Academy schools: bribes and false promises

The rush for schools to convert into academies has reached fever pitch. The government anticipated that there would be about 400 schools, both secondary and primary, by now, but in two years 1,421 new academies, added to those set up under Labour, make a total of 1,807 – and rising. Academies are state-funded ‘independent’ schools that are taken out of local education authorities (LEAs); they may receive funds from charities, wealthy individuals, religious foundations or corporate sponsors. Michael Gove, the education secretary, plans to turn the majority of state schools into academies under this ConDem government. Although the main weapon for ‘turning’ schools is extra funding, cash bribery, Gove has also used emergency legislation (introduced by the Labour government for the purposes of anti-terrorism) to impose academy status on schools that refuse to change, like Downhills Primary School in Haringey (see FRFI 225).

The 1997-2010 Labour government had a vanity project to close some weak schools and to open 248 prestigious new premises as academies. The most famous of these is Mossbourne Academy in Hackney which opened in 2006. Mossbourne’s titled head teacher, Sir Michael Wilshaw, now head of the Ofsted inspection team, was dubbed ‘bullyboy’ at the head teachers’ conference in May this year.

What’s in it for the government?

The transfer of state schools to academy status removes the (limited) democratic accountability of local education authorities to parents and the community, and replaces it with direct rule from the Department for Education (DfE). Nationally agreed standards of class size, health and safety matters such as toilet facilities, playground space and the length of the school day are abolished. Academies can have their own pay and conditions for staff, set aside parts of the curriculum and change the length of the school day. They can also open their doors to advertisers, special interest groups, and untrained staff; plus they can expel pupils, which they do at three times the rate of LEA schools, without recourse to appeal. What the government gains from this power without responsibility is that the academy structure supports and hosts private companies in the school system.

What’s in it for the pupils and parents?

Pupils and parents may benefit from academies if they are winners in the system. Mossbourne School has 1,500 applicants for 180 places every year. The building is superb, the resources generous and the teaching ‘traditional’, ie strict. Exam results put it in the top tranche of comprehensive schools in England despite having 40% of pupils on free school meals (national average 17%) and 30% on the Special Needs register. The mostly young teachers at Mossbourne work a 15-hour day and operate a strong reward and punishment ethos that has, so far, obtained excellent GCSE results for previously ‘underachieving’ pupils. To what extent these results are due to academy status and how much to the particular history of this school is the subject of much discussion by educationalists. Some commentators conclude that state comprehensives have produced academic attainment as well as Mossbourne but with less money. Other academies have shown little or no improvement in exam results despite the extra money.

There are no benefits for the majority of pupils remaining in LEA schools but rather a loss of funding and resources as money is diverted into converted schools. New academies received special grants to the tune of £120 million in the last academic year. This is money lost to local education budgets at a time when the government is cutting 13% from education spending in what the Institute for Fiscal Studies describes as the largest cut in education since the 1950s. Odd pots of money like Clegg’s ‘pupil premium’ for children on free school meals are just publicity stunts, as schools use this much-needed cash to pay for core school provision.

What’s in it for private companies?

For multinationals and corporations the academy programme is a golden opportunity to make money (see FRFI 226 on Murdoch’s bid for British classrooms). School provision has been deregulated as well as increasingly privatised over the last 20 years. Headteachers and governors can make deals that make money. So 90% of academy schools now have contracts with food companies and sell junk food from vending machines and tuck shops, making profits of between £3,000 and £15,000 a year for themselves and much more for private firms. Only LEA schools continue to ban the sale of sweet snacks and fizzy drinks in response to campaigns by Jamie Oliver and the Schools Food Trust.

It’s not all good news for schools and their ‘business plans’, however. Nearly half of all schools, including LEA schools, are trapped in ‘toxic contracts’ with office suppliers and computer firms; some have ended up having to pay out £320,000 for seven photocopiers, and £500,000 for 100 laptops.

The anti-academy movement

The disappearance of LEA schools and their replacement by academies is deeply offensive to many parents and pupils around the country. There are strong objections to attending a school that ‘belongs’ to a particular sponsor. In large areas of Liverpool, for example, all local schools are ‘faith’ schools and there is no neighbourhood non-religious secondary school. In response to the growing protest movement, Gove now sells his campaign for academy status as ‘a journey to improvement’. He spins the academies programme as a plan for social mobility and describes as ‘morally indefensible’ the dominance of the public schoolboy in every prominent position of power in British society including business, politics, the media, the military and the legal system.

Gove’s little populist spurt is just a politician’s trick to pat the voter on the head and commit robbery at the same time – like Deputy Prime Minister Clegg’s announcement of a £10,000 prize ‘for the most improved school’. Clegg says he wants to ‘strike a deal between the coalition government and our schools and teachers’. There can be no such deal. Bribery and promises solve none of the problems of decent school provision. The government will pay a heavy price for selling off the state education system.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 227 June/July 2012

 

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