and from local authorities most of the day-to-day power to run schools. Michael Gove now has more power than any other education secretary before," said Mrs Dodds.
Do private sponsors have a place in education?
I attended one of their meetings and met some of the campaigners. One teacher told me that she became a state school teacher because she believed in education – but now she was being forced to work for a private company, which has sponsored her school.
I also met Colin Wright, who resigned as a governor when his granddaughter's primary school found a sponsor and moved to become an academy.
"The sponsors are a balance-book led company, so their main priority wouldn't be the education of our children, it will be profit," he said.
This was a common concern of many campaigners, who believe that private sponsors have no place in education. But is this view outdated?
I spoke to one head of a recently-converted secondary school, who says the benefits have been huge - and not just financial. And yet others have raised worrying concerns.
Rob Boothroyd, of the Lincoln Castle Academy, told Channel 4 News being an academy meant more money and better resources. "I've been able to employ more staff, so we've got class sizes - say, in mathematics - of no more than 12, which is bound to have a positive effect on the learning of our young people."
'No pupils will get left behind'
We spoke to a number of headteachers across Lincolnshire who didn't want to come on camera because the issue is too contentious. But several claim that some recently-converted academies are creaming off the best pupils and leaving neighbouring schools to take on those with special needs.
I put this point to Lincolnshire County Council's Patricia Bradwell. She denied that some pupils would get left behind.
"It's about believing in choice. We are a forward-looking authority and believe all schools should have a choice in how they are run," she said.
Councillor Bradwell explained that because so many schools have already converted, smaller rural schools were facing the threat of closure, because the authority was left with less money to support them.
I've been able to emloy more staff, so e've got class sizes - say, in maths - of no more than 12. Rob Boothroyd, Lincoln Castle Academy
The councillor also acknowledged that there was political backing for the move. Although academies were first set up by Labour, as a way of rescuing failing schools, Michael Gove wants all schools to have to choice of converting.
"We are a forward-looking council and you can't hide away from the fact that the government is pressing for schools to become academies, and we can’t fight against that," she said.
The council says schools who can't find a sponsor, or who don't want to, can join an academy trust run by a charity that already has a contract with the council to improve standards, the Centre for British Teachers (CfBT).
Pressure on schools
But a number of head teachers admitted to us there is a pressure to change status. Peter Kubitski is head of a specialist engineering college which has not yet converted. He warns that the rush for academy status has led to competition between schools and this is not always a good thing.
He told Channel 4 News: "Academy status can be divisive, it allows some schools to become stronger, but the downside to that is that others are weakened."
The council denies academy status is being forced on schools. But across the country, authorities are under financial pressures – which could mean others follow where Lincolnshire is leading.
Follow Darshna Soni on Twitter: @darshnasoni
12 January 2011
03 October 2011