Article published: Thursday, April 19th 2012
Parents and campaigners opposed to the conversion of Chorlton High School into an academy are to lobby the school’s board of governors next Tuesday at a key meeting to decide whether or not to proceed with the application.
Governors argue conversion to an academy would prevent the school becoming “left behind” as local authority funding comes under pressure and government reforms expose the school to unfair competition by a more marketised educational environment. Opponents however fear the move would reduce democratic accountability and jeopardise the school’s comprehensive ethos.
First introduced under the Blair government, academies were established with the stated intention of driving up standards in struggling schools by removing them from local council control. Co-funded by central government, academies have greater freedom in setting their budgets, admissions and curricula, albeit often under the direction of external sponsors such as businesses, charities and faith groups.
The 2010 Academies Act introduced by Conservative education secretary Michael Gove, encourages schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted to move out of local government control by allowing them to become ‘converter’ academies that do not require a sponsor organisation.
In a recent booklet to teachers, governors expressed concerns that Chorlton High could suffer if kept under local authority control. With the number of rival academies and free schools which play “by different rules” in terms of “admissions and financial arrangements” increasing, governors say their “concern is that some schools may use these powers to attract the more able or well off students, shutting off those they do not want to teach.”
While stressing that there are no plans as of yet to change Chorlton’s comprehensive nature, governors argue they need “similar autonomy and flexibility” in order to “compete equally”, for example by building on their existing strengths as an arts school. Otherwise, falling standards could allow the government to force the school to accept academy conversion under the direction of an outside sponsor.
However, opponents have expressed concerns that more control over admission processes could change the way Chorlton High is managed. Anti-academy campaigners worry that a consequence of conversion will be the school prioritizing profit gain over universal educational excellence in the future – despite governor claims that the admission criteria will not change.
Chair of Chorlton Parents Against Academy Mark Krantz argued Chorlton High’s comprehensive access would be directly at threat from a more selective admissions policy. Krantz warned of a “danger in wrangling the admissions process to improve results in the future”, sayings “if it’s not broken, why fix it?”
Parent and lead campaigner Kevin Orr added, “Our secondary school in Chorlton is very successful. The school is very inclusive, and integrated. The school’s ethos has been built up over many years. It is this success of the school that is directly at risk from conversion.”
Krantz and Orr are not alone in their beliefs, and the plans have met with strong opposition. A recent anti-conversion petition gathered three hundred signatures, and the former chair of governors, Chorlton councilors, teaching unions and local MP John Leech have spoken out against conversion.
A consultation carried out by the school found support for academy conversion however, with 50 per cent of parents and 63 per cent of parents of year six children in Chorlton’s feeder schools either agreeing or strongly agreeing with the plans. Just 37 per cent of parents and 19 per cent of year six parents opposed the proposals, according to the results. Of the third of staff who responded to the consultation 63 per cent were in favour, while 15 per cent disagreed with conversion.
Orr cast doubts on the validity of the consultation however, pointing to “a commonly stated reluctance to become an academy” in the consultation even among those in favour and arguing that meager parental response rates revealed the school’s “failure to engage people in the decision.
“2102 forms were sent out to parents and only 148 were returned, a return rate of 7 per cent. That 50 per cent in favour represents only 74 parents”, he wrote on the Anti-Academies Alliance website. “To give that figure some context, in just a few hours in Chorlton we collected over 200 signatures from people opposed to academy conversion”.
Some parents with younger children in surrounding schools have also voiced opposition, with one saying “my children are in year one and two at primary school, but we have not been included in the consultation! Yet we would be the most effected by any change.”
Orr further stressed how “many people know what is at stake here and are prepared to fight for it. Opposition to the market and privatisation in health and education is widespread.”
The lobby will take place at 6.30pm, Tuesday 24 April at Chorlton High School