Answers needed on primary academies


This week Parliament rose for the Summer recess. At the end of the week, schools in Birmingham break up for the summer too. But some of them do so not knowing what the future will look like come September.

Over the past few months, I have been trying to get to the bottom of what is happening in relation to the Department for Education pressuring a number of primary schools in my constituency to become academies, whether or not they wish to do so.

The whole process is far from transparent – as I set out in an article a couple of months ago. Schools tell me that it is very difficult to get dispassionate guidance or information from government officials and it is even more difficult to get them to put anything in writing.

But the message is clear, the Conservative government has got them on some kind of hit list and, whatever the head, parents or governors may think is best for children locally, the Secretary of State wants academies in place and they are unlikely to have any choice but to do as they are told. Sometimes, teachers, governors and parents tell me they feel downright bullied by Michael Gove’s department.

Sadly, in all this, Birmingham’s own Council has been as much use as a chocolate fireguard. The leadership of the previous Conservative-led administration was impossibly split, with the then Cabinet Member for Children’s Services making no secret of his distaste for the academies programme. But this was pretty irrelevant to what was actually happening. When schools on Michael Gove’s hit list needed help and advice from the local authority, often they were not around. And when they were, their role often seemed to amount to little more than being gofers for government officials.

The signs are positive that Birmingham’s new Labour administration will be different and the new Cabinet member has written to all Birmingham schools signalling a different approach. However, none of this has yet seemed to have prompted any change in the way schools are being approached by Michael Gove’s officials.

I have been trying to find out more about what is going on by tabling a range of questions to Michael Gove and his ministers in Parliament (see here and here). Unfortunately, each reply usually just raises yet more questions about what is going on. But one of the clear messages has been that ministers do not see any need to keep MPs in the picture, even about which schools are being targeted, until decisions to turn individual school into academies are irreversible and financial agreements have already been signed (see here).

Last week I tabled some further questions about the process through which such decisions will be taken and who will be involved in the financial agreements that will be reached, presumably in some cases in the next few weeks. Ministers to which were required, by Parliamentary convention, to reply to my questions before the House of Commons rose for the Summer recess on Tuesday. They did reply – just. The replies from the minister said “I will reply as soon as possible”.

So Parliament has now risen for the summer recess and there is no indication from the minister quite how long “as soon as possible” is likely to take. Procedurally, ministers could now try to delay their answers to my questions until Parliament reassembles in September, by which time at least some of the schools involved will have started the autumn term having converted to academy status as part of new private organisations or other institutions.

And children at those schools and others on Michael Gove’s hit list will break up at the end of this week with the parents and teachers not knowing what the future holds.

I’ll be pressing minsters for answers before September in any case. But make no mistake, whether you are for academies or against them – the way Michael Gove and his Department are going about this stinks.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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