ALL SCHOOLS TO BE ACADEMIES?
HMH Bluna reviews the happy moments since her daughter’s school became an academy…
When I was growing up one of my ambitions was to become a war reporter. Now it seems my dream has become true in an unforeseen way: with its recent announcement that all schools are to become academies, the government has declared outright war on the state education sector, although for some time preliminary skirmishes have already been ravaging homes and towns across the country, my own included. If the war has not reached you yet, it soon will. Prepare yourselves – from the frontline I bring you details of what to expect.
When the time came two years ago to choose a secondary school place for my daughter, in our small East Anglian town of less than 4000 souls I had an astounding choice of five secondary schools to pick from. Recently moved back to my native land from rural France my mind boggled at the ways of Anglo-Saxon free-market. Which to choose? Slowly I crossed the contenders off my list: too distant, too unaffordable, too old-fashioned and frosty, too religiously bonkers. There remained the local LEA comp in my neighbouring town. “Worse than the Bubonic plague”, local parents reliably informed me.
By this time, I was getting desperate. Short of home-educating, what was I to do? In my eyes, the LEA comp did have one thing in its favour: it was as yet untouched by the Govian revolution of salvation from the Dark Forces through blazer and tie. On the subject of strict uniform policies, my years of living in France had turned me into a non-believer. A flicker of hope glimmered. Further investigation was required. Perhaps the rumours were exaggerated and a spot of incense was all that was needed to rid the air of the pestilence? When all was said and done most of the local people I knew who had been to the comp were hardly irrevocably disfigured pockmarked monsters.
The school had certainly had a chequered history, but in recent years had been commended for being “much-improved”. The last two Ofsted reports had both been “good”. Another parents’ Open Evening loomed. Although it was hard to tell spin from substance in the Head Teacher’s inevitable PR pitch, the teachers themselves seemed dedicated and humane without being overly stuffy. The Art, Design & Technology department was large and well-equipped and the PE facilities quite extensive (my daughter loves PE). I breathed a sigh of relief and signed up. If the school had suffered from plague in the past, it appeared the outbreak was over and the patient was on the mend. If it didn’t work out we could re-think at a later stage.
A week after I sent off our application, however, disaster struck. It was still the Michael Gove era and the Ofsted goal-posts, along with everything else, had once again been abruptly changed. Almost without warning, a week into the autumn term, a team of Inspectors swooped through our area like latter-day emissaries of the Papal Inquisition. The ensuing reports made national headlines. The Dark Forces of Ignorance were threatening to usurp Boudicca’s ancient kingdom. Local schools previously rated ‘good’ were now suddenly judged to be seriously failing. Following the rout, the Plague’s Head Teacher “resigned”. By the New Year the school had become an academy, its death sentence of “inadequate” handed out by an ex PE teacher who had somehow managed to fetch up as the Chief Inquisitor.
Here we go, I thought. Goodbye sweatshirts. Hello blazers. A phony war ensued for the next six months. An academy sponsor was found, but then pulled out – due to some legal quibble it couldn’t get its hands on the title deeds to the school’s playing fields. A private management consultant was then employed to come up with an alternative sponsor. By a quirk of fate the consultant turned out to be an ex house-mate from Oxford days that I hadn’t kept up with. “Holy Gaia,” I thought, “blink, and the poison ivy’s spread bloody everywhere!” I tried to stay optimistic, but when a tone-deaf pumpkin has just been put in charge of the orchestra, this is no easy feat. Whatever the medicine prescribed for the Plague, I knew that the sizeable consultancy fees would soon line the coffers of the private schools attended by my ex-house mate’s children. Not that there’s anything illegal in this reverse Robin Hood life-style; it’s just business as usual in banana Britain’s bigbankocracy.
Not long afterwards the direction of travel for the Plague was confirmed: bananas all round. The Senior Management Team was duly punished and effective power handed over to the new Academy Trust, based 200 plus miles away. A Head Teacher from a failed local school was seconded to the Executive, presumably on standard inflated CEO salary. In any case publicly available accounts for the Academy Trust showed the top two trustees earning the same or more than the UK’s Prime Minister. Yet, even with all that cash sloshing around, what a po-faced puritanical lot they were. 95% of my first parents’ meeting under the new regime was dedicated to the topic of school uniform. The curriculum – the every-day nitty-gritty of what our children were going to be learning – was scarcely mentioned. The first laws of physics had been abandoned for the first laws of marketing. Despite the fact the uniform had already been changed two years previously, it was to be changed again. Our children were cattle, to be branded and rebranded.
“At this rate,” I thought, “they’ll be fit to play golf with the royals!” In case you didn’t know, tinkering with uniforms was a great obsession of Queen Victoria’s oldest grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. A squad of tailors was on permanent stand-by in his palace. Before the First World War he redesigned his army officers’ uniform thirty seven times in seventeen years. They were to be sent off to the trenches in style! Pity they didn’t win. Personally, I blame the uniform. If only the Emperor had persevered a 38th time, maybe the course of European History would have been changed forever? Not to worry, his successor Adolf was on the case: it was obvious – kit out the whole country’s youth, not just the officers. Get ’em into jackets and ties while they’re young and the world’s your oyster! Plus yellow stars for the miscreants! That glorious feeling of belonging! Of knowing who’s who! It seems like the Government’s forgotten that a bloody-minded preference for freedom and justice was our winning tactic in the glory days, not our dress-sense.
As my daughter’s first year progressed, long-serving teachers began to leave, their place taken by younger and less expensive ones. To the credit of the remaining teaching team, my daughter remained pretty much unaware of what was going on; she made some good new friends and progressed reasonably well. However the tone of the letters coming from the school management became increasingly draconian. This, that and the other were no longer going to be tolerated. Pupils (and by implication parents) were going to have their socks pulled up; we were thanked in advance for our co-operation. I hoped at least the chief trustee was enjoying his prime ministerial salary, because back at the ranch there wasn’t much joy.
Soon it felt like more of my daughter’s classes were being taken by supply teachers than qualified staff; the previously flourishing Design & Technology, Music and Drama departments began to resemble ghost-town sets. I spent increasing amounts of time sneaking onto property websites, but where to go? Wherever I could afford to live, the same creed was recited, copied and pasted on each school’s website: the Dark Forces of ignorance were everywhere being vanquished by correct hairstyles, sensible shoes (preferably leather), blazers and ties. When you are dressed for success, who needs good teachers, books and facilities? Tosh! Just a load of old fashioned nonsense!
Towards the end of the year a parents’ “consultation” meeting was scheduled on the subject of the proposed new uniform. The new Head Teacher apologised as she opened the meeting: “real” consultations would have to be reserved for subsequent, less important issues. The Dark Forces were just too powerful to be left to the whims of us parents. Our children could not risk being left behind. From the autumn they would be equipped for battle with Blazers and Ties – at the tax-payer’s expense. And all from a central supplier, of course, diverting much-needed business from the local company that had been supplying the community for twenty years. With the children thus inoculated, other corners could be cut: the sixth form buildings could be closed, the library moved to smaller premises, the teaching staff reduced. The “consultation” was over. Ours is not to question why. Ours is just to do and die.