Academisation: this time we are all in this together

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Academisation

The turmoil in the Conservative Party after the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith over proposed cuts to disability payments was spectacular. But Chancellor George Osborne’s biggest budget bombshell was the announcement that all primary and secondary schools in Britain must become Academy schools by 2022. Leaving aside the 7% of pupils educated in the private sector, this decision will affect the entire compulsory school population from the age of 5 to 17 years. To put this announcement in the budget speech, hijacking the role of the Education Secretary, indicates that the government has determined on far-reaching plans to change the structures of local and central government to its own advantage. This is an uncosted proposal; the only figure mentioned is the £1.5bn that will be stripped from local education authorities. Given that the current academy budget has been overspent by £1bn over two years, compulsory academisation is clearly a political priority that this government is prepared to finance whatever the cost.

Shrinking or expanding the state?

Academisation means that jurisdiction for schools is taken away from local authority control and become the direct responsibility of central government through the Department for Education (DfE). This represents a massive expansion of state-centralised control – which is why academisation has been described as ‘nationalisation’ by many commentators. The delivery of teaching, the organisation and day-to-day running of schools will be dispersed through a variety of education businesses, charities and religious foundations, otherwise known as ‘sponsors’. It is within these sponsored areas that the government intends to shrink state responsibility for schooling.

What are Academies like?

It was a Labour government that, in 2000, set the precedent for taking schools out of local education control and passing them on to private sponsors to run as autonomous institutions. This is more than outsourcing. This is handing over public buildings, land and playing fields to private consortia for a 125-year lease, or forever. This was the start of splitting up and fragmenting the very idea of universal education provision in the name of ‘parental choice, freedom, and entrepreneurial spirit’. National agreements on teachers’ pay and conditions, standards on class size, the requirement for qualified teachers, the obligation to teach the national curriculum ... none of these apply to Academy schools. This process of deregulating schools has grown with the increase of ‘faith’ and ‘free’ schools and Academies. Today, 2,075 out of 3,381 secondary schools and 2,440 out of 16,766 primaries are Academies.

Awash with money

Academies and ‘free’ schools are funded by the state. Some sponsors early in the programme donated a lump sum to run an Academy under their own logo, but today the DfE has to hunt for corporate sponsors. In effect the government transfers huge sums of money to the private and charitable sector. This has led to corruption, secrecy, massive pay deals for leaders and scandalous business contracts, all of which have been well documented. The rapid acquisition of more and more schools, nurseries and colleges by trusts and foundations was inevitable as the stream of public funding continued to flow into private pockets. Economies of scale soon exposed the limitations of the stand-alone autonomous school. Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) now dominate whole areas of the country. Their headquarters are run by distant executives keen on ‘standard operational procedures’ and promoting their brand to hedge funds and overseas investors to widen global outreach and establish schools overseas.

The only remaining control on Academy schools is the test and exam industry, which dictates an iron grip over all the details of teaching and learning, making the pupils of England, Wales and the north of Ireland the most tested in the world. Good exam results, however, are no protection when and if the state feels challenged by the independence of Academies. Corruption and financial scandal have been tolerated, but schools are closed down if they don’t fit. This is what happened to the ‘outstanding’ Park View Education Trust in Birmingham in 2014 where accusations of an ‘Islamic takeover’ took hold.

Events in Birmingham led to a growing unease at the DfE that too much unaccountable power and money had been handed out to head teachers and governing bodies. In response they appointed eight Regional School Commissioners in 2015 to ensure that schools operate within an acceptable framework. Speedily-invented ‘British Values’ were introduced as a central government control order. Likewise the removal of parents from school governing bodies is a precaution against possible nuisance or opposition to the liaison between government and sponsors.

Total academisation

It is easy to gain special privileges and extra money from an existing system. It is another thing entirely to lose this advantage. Already Academy chain bosses are sensing that when all schools become Academies they will lose out. The chief executive of the Harris Academy is worried that his organisation will be locked out of the bidding to run new ‘free’ schools. Head teachers of the 5,172 rural primary schools and smaller secondary schools fear that total academisation will lead to closure because they will be regarded as ‘unprofitable’ by Academy chains. This exposes Osborne’s real agenda which is to open up education as the next big business opportunity.

Will there be a school place for me?

The academisation of schooling has been spun on the myth of freedom and autonomy for institutions. In fact schools are interlinked in ruthless competition for ranking in the annual publication of exam results in a fight for funding, teachers and pupils. One result is that schools are encouraged to exclude those least likely to do well in exams. In 2013-14, the number of children excluded for a fixed period included some 6,510 with Special Educational Needs (SEN) statements and a further 30,230 with SEN but no statement. Academy schools have a high rate of exclusion but it is difficult to obtain exact figures because of the DfE’s secretive processes.

Ending the local education authority

Central government, Academies, ‘free’ schools and ‘faith’ schools do not have the responsibility to provide education for all the children in the community. Only the local authorities have a ‘duty of care’ to provide schooling for all, including excluded, vulnerable, ‘at risk’, disabled, asylum-seeking and looked-after children. When Osborne says that total academisation will end ‘the shackles of local bureaucracy’ he directly attacks the practice of local provision, local knowledge and local planning for school places. There is much to be lost. We are all in this one together so we had better get fighting together.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 250 April/May 2016

 

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