Chloe Smith: We should give academies a chance

Sewell Park Academy has changed status in recent times.

Sewell Park Academy has changed status in recent times. - Credit: SIMON FINLAY

Parents and students at some local schools such as Thorpe St Andrew High School, Sprowston High School and Sewell Park Academy, and regular readers of the education pages in the paper, know that many schools are considering changing format to become academies.

Heartsease Primary Academy has changed status in recent times.

Heartsease Primary Academy has changed status in recent times. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

The Open Academy, where GCSE grades are improving, and Hellesdon High School made this structural change some time ago. I'm writing this month about the principles behind that change. What does it mean for students?

A third of secondary schools in Norfolk need to improve. That's worse than elsewhere in England. That's not just a big number – it's real people. It's around 13,000 students who deserve better. They only get one chance at education, and if they are failed, they carry it with them through their life.

We do Norfolk children no service at all if we deny the need for change. I was schooled at Norfolk comprehensives myself and had dedicated, hardworking teachers in my own family.

I want to see all schools in north Norwich giving a decent education to our young people, and I will do all I can to help local schools improve.

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I believe that converting to being an academy can help schools serve their students and the whole community better. Here's why.

First of all, being an academy is designed to give the headteacher and their team more control over their decisions and resources. They can be creative and innovative and practical. They can do what works and what will most help their students.

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We can all agree across party lines that the academy programme has 'enabled schools to bring in dynamic teaching and leadership', as Labour MP Stephen Twigg wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Secondly, that attitude can help the poorest students the most. Here is Stephen Twigg again, with whom I work closely in Parliament on youth employment: 'The effects have been notable.

'The Manchester Academy in Moss Side was one of the worst performing schools in the country. When it became an academy, only eight per cent of pupils got five good GCSEs. Now more than 80 per cent do.

'Or Mossbourne in Hackney, set up in an area known as 'the murder mile'. What was once a sink school, is now, for the third year in succession, in the top 10 best performing schools in the country.'

Thirdly, as Twigg shows, everyone can benefit: 'Mossbourne, combined with drive and leadership from the local authority, raised performance in all local schools – academies or not. Where once parents fought to get out of the local school system, they now fight to get in.'

The cross-party education select committee agreed in its 2015 report on academies: 'Whereas there were few if any alternatives to local authority oversight in the past, now a weak education authority knows that it must improve... Both academies and state maintained schools have a role to play in system-wide improvement by looking outwards and accepting challenge in order to ensure high quality education for all children.'

Fourthly, we should not be ideological about this issue. What matters is what works. That Parliamentary committee is quite right to say that 'for children, parents and the community it is the quality of education, not the status of the provider which is the measure of success.'

I was pretty struck by a headline in the Hornsey Journal a few years ago. It said: 'Campaigners: Hands off our failing school.'

Why would someone fight to keep a school failing? Why wouldn't we try everything that could give our kids a better chance?

Obviously, each school's circumstances might be different, and it is very important to win the support of the local community. School governors have to consider these decisions carefully, as community representatives. The interim board of Sewell Park College had to do so before it converted to become an academy and Sprowston High School governors are deliberating at the moment. As part of the community myself I wish them wisdom and vision in improving the school.

And I don't argue that every academy is perfect. The point is that emerging evidence suggests that sponsored academies can be an effective way of tackling sustained under-performance.

The local press analysed last year that 'overall, sponsored academies have improved.

'These were schools that were made into academies precisely because their performance was not good enough.'

The four Norfolk schools that were rated 'inadequate' before converting all improved.

Fifthly, there are some successful local schools which are becoming academies in order to improve even further. Thorpe St Andrew School, one of the best in the county, recently announced it will do this to work with other schools.

At Hellesdon High School, which became an academy in 2012 and of which I am a trustee, Ofsted said 'staff, teachers and governors are delighted by the school's accomplishments and have a passion to improve it further. Students are proud representatives of their school'.

The Open Academy is closing the gap with the national average, with 'strong leadership'.

And I was chair of governors at Heartsease Primary School as it considered becoming an academy. Their results were good, and have been sustained.

So, although the evidence is still fairly fresh, and no one size fits all, I support the principle of academies. Becoming an academy can help a school to improve.

We all want better schooling for our children. We should give academies a chance.

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