News and views from north Bristol's urban village

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Will Primary Academies Change Bristol's Schools for a Generation?

The government's desire to allow primary schools to become academies, and its desire to increase their number, may have significant implications for the provision of primary education in Bristol.

Under the coalition's proposals - outlined in this week's Queen's Speech - primary schools which have been rated "outstanding" by Ofsted will be assumed to be ready to become academies, without having to go through the current lengthy application process.

It is worth pausing to consider what Bristol schools might look like if all or many of its primary schools currently rated "outstanding" chose to go this route. In such a world, the following primaries would be eligible to become academies (independent of local authority control) straight away - possibly as soon as September 2010. These schools would be free from the requirements of the national curriculum and able to set their own non-selective admissions and staffing policies.

In each case, the link from the individual school is to it most recent Ofsted report:

St Peter and St Paul RC Primary, Redland

St John's C of E Primary, Clifton

Christ Church Primary, Clifton

Henleaze Junior School

Ashley Down Junior School

Elmlea Junior School, Westbury on Trym

Westbury on Trym C of E Primary

Stoke Bishop C of E Primary

Our Lady of the Rosary RC Primary, Lawrence Weston

Several points seem relevent:

1. The geographical concentration of possible primary academies

Although it could be argued that the varying standards of primary schools in Bristol are already a matter of public record - with schools in the north and west of the city tending to be rated more highly that those in the centre, south and east - the emergence of multiple academies would be a powerful and visual symbol of this educational imbalance.

Existing primary schools, if oversubscribed, already apply a geographical element when allocating places, according to the City Council's admissions policy document. This fact tends to lead to the creation of local property hot spots as parents move into parts of the city where they are more likely to be allocated a place at the school of their choice.

It is unclear whether such hypothetical future primary academies would operate geographical admissions policies. The evidence form Bristol's existing secondary academies is mixed. While City Academy in Whitehall and Oasis Academy in Hengrove do have a local geographical bias in their application process, Colton's Girls' and Cathedral School do not.

2. The high incidence of church schools in the list

It is a nationally-recognised fact that Britain's highest performing schools at both primary and secondary level contain significant numbers of church schools. This provides a range of challenges and opportunities.

On the one hand, secular members of the middle classes often express dismay when they find such schools operating a faith-based admission policy. Attempts to minimise the overt Christian influence on such schools seems perverse, as if the character of such schools can be detached from its spiritual ethos and worldview.

Having said that, it is perfectly understandable that tax paying families may feel disenfranchised by a system that denies their child access to high performing schools because they are not church attenders - a situation that is currently true for several of the voluntary aided schools on the list.

3. The inevitability of a downgraded LEA

If (and of course it's a big if) a number of "outstanding" primaries became academies, controlling their own budget, curriculum and staffing policies, the LEA would be left with, well, to be frank, the less-than-outstanding schools. Some may see this as a good thing. It would certainly make it easier to justify job cuts within the council's education department as its remit was significantly reduced.

However, such a development would also have major implications for the nature of the state education system. I wonder, for instance, how we would feel if this approach were applied to doctor's surgeries or old people's homes. It's one thing for individuals to "go private" with their medical or retirement needs. It's another to have two types of public service offering the same thing (primary schools) but paid for from different pots and serving, in practice, two different groups of the public - broadly speaking , the haves and the have nots.

The academy model was originally designed by the Blair government to help lift "bog standard comprehensives" out of the doldrums by enabling them to be rebuilt and form dynamic partnerships with motivated and resourceful private and charitable bodies with an interest in education. Bristol's City Academy in Whitehall (supported by Bristol City FC) is a classic example of this approach.

In the brave new world of multiple primary academies, there is every possibility of significant fracturing of the provision of education and the reinforcement of social and educational inequalities across the city.

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