End of accountability
Total academisation of schooling was always the logical next step, says Micky Coulter
The local council may have sold the school field to housing developers, but the future could soon be even worse. Chancellor George Osborne announced during his March 16 budget speech that all primary and secondary schools in England (education being a devolved matter in Scotland and Wales) are to become academies in a ‘non-optional’ fashion by 2020, with plans in motion to complete the conversion by no later than 2022. The idea is that the process will be so far advanced by then that it will be enormously difficult for any incoming Labour government to reverse it.
Forced academisation comes after years of incentivised academisation - extra money, new buildings and so on - which in turn came after a series of initial academy experiments in distressed inner-city areas during the New Labour years of the late 1990s and early 2000s. At the time critics had the foresight to point out the obvious slippery slope: slice by slice, the existing education system would be chopped away and restructured into something entirely different - perhaps even an entirely academised system. Even so, as of now two-thirds of primary schools and around a quarter of secondary schools are still local government-maintained. Intolerable!
Given the neoliberal movement in the economy across the whole globe, awash for some time now in privatisations and pseudo-privatisations of former state-owned assets; given the victory, or at least the resignation to and acceptance, of these new policies across the leadership of all major political parties; and given that, once a direction of travel is being followed, it requires huge determination to overcome that trend, such critics have been well and truly vindicated.
However, a new critic of the policy is that former champion of academisation, David Blunkett. Writing for The Guardian website on March 20, the former Labour education minister complained that the Tories have not built on the model of a successful ‘mixed’ education system bequeathed to them by Labour, but instead grabbed the ball and have run directly across the forced academisation goal line. In other words, bad tactical moves are to blame, not the initiation of the whole programme by Labour in the first place. This ignores the underlying factors.
In the first place, the inner-city academies that Blunkett’s government pioneered were generally successful1, it seems, but not because of what they were called, or their particular organisational structure. These schools were knocked down and rebuilt in brand new buildings, thanks to generous funding. This restored pride to the area in question and, perhaps importantly in some cases, led to a change in their intake, which helped push up measured results.2 They were flagship projects that could not be seen to fail. The issue, of course, is that new buildings, big money, reinvigorated staff, management shake-ups and a changing intake of perhaps higher ability are in no way dependent upon academisation: they can be achieved in any number of ways, including the previous system of local, education authority-maintained schools. So Blunkett’s protestations here are a little feeble.
Ideologically we can be sure that this represents the onward march of privatisation, from Thatcher to Blair, to Michael Gove (and now Nicky Morgan) and George Osborne. It is a given that a market-imitative model must be superior to the local council model, and also comes with other benefits. According to the hype, schools are being broken free from the chains of hapless, low-energy councillors and given to their staff and experts from business and other fields.
The natural sorting of the academies into better and worse schools in a pseudo-market will then encourage the more successful academies and multi-academy trusts to take other schools under their wings and increase their market share of pupils. Over time good practice will spread, better schools will emerge and governing trusts will be able to remunerate themselves and their staff as they see fit.
Except, of course, most of this already existed under the LEA system. There is already the option for school leadership teams to make use of ‘performance’-related pay, schools are often already grouped in local or regional support and best-practice sharing clusters, which includes co-management of failing schools by their more successful peers. LEA-maintained schools were also free to pick and choose from the national curriculum, and the coming abolition of automatic NQT (newly qualified teacher) status in favour of an earned accreditation given by the school leadership team makes the issues around hiring ‘qualified’ or ‘non-qualified’ staff moot. Even the money will come from the same source - central government - and the vast majority of academised schools are not sponsored by religious groups or second-hand car dealers (though some are and will be), but will simply become a small self-incorporated trust and continue much as before, preserving the existing terms and conditions of staff under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations. The new academies will mostly set the same exams for their students and be subject to inspection by the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted).
One might wonder, given all this, why the government is actually bothering. So much of the academy way of doing things has already been smuggled into LEA schools - from performance-related pay to attempts to end national bargaining, to the ranking of schools in league tables, and so on. Of course, it is less pointless than it seems and, given how much like academies LEA schools can be already, why not go the whole hog? In addition, we can be sure that seeking to break the strength of the teaching unions is at the forefront of the government’s motivations.
It is claimed that the policy will drive up results through all the outlined mechanisms - educationalists have long been complaining about UK schools dropping down the global league tables. So what education systems do those states which rank above the UK have, if the ‘magic’ is simply in the academy structure?
South Korea, the land of ‘exam hell’ and a relatively higher number of student suicides, often driven by the pressure to succeed, has a mixed public and private system. Finland has an all state-owned, all-comprehensive and non-selective education system. Poland has leapt up the Programme for International Student Assessment rankings by, according to The DailyTelegraph, focusing on teaching quality and making the curriculum harder.3 Australia too has a mixed system of government and independent schools, as does Vietnam - all of the above exceed the UK in educational outcomes, as do Japan, Singapore and so on.
Clearly a model of total academisation will do little, if anything, to improve performance. And in any case, the supposed freeing up of schools - allowing greater local decision-making, based upon local information - will be countered by increased centralisation, shifting ultimate responsibility from where it was previously, at the local authority level, upwards to either the minister of state for education, with whom each academy will have to draw up a contract, or, slightly less far up, to the new-fangled regional educational commissioners. The role of the latter is to ensure oversight over potentially many thousands of academy schools and trusts in a given area, with only marginal input from headteachers, when they can find the time. How all this is supposed to work remains unclear - indeed it looks utterly impractical.
At worst the new trusts will function as cash cows for corrupt, self-enriching managers and ‘sponsors’, who will be freed from their own pay constraints to turn government cash into private profit. Asset-stripping of schools, reduction in staff pay, the construction of unwieldy and impersonal mega-trusts who run staff morale and results into the ground - none of this can be ruled out. At bottom this policy is designed to remove the last vestiges of accountability from both local councillors and even parent governors, who are to be abolished and replaced with ‘experts’, preferably from a business background, and to break the teaching unions and end national pay bargaining. Worryingly, the new trusts will apparently have no statutory responsibility to provide education for disabled and special-needs children - responsibility, it seems, that will remain with the local council.4
The process of stratifying education looks set to continue, while ultimate power will be further centralised, and community and parent involvement curtailed.
1 . According to the National Foundation of Educational Research, as outlined in Academies: it’s time to learn the lessons: www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/99950/99950.pdf.
2 . Ibid.
3 . www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11355797/Poland-is-leading-the-way-for-Englands-schools-Education-Secretary-says.html.
4 . See www.theguardian.com/education/2016/mar/20/michael-rosen-on-academy-schools-local-democracy-bites-the-dust.