Newly appointed Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, had a first opportunity to get his teeth into his new brief, with the furore about the Al-Madinah free school’s damning Ofsted inspection. So it was interesting to hear how he responded and whether the reported shift in policy from his predecessor, Stephen Twigg, was in evidence.
Twigg had previously said he would stop any new free schools being opened, but would support parent-led academies (whatever they are). I listened closely to Hunt being interviewed about the Al-Madinah inspection to see if there were any shifts in policy, however subtle. What Hunt seemed to be saying was that free schools might be okay, if they were de-politicised and the “ideology removed” from them. He reaffirmed what Stephen Twigg had said about wanting to support parent-led academies and supporting parents who wanted to get more involved in their children’s schools. He then went on to say that what this meant in practice really boiled down to three fundamental concerns about free schools:
1) That they should only be set up in areas of demand
2) That they should only employ qualified teachers
3) They must be transparent and accountable, particularly in relation to their finances.
I have to say I agree with him on all three points and my own experience with the Archer Academy has followed all of these principles.
That free schools (or indeed any school) should only open in areas where we need them, seems quite obvious, but it does get complicated when you start to unpick it. We do have a massive shortage of school places, so a great many areas are in need. But it also reflects the impossible job of local authorities, who have a statutory duty to provide education for children, but find they have diminishing control and influence over the schools in their area. This applies to all academies, not just free schools. Ideologically the free schools programme is currently incompatible with local authorities coordinating place management and this is something that must be addressed. But there is also a question over what happens in areas where they are in need of excellent schools, but they have poor performing schools. Is that demand? Clearly parents in those areas could (and should) be demanding more. How can poorly performing academies be improved when they are accountable only to the Secretary of State? There are some issues to work through here.
Part of the solution lies in point 3 – the accountability of schools. Much could, and should, be done to strengthen the accountability of schools to their local communities. This is partly about financial transparency, but it is also about ethos and culture and the extent to which the school and its leadership team see themselves as being accountable to the community. It is embedded deeply into the DNA of the Archer Academy, but only because we chose to make it that way. There is currently very little required of academies to be accountable to parents and the wider community and this must be addressed.
As someone who is very interested in open data and its potential to strengthen accountability, I am keen to see how our school can play a leading role in opening up our data as far as possible. I think this helps to give parents information about the school that they can use to make more informed decisions and how the governors to account. It also enables third-party developers to find new uses of the data – providing new insights from mashing-up, interrogating and visualising our data. It’s perhaps a bit of an unknown quantity, but my work with Data Unity has given me confidence that there is value in opening up data.
As (exempt) charities, academies receiving considerable tax benefits. The social contract that charitable status is based on, is that in return for this privilege, there must be some public benefit. Part of the deal involves being accountable to beneficiaries – which in the case of schools is obviously pupils (and their parents). Financial accountability is a key part of this.
How can we expect families to be able to hold schools to account if they do not have access to information on which to base decisions and inform opinions?
I not aware of many schools that are embracing open data – but I would be very keen to hear of any examples – but I think it is an exciting agenda with many opportunities to be explored.