When an evangelical Christian offered to start up an "academy" to replace a Doncaster comprehensive, teachers and parents revolted. But the government's academy revolution - state-funded schools run by private sponsors - is here to stayby Andrew Brown / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
Conisbrough, a small town west of Doncaster, is one of the poorest places in England. Since most of the pits closed 20 years ago it has known two generations of high unemployment. Few people own a car, there are not many shops and the police station has gone. In April this year, the local comprehensive, Northcliffe, slowly recovering after years of abject failure, was threatened with closure after an Ofsted report condemned it. Doncaster council wanted to replace it with an “academy”: a purpose-built school that would be mainly state-funded but privately run – in this case controlled by the evangelical Christians of the Vardy foundation.
No one I spoke to doubted that the new school, if it were built, would do very much better than Northcliffe. There are already two Vardy schools in the northeast, one of which is an academy, and another academy is due to open next September in Thorne, on the other side of Doncaster. The Vardy schools have excellent academic records. Though they are comprehensives with deprived catchment areas, and do not operate a selection policy, between 95 and 99 per cent of pupils at the first one, Emmanuel College in Gateshead, achieve five or more A*-C GCSE grades. The second, King’s Academy in Middlesbrough, formed last year from the amalgamation of two failing schools, managed around 34 per cent in its first year, which is only slightly higher than Northcliffe but represents a considerable improvement over the schools it replaced, one of which had an A*-C pass rate of 14 per cent in 2003.
The Vardy foundation, which is funded by Peter Vardy, owner of Reg Vardy, one of the largest car dealing franchises in Europe, had offered to put £2m into Conisbrough through its offshoot the Emmanuel Schools foundation. This would be topped up by a further £22m from central government, money not otherwise available to Doncaster, and enough to pay for a shiny new school with state of the art equipment. So what is the problem?
For some scientists and secularists, the answer is clear. Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, jointly condemned the plan because the people who run the Vardy foundation deny the truth of evolution and prefer the authority of the book of Genesis to that of science.
One Saturday in June this year I attended a cheerful, noisy demonstration of about 200 people walking through Conisbrough in intermittent drizzle, with placards that read, “We won’t tell you how to sell cars if you won’t tell us how to run schools,” and “A school is for life. Not just for Christians.” Matthew Bailey, the head of science at Northcliffe and the local NUT representative, told the protest meeting: “I would rather teach science fact from the blackboard than use a state of the art computer system to teach that the world was created in six days 4,000 years ago.”
But it is not the creationist beliefs of some Vardy foundation teachers that motivates most of the protesters. One of the science teachers on the march told me that his belief in the comprehensive system had really inspired his resistance. “It’s not the science side of things. It’s the idea that for a one-off payment you could have complete control of the school.” Even Matthew Bailey talked more about the politics of academies than teaching evolution. “There are 17 schools in the area. Why give all that money to one of them? Rather than creating haves and have-nots, they could give all the schools some of the money,” said another teacher on the march. None of them, apart from Bailey, wanted to be named because they were all worried that they might have to seek jobs from the new owners.
Among the parents who joined the protest, there was some suspicion of evangelical Christianity: rumours had circulated in Conisbrough that every child would have to carry a Bible in the school at all times. In September, one parent put the school up for mock auction on eBay for £2m, the same amount that the Vardy foundation had pledged. But, again, creationism seemed to be less the issue than a resentment of outsiders. One candidate running against the new school in the council elections in May polled more than 800 votes. The general attitude to politicians, even those as close as Doncaster, was that they were all out for themselves, and that anything they gained would be at the expense of the people of Conisbrough: it always was.
Matthew Bailey got the biggest cheer of his speech when he quoted John Burn, the former head of Emmanuel College, as saying that the children in his care “will be exposed to biblical truth daily and this will make them civilised.” “I tell you this, John Burn,” said Bailey, “our children are civilised!”
According to the longer version of the quote on the anti-Vardy parents’ website, what Burn actually said was rather different – no more than praise for daily assemblies: “They will be exposed each day to biblical truth. That atmosphere itself will have a huge beneficial effect upon them. Each day we will have an act of Christian worship, exposure to the Word of God and an opportunity for people to participate in prayer. I think that in itself will have a calming, civilising influence.”
Whether or not the Bible is a calming and civilising influence, Ofsted thinks Northcliffe comprehensive needs one. Its report found “a significant minority of the pupils, particularly boys, were boisterous and inconsiderate when moving through the corridors between lessons, and unpleasant habits such as spitting were observed too frequently. While most pupils were… courteous to adults and to each other, an ethos of mutual respect does not consistently pervade the work of the school.”
The anti-Vardy campaign points out that Northcliffe is improving without the help of an academy: in the past couple of years, its GCSE pass rate has risen from 25 per cent to 32 per cent. And teachers have won awards.
When Alan Griffiths, the local vicar, organised a coach trip for parents interested in seeing the King’s Academy in Middlesbrough, only five people went. Griffiths is not a creationist, but he is a supporter of the academy experiment. “King’s reminded me of the ethos of the grammar school I went to. It is a school that young people are proud of… They are working to see that the children who got Fs might get Es. They call it a Christian philosophy that every child is of equal value… Northcliffe is not the desperate failing school that some are but it is like a third division club, and what’s on offer is premiership club status.”
Vardy schools make a point of discipline. The children all wear uniforms, a school policy which the government would like to see reintroduced throughout the country. The male pupils and the staff wear ties. Andrew Lister, the (atheist) assistant principal at the King’s Academy, wore uniform at his own grammar school 40 years ago, and disliked it. He was surprised when the King’s Academy opened and the children turned up in uniform from day one: “We thought they’ll just say ‘na!’ but they haven’t. We keep at them, we say, do your tie up, we make sure they have the right skirt or trousers and so on – they’re pushing round the edges as we did 40 years ago, but they’re not refusing.”
According to Nigel McQuoid, the headmaster, the uniform policy came from listening to the parents. “We asked ourselves what is it parents want which they’ve given up thinking they can get. We found that it was traditional small-c conservative things. They’d say ‘We want opportunity for our kids, we want discipline, we want values, we want you at school to be doing things that we’re trying to do at home.’ And uniform is one of those things.”
The King’s Academy looks nothing like a normal school. It has a curved glass front; the stone is breezeblock coloured like Oxford limestone. From the outside it might be a businessman’s hotel set on a ring road anywhere in England. Inside, the reception desk and discreet offices might also still be a hotel. All the floors are carpeted. The classrooms have long internal windows on to the corridors, as well as on their external walls. Wherever you are, you are acting in full view of the rest of the school. “When there is absolute clarity of what’s expected,” says Andrew Lister, “you don’t get big problems.”
Tracy Morton, a youth worker who was one of the leaders of the anti-Vardy movement in Conisbrough, says that the boisterous behaviour at Northcliffe which shocked Ofsted was just “young people behaving the way some young people do.” But she also says that the problems in Conisbrough have particular local roots. The coalminers’ distrust of authority has persisted long after the closure of the last local pit in the mid-1980s. Only now, 20 years later, have residents stopped feeling that theirs is a pit village without a pit. This resentment of authority, she says, carried over into a mistrust of school. But things are getting better, she says, and there is some evidence for this: in 1995, only 15 per cent of Northcliffe children achieved five or more A*-C GCSE grades. She wants the community to heal itself. She did not go on the tour to Middlesbrough because she thought that they would be shown only what the Vardy foundation wanted them to see.
So Conisbrough has little faith in education, nor in outsiders; the council has no faith in the school; the Vardy foundation has an unnerving faith in the Bible. The foundation people don’t like talking about this, partly because journalists want to talk about nothing else. But there is no doubt that their views of science are confused and mistaken. Peter Vardy himself says, “as a guy who hasn’t done a lot of studying and didn’t do science at school, I return to my faith position – I accept the view that God created the earth, created man in his own image, quite how long it took him to do it I haven’t concerned myself about. As to the whole evolution proposition that we have evolved from slime, I just find it impossible to accept. Obviously things do evolve. But I don’t think we evolved from a pile of slime on the floor to the intricate things that we are today.”
King’s Academy headmaster Nigel McQuoid, by profession an English teacher, speaks of the difference between predictions of the future, where he is perfectly happy to trust in science, and retrodictions of the past, which he feels are entirely different. In other words, if you allow that miracles can’t happen and that modern science proves that the earth is billions of years old, then all the miracles of the New Testament must fall as well, and with them the truth of Christianity, which is to him the most important thing in the world, and the inspiration for all his educational work.
The question is how creationism is to be taught in the schools to which Sir Peter is ready to sink up to £14m of his own money. Both Vardy and McQuoid say that no Vardy school has ever taught creationism in a science lesson. Teaching creationism as religious education, or unofficial philosophy, is something that few people can object to. But might there not be some slippage here? There is evidence, in the shape of a 2000 lecture by Steven Layfield, then soon to become head of science at Emmanuel College, that he wanted creationism taught in science classes. He believes, for example, that the moon’s craters were formed when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden.
I found no evidence that he got what he wanted, or that these ideas were ever taught in a science class; indeed, the national curriculum guarantees that they cannot be taught as science. Though the academies are not strictly bound by the national curriculum, they are not permitted large variations, and this is one of the means of control that the government retains even after handing over management.
I said to McQuoid that there was no scientific debate about creationism, any more than there is serious debate in English literature about whether Bacon wrote Shakespeare. He would not, as an English teacher, spend time in his classes on the question of who wrote Shakespeare. Why give credence to the equally pointless question of whether Darwin was right? Ah, he said, because there is so much less at stake with Shakespeare and Bacon. McQuoid talks passionately about this debate in a way that seems to me entirely sincere. To stereotype him, and those like him, as authoritarians or indoctrinators just because they are evangelical Christians and wrong about science seems an inadequate response.
Academies: a New Labour big idea?
But why is a Labour government rigging the game so that everyone seems to benefit from a Vardy-style takeover? The academy proposal offers the council a new and better school, without spending any money. The parents get a new, lavishly equipped and remoralised school. The Vardy foundation, for a payment of just £2m, gets to own a complete £24m school in perpetuity, without paying anything towards the running costs. This is not a deal that Peter Vardy would offer on his cars.
The only answer that makes any sense is that the government believes that large parts of the state school system have failed poor children. Tony Blair has talked about this failure in speeches as he opens new schools: the academies, he has said, “are targeted on areas where… traditional school management has not succeeded as we would have wished. Where challenge is greatest, reform must be boldest.”
Academies also feature prominently in the government’s five year education strategy, published in July. But there persists the feeling that the academy policy is being pushed, undebated through the political back door. Sunder Katwala, head of the Fabian Society, says: “If you look at the modernised Labour party – education is the major issue on which there hasn’t been an internal debate. The leadership don’t think that existing comprehensives are the answer. The government is open to the idea that we ought to be trying something different, but they are scared of having the debate. So we have these back door measures.”
The “back door” is now wide open. There are already 17 academies running, with 36 in the pipeline, and the government is aiming for at least 200 open or in development by 2010. This is no longer an experiment. It is an attempt to replace the present state secondary education with something radically different – although still free and comprehensive.
The Vardy schools are heavily oversubscribed. Property prices have already risen in the catchment area of the King’s Academy in Middlesbrough, even though 42 per cent of the children there are entitled to free school meals. The running costs are entirely met by central government. But in every other respect, they are run as if they were private. Their governing bodies are packed with sponsors’ representatives. They set their own terms and conditions for the staff and are not bound by national agreements – they get no more money for staff pay than a normal school but are freer to alter pay differentials.
The point is that management of the academies is outside the control of the local education authority (LEA). The justification for this is not just a belief in the superior efficiency of the private sector. The argument of the project’s supporters is that an LEA with a long tradition of failure has little experience of things working well, and cannot be expected to act with the sort of ruthlessness needed to maintain the highest standards. Tony Blair says he can get a sense of whether a headmaster is any good within two minutes of entering any school. That kind of judgement has to be made on the basis of external signs of discipline, cleanliness and school spirit which many LEAs cannot bring themselves to demand.
Private sector sponsors are expected to bring “a different perspective to the basic curriculum,” in the words of the DfES. Provided that children pass exams, and the law is not broken, the academies can use any methods they like.
Sponsors, who are required to cover 10 per cent (up to £2m) of the capital costs of a new school, come from a variety of backgrounds and bring a mixture of motives. They include hard-nosed businessmen, the Church of England, private schools, Goldman Sachs partners. Peter Vardy is, I think, genuinely philanthropic, like many rich evangelicals. Private schools are anxious to ward off threats to their charitable status. Some companies simply want a better trained workforce, with the ability to read and write and do sums, and fear that they must ensure this themselves.
None of these motives are attractive to much of the educational establishment, which dislikes academies – indeed, almost all recent school reforms – on two grounds: accountability and “siphoning off” of the best pupils.
On accountability, there is a concerted push on the part of central government to give as many schools as possible – foundation schools, academies and so on – more powers of self-government. Academies can only be set up with the support of the local authority, whereas the Conservative experiments involved removing schools from local control whatever the LEA wanted. The LEAs which agree to academies are, of course, negotiating from a position of weakness. But the accountability that is being lost seems largely theoretical. In what meaningful sense does a typical comprehensive school embody local democratic control through the formal accountability of the school head and governors to the local authority’s education committee? The academies are partly designed to bypass existing political structures, but that does not mean they are accountable to no one. They will remain accountable to central government and to parents, through Ofsted inspections and reports and through published exam results. Academy supporters also point out that the organisations and individuals who run academies are in a sense accountable to their own reputations: if the school under their control fails, it could severely damage their standing.
What about the “siphoning off” anxiety? Private and grammar schools, and greater selection in state secondaries, all tend to siphon off the brightest and best motivated children, leaving other schools in the area with a tougher job. But academies are designed to replace failing schools in “areas of disadvantage and low standards,” and they are expected to take children from all backgrounds.
The academies do not select on the basis of ability. They may select 10 per cent of their pupils for particular aptitudes, if the school has decided to specialise: but only three of the six permissible specialisations are academic – design and technology, foreign languages and ICT. The others are sport, visual arts and performing arts.
Are academies being privileged in other ways? What about their new buildings? Is it necessary to spend all that money on physical infrastructure? According to the DfES, almost all secondary schools in England will be wholly or partly rebuilt over the next 15 years – academies are, at worst, just jumping the queue for rebuilding money.
It seems likely that some academies will fail. In a few places, the shiny new buildings will end up as wrecks, ostentatiously mocking the high hopes they once stood for, rather as some of the 1960s high-rise blocks did. But there is also some evidence from the recent experience of forming new schools on the ruins of old ones that the new ones stand a better chance of success if they are in new buildings. (The City Technology Colleges, set up by the Conservatives and in some ways prototypes for academies, worked best in new buildings.)
Where academy critics are on stronger ground is not so much over the siphoning off of the best pupils but of the best teachers and heads. The planners of the scheme are clear. The single biggest hindrance to their efforts to improve bad schools is a shortage of effective heads and governance bodies. That is what the academies are meant to put in place. But exceptional headteachers are by definition in short supply. It makes sense for a Labour government to target them at the poorest children. But where will they find 200? What will happen to the schools from which they are lured?
It is when you ask these questions that the true measure of the plan’s ambitions becomes clear. The idea is that the academies – with their three line attack of new infrastructure, new governance structure and new head – will produce better teachers as well as pupils. Even 200 academies are a pinprick beside the 3,500 state secondary schools in England, but the hope is that they will become centres of renewal for the whole education system. Tony Blair evidently now believes that if enough academies are up and running before he departs they could be one of his big domestic legacies. And he is prepared to take political risks to secure their future – such as inviting the heads of 30 top private schools to Downing Street, at the end of October, to try to win their backing for the experiment
Back to Conisbrough
Conisbrough, isolated on its green hillside west of Doncaster, is just the sort of “island” school singled out as particularly difficult to improve by David Bell, the chief inspector of schools last autumn. About 35 per cent of the children on the roll have special needs. It is the kind of place which only a faith-based enterprise is likely to take on. Once upon a time, that faith was not religious. It was a belief in society, or even socialism. Many of the teachers and parents I spoke to still believe. But the government has lost the faith.
At the end of the summer term, Northcliffe just survived its first inspection under special measures, and some of the teachers finally visited the King’s Academy to see what their future might be. They came back impressed with what they had seen. One Northcliffe science teacher told me: “If we win, it’s like saying the kids get nothing. So I’m torn. I really am.”
At about the same time, I was talking to Peter Vardy in Middlesbrough, when he was told that the teachers at Northcliffe had voted 9-1 against his scheme. “I’ll not come,” he said. “I rang the director of education in Doncaster this morning and I said, ‘put it on hold.’ If they don’t want it, they don’t need to have it. But they’ve decided they don’t want something they don’t know anything about.”
The council dithered all summer. Eventually, the mayor postponed the decision again and Vardy withdrew. On 14th October, Doncaster council formally announced that the plan was dead. The Conisbrough campaigners offered their services to other schools trying to fight off academies.