No choice but to become an academy?
Schools around the country are facing enforced conversion to academy status – against the wishes of parents, staff and governors
guardian.co.uk, Monday 19 December 2011 20.00 GMT
On a sunny winter's afternoon, Downhills primary school looks like an advert for the inclusive possibilities of inner-city, multi-ethnic education.
Children of different races are running around together in the playground; inside the walls are covered with colourful artwork. The head, Leslie Church, talks about one of the school's strengths: giving each child in this deprived area of north London – just a few hundred yards from the starting point of August's riots – access to free violin, cello or guitar lessons in year 4.
The school, which has been through difficulties in the last year despite the overwhelmingly happy exterior, might in other times be cheering itself with news in September from inspectors that it is improving.
Instead, this 463-pupil institution in Tottenham is now seemingly on the front line of a struggle for the future of England's primary schools.
Downhills is facing being forced by Michael Gove, the education secretary, to become a privately sponsored academy, despite fierce opposition from parents, the governing body and staff.
Last Thursday, David Lammy, the local MP, who was a pupil here, accused Gove of an "undemocratic and aggressive" act, which threatened to erase 100 years of local democratic control at the school, founded in the late 19th century, at a stroke.
Lammy is now collecting signatures for a petition to present to the House of Commons against the plans, while the school is exploring its legal options.
Yet Downhills, which is in this position because the government says its English and maths test results are not good enough, is not alone.
Hundreds of primary schools seem to be facing the threat of mandatory conversion to academies under external sponsorship, with Downhills a high-profile test of the new and seemingly unfettered ability of the education secretary to enforce his vision of a new model of governance, even when all those closely connected to this school say they do not want it. Critics say Gove is simply forcing through an agenda of privatisation, in a trend with implications for many, if not all, of England's schools.
Although Downhills draws in some middle-class families attracted to its inclusive, creative ethos, it also has a very challenging intake. Some 46% of its children are eligible for free school meals, while for 73%, their first language is not English. Downhills is also said to have a large population of Gypsy Roma children, who nationally have the lowest results of any ethnic group.
When Ofsted visited in January, 92% of parents returning questionnaires agreed with the statement "I am happy with my child's experience at this school".
Despite this, since that inspection Downhills has been on a "notice to improve" from the inspectorate because of its test results. These had one particularly bad year in 2009, when only 40% of pupils achieved the expected level in English and maths.
In September, however, when inspectors returned, they reported that Downhills was improving. Schools are usually given 12 to 18 months to turn themselves around under this Ofsted process.
But now the school faces a different future. Downhills is particularly vulnerable because Gove has powers, under an act he hastened through parliament last year, to force into academy status any school that is said by Ofsted to need "special measures" or that has a notice to improve.
Academies are schools set up under a private contract between Gove and a sponsor: usually either another school or a privately run, though currently non-profit-making, academy chain.
Gove's officials and Haringey, the local authority, have been in discussions since July. Letters between the two show the Department for Education pushing for 10 of the borough's primaries to convert to sponsored academies.
Downhills' position became clear after a meeting two weeks ago between governors and two DfE representatives, including Jacky Griffin, a former council education director now working as a consultant. Education Guardian has heard a recording of the meeting.
Griffin told the group: "What I'd particularly like to focus on today is whether the course of action of becoming a sponsored academy is one that you would like to take with us … or whether we have to take back the message that that's not what you want to do, and see what happens as a consequence of that."
This was followed by a letter four days later from Lord Hill, schools minister, who said that Gove was "minded" to make an academy order – forcing academy status on Downhills – and to use powers granted to the government under Labour to appoint a new governing body.
He said the school had been "below the [KS2 results] floor standard" for five years, even though Downhills' latest figures, published three days after the letter was sent, see it just above floor target – with 61% of children reaching expected levels in English and maths – and faring better than the national average with disadvantaged children.
But Hill asked the governors to write back by 13 January setting out how they would pass a resolution to become an academy, "with a named sponsor agreed with the DfE". Griffin said the school was expected to become an academy in September.
The process was "brutal", says one source at the school. Church himself says he was in tears on first learning of the school's fate; governors were also said to be sobbing following Hill's letter. Gove, it is said, has never visited the school.
Other schools are in Downhills' position. In June it was revealed that 377 civil servants are working on promoting and implementing the academies policy, at a cost of £4.3m. Officials working for Gove and Liz Sidwell, the schools commissioner, have been touring England in recent weeks talking to local authorities and governing bodies about how schools with low Sats results must become academies by September.
Haringey is one of nine local authorities where these officials have been pushing hardest for more sponsored primary academies. The others are: Kent, Birmingham, Essex, Lancashire, Northamptonshire, Leeds, Bristol and Durham.
In Haringey alone, at least three other schools have been given an ultimatum: agree to sponsored academy status by mid-January, or we will force it on you.
The National Association of Head Teachers says that, nationally, at least 200 primaries with low results – lower than Downhills' – are already being moved towards sponsored academy status. But the final number is likely to be much larger; the NAHT says most authorities are coming under pressure in some way, in both primary and secondary sectors.
One head of a secondary school that is in the process of converting to a sponsored academy says: "A senior local authority official came to see me a few months ago. He said: 'Are you thinking of becoming an academy? Because you need to. The DfE are looking at your results. You will become a converter [sponsored] academy.' We were given no option."
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, says: "This is a major political attack on state education. This is not schools opting for academy status; this is the government forcing schools away from local authority influence into the arms of external sponsors. It is hugely undemocratic.
"It is the forced privatisation of our schools. People have not woken up to what is happening to our education system."
Back at Downhills, what most enrages parents queuing up to speak to Education Guardian is the lack of say anyone connected to the school seems to have in its future. Several say they chose the school because of that creative, happy ethos and how wrong it was that this could change, if a sponsor came in, with a different, possibly more narrowly results-focused, approach.
Elsa Dechaux, a research scientist whose son Oscar, four, is in reception at the school, says: "I visited all the schools around here, and this is the one I chose, because of the teachers' enthusiasm. I want my children to be happy to learn. I don't want them to be little robots, doing only English and maths."
Sarah Williams, a musician with children aged eight and 10 at Downhills, says: "I only moved them here in September, specifically because I love it here; they don't just teach to the test.
"I thought the Conservative party was supposed to give parents choices. I have made my democratic choice, and now it is being taken away from me."
James Redwood, whose four-year-old son, Arthur, is in reception, says: "I'm a composer, and I visit a lot of schools. This is a fantastic, happy place. It is the end of state education if they can do what they are doing to a place like this."