Education is a political football – as whoever is in office tries to push through reforms based on their ideological perspectives, irrespective of what’s gone before or the impact on schools.
In edtech this has led (in the UK and elsewhere) to waves of edtech ‘revolutions’ most of which have failed dismally and at great expense. One measure of this is the paucity of usage by teachers (I’d estimate less than 20% of UK teachers) and the fact that the vast majority of schools procure software, hardware and systems with the same professionalism your local football club applies to buying sausages for their end of season BBQ.
In England the latest hospital pass (keeping the football metaphor going) is the goal of total Academisation. The history of Academy Schools is an interesting one in which I played a very minor role, almost brokering the first major sponsorship deal between a for-profit education company and the DfE (then the DfES).
For any policy wonks out there the Academies program really began with the Thatcher government’s 1988 Education Reform Act that created City Technology Colleges. One of the first, Thomas Telford, is a hugely successful school whose entrepreneurial success with the edtech business TTS Online allowed them to sponsor several other academy schools as well as invest in the transformation of education in Shropshire.
For the ‘first’ wave of Academies you had to secure £2m from a ‘sponsor’ although this wasn’t sponsorship by any normal commercial definition and was in reality a form of philanthropy. As is the case when dealing with politically-sensitive bureaucrats the deal fell through because the potential sponsor was upfront about wanting to put out to tender many of the non-educational operational activities and that their related companies would bid for these, albeit using a transparent independent system that exceeded UK and EU procurement requirements and put their companies bidding at a competitive disadvantage. This open approach frightened the civil servants who rejected the offer as it didn’t fit with ‘the government’s Academy model’ – ironically this is almost exactly what some later sponsors did.
Next came Converter Academies, who converted voluntarily but without a needing a sponsor. The next iteration were Free Schools – which cover both newly-established Free Schools as well as two others; Studio Schools and University Technology Colleges.
Now every school is to become an Academy, or at least that’s the position of the government. We have seen this before when schools had to apply to be Specialist Schools (and raise £100k) and then the amount was dropped to £50k and then all they had to do was have tried to raise said ‘sponsorship”. Frankly, given the stink raised so far I would be entirely unsurprised if the government rowed back on compulsory Academisation, but this will be strictly a political consideration and have nothing to do with the claimed push for greater autonomy and improved standards.
Listening to the government on this issue is almost as banal as the piffle that emanates from education unions. Neither group gives two hoots about students or schools except in as much as they relate to their political and ideological agendas. What we really need is a ‘War Cabinet’ for education, a cross-party group of the best and brightest. This would be a first step in decoupling education from party politics with the ultimate aim of making English education more like the International Baccalaureate, an organisation based in neutral Switzerland and whose educational mission is predicated on pedagogy not politics. It’s of course a dream and why most of the really interesting stuff in education happens in what I call the Alternative Educational Ecosystem; covering everything that happens outside school, mainstream systems and structures. This is anything from General Assembly (high value practical digital skills), Primo Toys (pre-literacy computational thinking toys), and the ideas coming out of innovation hubs like 4.0 Schools (New Orleans) and SCIL (Sydney) to the wider Maker Movement and accreditation initiatives like Mozilla’s Open Badges.