Education Notes: The Academy Games

Pin It

At the end of November, the first-ever Academies Show took place in Birmingham. Just like a car or garden show, over 200 suppliers laid out their stalls, pitching for sales. The programme highlight was the ministerial keynote speech, ‘Unlocking the power of academies for a world-class education system’. Panel discussions were held throughout the day with a special session on ‘Identifying Radicalisation Early and Ensuring the Protection of Vulnerable Children Within Schools’. Sponsors included the Department for Education (DfE), the Crown Commercial Service, Microsoft, Sage, and PS Financials.

What exactly is on sale here is the nation’s education system. The Academies Show aims to find sponsors to take over schools. Local Education Authority (LEA) schools are on offer to education businesses, multi-national corporations or religious foundations. In this unusual marketing enterprise it is the British state that is putting up the capital yet demanding no returns on investment.

Academy schools are state-funded schools under the patronage of sponsors and accountable only to central government. When ‘free’ schools and ‘academies’ started under the Blair government in 2000, sponsors were expected to donate £2 million to buy into the right to impose their chosen ‘ethos’ on a school – Christian, traditional or whatever. By 2005 academies were being transferred freely to sponsors and today the government is desperately offering cash inducements to sponsors to take the nation’s schools out of LEA control, or to take over failing existing academies. The political agenda of cutting state welfare expenditure requires an attack on public sector provision as a whole and must create divisions and competition within it. And so the amount of state funding given to ‘free’ schools in 2013-14 was £7,761 per pupil compared with £4,767 for LEA schools.

The Northern Powerhouse

The Education and Adoption Bill 2015-2016 has as a key target bribing new sponsors to adopt academies. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has said that all ‘coasting’ schools must convert to academy status and needs to find sponsors willing to move ‘up North’. There has been little interest among companies in the North of England so far – after all, it would have been a disaster if Tata Steele in Redcar (which stopped production in October with a loss of 1,700 jobs) had been an academy sponsor. Chancellor George Osborne has set up a £10m Northern Sponsor fund, and   Morgan has named the first five recipients of £5m of that money: academy trusts REA-ch4, Outwood Grange, Wakefield Cities Academy Trust, Tauheedul and Bright Tribe. These ‘academy chains’ will act without reference to the wishes of parents, teachers, pupils, governing boards and, of course, the LEAs who have final responsibility for the education of all pupils but no right to intervene in ‘academy conversion’.

A shadow education system and a shadow economy

While ‘free’ schools and academies are ‘not-for-profit’ institutions, massive incomes are generated from sponsorship in the form of consultancies and trusteeship. A stream of scandals has shown the system to be awash with cronyism and pay-offs. For example, the Griffin Schools Trust paid more than £700,000 to a company wholly owned by its joint chief executives. Additionally all schools in England are legally bound to outsource all purchases and management systems to private business. Sweden’s experimental ‘free’ school movement collapsed two years ago under this profiteering system of educational provision (FRFI 241, October/November 2014). Added to spiralling financial costs, as Sweden discovered, is the chaos introduced by the opening and closing of sponsored schools which affects the distribution of pupil places throughout the local area.

Britain and the global education sell-off

The Department for International Development (DfID) is using international aid money to encourage ‘for-profit’ private education across Africa and Asia. In 2012 the DfID claimed that ‘private enterprise is not just a generator of wealth, but also a provider of critical basic services’, and it has increased aid money on funding the for-profit Bridge International Academies and Omega Schools in the global south. These companies build and run supposedly ‘low-fee’ schools which nevertheless are too expensive for many families. They operate a ‘pay as you learn’ system in which parents must pay about 25-40% of their daily earnings to educate one child. These private schools gain dominance in countries with a weak public sector education system because they employ teachers on poverty wages. Teachers at Omega (low-fee) schools in Ghana earn about $3 a day, approximately 15-20% of what public sector teachers earn.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 248 December 2015/January 2016