Gove's academies: 1980s idea rebranded?

Bexley Business Academy Under Labour, academies gave a fresh start to struggling schools

In education, if you wait long enough, most ideas come full circle.

This week saw Royal Assent for the Academies Bill, one of the fastest pieces of education law ever enacted.

But while it could have far-reaching implications, the Academies Act actually turns back the clock to a reform brought in 22 years ago.

For make no mistake, what we are being promised is not an extension of the Labour government's academies, but the recreation of the grant-maintained (GM) schools created by Mrs Thatcher's government in 1988.

If the Trade Descriptions Act covered schools, then the new academies are definitely mislabelled.

They are really GM schools, re-branded for the 21st Century.

As an aside, the so-called "free schools" have also turned out to be something different.

More accurately, the act calls them "additional schools" because they are actually just academies that do not replace an existing school.

Sound familiar?

GM schools were mainstream schools, which were already performing well and opted out of the local authority fold.

They took control of their land and buildings and ran their own admissions and were funded by a grant paid directly from central government.

Sound familiar? In respect of autonomy, funding and admissions they had exactly the freedoms the coalition government is offering to schools under the revamped academies programme.

By contrast, while Labour's 203 academies shared these freedoms they came from a very different mould.

Most replaced former failing schools.

With some exceptions, the model was designed as a fresh start for struggling schools, mainly in deprived inner-city neighbourhoods.

The replacement schools gained a new name, new management, an external sponsor, and big shiny new buildings.

Badge of success

By contrast, the Academies Act will "fast-track" schools that are graded by Ofsted as "outstanding".

There will be no new management, no new sponsor and no big building programme.

The Ridings School, 1996 The Ridings School became infamous in 1996 after standards there plummeted

In short, the academies policy has been turned on its head.

Instead of rescuing struggling schools, it will become a badge of success.

So what did GM schools look like?

The first to opt out was Skegness Grammar School, setting a pattern of those who saw GM status as a way of preserving selective admissions.

A handful used GM status to introduce partial academic selection.

Eventually, as the policy matured, most GM schools were successful comprehensives (and a few primaries) led by entrepreneurial head teachers, many of whom were frustrated by their dealings with the local education authority which, in those days, still had some real power.

In short, although eventually 20% of all secondary schools became GM, these were schools that were already doing perfectly well and which saw greater freedom as a way of doing even better or of preserving their selective status.

As such, they were seen as an elite group of state schools.

So much so, that some independent fee-charging schools saw them as a threat to their market.

Intervention v deregulation

The political philosophy behind GM schools was to recreate the recipe for success that existed in the private sector - autonomous institutions led by confident and entrepreneurial head teachers.

And the stark difference between Labour's academies and the new version lies in the underlying philosophy.

The former were about central government intervention to rectify the problems of market failure.

They rescued children who were left in the schools that few parents would choose.

By contrast, the new generation of academies are about releasing market forces in the belief that autonomous schools responding to parental choice will raise standards.

That is politics, you take your choice: state intervention or deregulation.

Parental choice

The GM schools policy ended in 1998, shortly after the Labour government came to power.

The 1,200 GM schools mostly became either foundation schools or reverted to voluntary-aided status.

There were many successes amongst GM schools.

But some say they contributed to problems at schools like The Ridings, a "bog standard" school that became infamous in 1996 after standards plummeted, partly because it was regarded locally as bottom-of-the-pile compared to neighbouring GM, grammar and voluntary-aided schools.

Critics say the same thing could happen again.

But supporters point out that the climate is different, as new academies will be expected to support weaker neighbours, will have to comply with the national admissions code, and the pupil premium will give extra aid to schools in deprived areas.

However, there is one important difference between the old GM schools and today's new academies - the former required majority support in a secret ballot of parents, the latter do not even need a show of hands at a parents' meeting.

With GM Mark II, it seems, the parental voice has been forgotten.

Mike Baker is a writer and broadcaster specialising in education.

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