It is a desperate commentary on English education policy in the late 2010s that a metaphor about leaping from a great height is frequently to be heard as headteachers and governors contemplate the future of their schools.
“We’d better jump before we are pushed”, is a standard refrain from school leaders as they weigh up making the seemingly irreversible decision to leave their local authorities as maintained schools, and become academies.
The logic can sound seductive, and certainly is viewed as such by many on the end of this process. Schools need to take control of their futures, by opting for academisation on their terms, rather than being forced into adopting the status under an organisation they may not want, by Department for Education officials called Regional Schools Commissioners.
But anyone reading this from outside England’s beyond-crazy world of schools oversight would be entitled to wonder how we have got to a position where policymakers feel it is a good idea to coerce education institutions – supposedly acting as role models for the children they care for - to take long-term decisions on their future for fear of being forced into something worse.
It is clear why the “jump before we’re pushed” argument has gained traction.
In recent years, ministers have had the power to force any school which failed an Ofsted inspection into academy status. Indeed, they made it well-nigh compulsory to do so through the 2016 Academies Act.
In such circumstances, school governing bodies get no choice as to who is to come in and take control – or be the school’s “sponsor”, in DfE terms – with all decisions taken by central government, behind closed doors, and with communities having no say.
Until recently, even schools which had not been failed by Ofsted but which did face the prospect of bad exam results were also at risk, with the Regional Schools Commissioners having “intervention” powers in schools deemed by their data to be “coasting”.
Last year, this latter lever was removed by ministers, who appeared to have listened to some head teacher concerns about its accountability mechanisms being too draconian.
Even so, it may well be that fear of the consequences of not taking action pre-emptively to form or join a multi-academy trust is continuing to prompt schools to leave their local authorities.
But there is a strong case that the sense of control implied by “jump before we are pushed” is an illusion.
Cautionary case study
I have just heard of a particularly cautionary tale. A contact tells me of a primary school in southern England, which had just got a “good” Ofsted, but where governors knew its test data made it vulnerable to falling into the “coasting” category.
So the school hatched its academisation plan, as it saw it on its terms: it wanted to retain control of its destiny by setting itself up as a “standalone” academy, running itself as a single school, rather than being part of a large “multi-academy trust”.
However, this proposal was rejected by the RSC, following a private meeting of her advisory “headteacher board,” because government policy is now only in favour of schools joining multi-academy trusts.
My source added: “So we were told to find at least one other school to partner with. There was no open and transparent process to do so, this involved the head having to approach other head teachers at meetings or events and asking if they were interested in joining us. Real ‘secret squirrel’ stuff.”
The source went on: “So we went down that route, only for within a year the same ‘jump before you are pushed’ diktat to emerge from the RSC, who said ‘find another trust to be taken over by, or we will impose one on you’.”
Again, there will be no public record of the influence that has been brought to bear on this school, on a crucial matter of its future control and which may have a strong impact on the nature of its pupils’ learning experiences, as RSC powers operate almost entirely off-the-record.
The small trust to which this school belongs is now facing merger with another one, through a process in England which may be globally unique – is any other education system going in for frequent behind-the-scenes changes in schools’ control? – and which seems to have zero transparency.
My contact continued: “Of course we can’t find other schools to partner with as some schools that may have been tempted to jump before they were pushed are now deciding to stay put, with the local authority.
“This is positive for them, until the gloved hand of the RSC finds a different way of forcing them.”
Better in LA
There is some evidence that primary schools in some areas of England are generally taking the view that, in fact, they have more control of their destinies by remaining with their local authority.
In particular, in London my recent analysis suggests there is very little current appetite for any more primaries academizing with, as of earlier this year, only 49 schools among the 2,500 across the capital – 1.9 per cent – listed by the government has having instigated plans to leave their local authorities. This is in a city which in general has relatively few primary academies already.
Across England, by my calculations although just under a quarter of local authority areas have half of their primary schools as academies, in a third of LAs the primary academisation rate is currently under 20 per cent (the national average is that 32 per cent of primaries are academies).
Perhaps more schools are appreciating that, once they enter into the shadowy world of formal oversight by RSCs and, potentially, multi-academy trusts, local control of governance can and does disappear, as all decision-making power resides entirely with the overarching trust and the DfE.
Once again, observers from outside our system might read the above – particularly with regard to clear concerns about behind-the-scenes institutionalised fearfulness and bullying - and wonder what on earth has been allowed to happen to the way England’s publicly-funded schools structure is being administered.
Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist who runs the website, Education Uncovered.