10:24 Friday 22nd April 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
PAUL STAINTON: Let’s get reaction now to our big interview from yesterday’s show with the Leader of Peterborough City Council John Holdich. It was quite late in the show. You may have missed it. If you have, you can listen to the whole thing again on-line on the BBC iPlayer. He exclusively revealed that if David Cameron forces schools to become academies, that the Council would consider setting up its own educational trust so it could still run schools in the city, effectively regaining control. Well his comments came after the Government confirmed it would be forcing schools across Cambridgeshire to accept academy status, an idea councillor Holdich says is flawed. Here is he is explaining what he meant on yesterday’s show.
It started with bringing a few schools together. .. But now you’ve got academy trusts with a hundred schools. They’re no more than mini-LEAs. And they don’t focus on your city. .. I will .. see whether we can set up our own Trust, and have our own family of schools.
So why is the Leader of Peterborough City Council so against academies? Why is anybody? Well the whole thing was brought up earlier in the week in the House of Commons by the MP for Peterborough Stewart Jackson. Morning Stewart.
STEWART JACKSON: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: John Holdich, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him quite so forceful, quite so against something. And there saying if we can’t beat them we’re going to join them and regain control of our schools. What’s the problem with academies per se?
STEWART JACKSON: There’s nothing wrong with the idea of local education authorities, teachers, governors, parents, opting to have a governance structure which is an academy structure. The problem is this compulsory element. It’s a fundamentally un-Conservative policy, and although I don’t agree always with the teaching unions, they’re not always wrong. And I just think it undermines localism. It annoys local councillors. It disregards the knowledge and skills, experience of council officers, local councillors, parents and governors. 85% of primary schools are in the maintained sector and are not academies, so this idea of compulsory freedom is very un-Conservative, and I just think the Ministers need to think again.
PAUL STAINTON: Isn’t it just about control though? Is that what it is? People are a little bit upset because they’re losing control of their puppies basically.
STEWART JACKSON: No. There are some really big issues here. One is do these much-vaunted multi-academy chains, do they have the capacity to deal with failing schools. One only has to look at the Voyager academy in Peterborough. It’s being looked after effectively by the Comberton Village Trust, but they don’t have any future really in continuing to administer it, and they want to offload it. That’s in the public domain.
PAUL STAINTON: Well you’ve called for it haven’t you. You called for it.
STEWART JACKSON: Well I have, but the fact is we’ve been told effectively by Ministers that there is very unlikely to be another academy chain that will come along and take on the problems that exist at Voyager. And imagine that system across the whole country.
PAUL STAINTON: How would a council be better at managing that school? How would a council be better at managing a failing school than an academy?
STEWART JACKSON: Well fundamentally there is an issue of democratic accountability. You hold school governors to account. You hold local councillors to account. And you elect. You can remove them. You can’t remove a Regional Schools Commissioner. You can’t remove a remote and unaccountable academy chain, which might be in a different county or part of the country. The other thing Paul is this. As yet, although I’m in favour of academies, there’s no educational attainment evidence, and this was found by the Education Select Committee last year, that academies of themselves will deliver better results than schools that are maintained by local education authorities. And then, when you get into looking into the future, the fact it’s not been costed, this policy, it was just conjured up in the Budget. Look at the disputes you’re going to have over redundancy. Look at the disputes you’re going to have over land disposals. It’s a recipe for disaster, and I just think the Ministers need to think again, not least because we won’t always have a Conservative Government. And if you design a system where you nationalise education, and you hand it on to someone like Jeremy Corbyn, it will be a disaster.
PAUL STAINTON: Well not so much nationalise. Almost privatise, isn’t it? That’s what it is, isn’t it? I thought privatisation was a good thing. I thought that was what Maggie was all about, wasn’t it, the Conservatives were all about, privatisation being a force for good?
STEWART JACKSON: No what we’re about as Conservatives is local choice, and having a choice of whether you want to be a maintained school. It’s also pretty disrespectful of some very good local authority officers, and very dedicated local councillors over the years. The other thing of course is that this idea that you could potentially remove parent governors. Now Ministers will say well we’re not saying sack parent governors, but we’re going to give academy chains the right to remove them from a governing body. You imagine a scenario where you have a strong-willed Principal of an academy who is questioned by parent governors, doesn’t like their attitude. Next thing, Bob’s your uncle, they’re removed by that academy chain. I just think it’s not democratic, it’s not Conservative, and compulsory academisation I think should not proceed.
PAUL STAINTON: Also with us is LibDem councillor for Cambridge, former teacher Catherine Smart. Catherine, morning. Welcome to the show.
CATHERINE SMART: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: Now you’re a former teacher. Does it really matter who’s in control of the school? What are the fundamental differences between academies running a school and a council running a school? Do parents actually care, as long as they’re getting good education for their children?
CATHERINE SMART: Well if they’re getting good education for their children possibly not. But I do have a lot of sympathy with your previous speaker. I think the thing that has got to be thought of is the three Ss, if I may. Support for a school, supervision for a school if things are going wrong, and the special needs of some pupils in the area. One of the problems with academies is that it breaks up the local responsibility, not just for the children that are a joy to teach, and there are children that are a joy to teach, a lot of them may I say, but also for the children who perhaps are not such a joy to teach. But they need teaching, and they need bringing in. They need bringing up into the adult world in a way which will make them good citizens. And the danger is that they get left behind. As I said, support, supervision and special needs. I was a bit horrified by the Report of the National Audit this last few days, which was saying that the finances of the present set-up of academies is just, well, the Report was not very favourable shall we say. And the idea that Whitehall can supervise every single school in the country, with no intermediary, is obviously nonsense.
PAUL STAINTON: Do you wish, when the LibDems were in bed with the Tiories, that the LibDems had stood up against this?
CATHERINE SMART: Well they certainly were not supporting forced academisation.
PAUL STAINTON: But you were in power with the Tories, when free schools and academies were rolled out though, weren’t you?
CATHERINE SMART: Yes but that was on an options basis. And the idea now of saying this is going to be for everyone, I think it’s very very questionable. Very questionable. Now I’m speaking for myself alone, because I’m not a teacher now, and I’m not a union official now, and I’m not a school governor now, though I’ve been all of those things in the past. But I do think that this is a very questionable policy. Very very questionable. And questionable for the good of the children who are the most vulnerable. That’s the right phrase, isn’t it? The most vulnerable. Bright kids will survive whatever happens. Those where things are not as perfect, they need proper education, proper support, in schools which are themselves being supported. When Ministers start talking about local authorities controlling schools, they’re at least twenty years out of date. Local authorities haven’t controlled schools since the beginnings of local financial management, which started here in Cambridgeshire twenty odd years ago.
PAUL STAINTON: Catherine, thank you for that. Catherine Smart from the LibDems in Cambridge. Stewart, finally before we let you go, does it worry you that your Government just lately seems to be at odds with local opinion, whether it’s devolution, whether it’s forcing schools to become academies.? We’ve got some local elections coming up soon. There must be a lot of Tory councillors that are thinking, what’s going on?
STEWART JACKSON: I think you make a very good point Paul. Often when Governments are in power they have this desire to pursue radical policies, rather than concentrate on the mundane grinding business of competent government. And I think we have seen some balls being dropped recently on things like Sunday trading, on East Anglian devolution, and now on forced academisation. I think the irony is of course that we’ve got quite a good record on school standards, and I think this argument about governance and process detracts from that. So people like me, I would say this, in the absence of a coherent and credible Labour alternative, have to hold the Government to account. I don’t want to do it, but I think it’s incumbent on people like me, if something is wrong, to say it’s wrong, stop it, think again. And that’s what I’m doing.
PAUL STAINTON: Stewart, thank you. Stewart Jackson, MP for Peterborough, his stance against forced academisation of schools in Cambridgeshire. Catherine Smart Liberal Democrat councillor for Cambridge doesn’t think it’s too clever an idea either. However the Department of Education say:
Our education reforms are raising standards and 14 million more children are in good or outstanding schools now. Our White Paper reforms are the next step in ensuring every child has access to an excellent education by putting control in the hands of the teachers and school leaders who know their pupils best. We want to work constructively with the sector to deliver this, and ensure standards continue to rise.
PAUL STAINTON: That’s what the Government says this morning.