Academy schools: from blue-sky thinking to a foggy future

Protest against the academisation of a primary school in Newham in February
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When academy schools were introduced by the Blair Labour government in 2000, they were taken out of the local education authority (LEA) control, given extra funding, and promoted as examples of the superiority of the private over the state sector. The government made an alliance with the ‘carpet king’ – millionaire Carpetright owner and Conservative Party donor, Philip (later Lord) Harris of Peckham. The original deal was that for a down payment of £3 million, any business could take over and run a school. Today, the Harris Federation runs 40 schools and pays its chief executive, Sir Daniel Moynihan, £420,000 a year. Where does this money come from? From the budget of the Department for Education (DfE), the same budget as for LEA schools. Far from escaping the state, academy schools depend on it for finance, and have received more than their fair share of funds. Now they face massive budget deficits and debt, and an estimated one-third of them are facing financial crisis.

Parents, pupils and teachers are aware of the risks when schools are taken out of local authority control and given to a company or education business. A wave of protest against enforced ‘academisation’ is sweeping the country. The London Borough of Newham has recently seen community-supported strike action demanding that its schools remain with the LEA. Carolyn McGrath, representative of the National Education Union (NEU) at Cumberland School, says: ‘All involved know it is collaboration and not privatisation that improves schools’.

Academisation and Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) expose services like health and education to market forces seeking profitable investment. As state funding dries up, businesses will move out leaving the community without services. Schools in England are now facing an average 6.5% fall in real per-pupil funding by 2019-20, the steepest cuts since the 1970s. Pupils and teachers will be affected by increased class size, workload and the loss of amenities and specialised help. But the further danger for students at academies or schools with PFI debt is that they will be abandoned and stranded in ‘zombie’ schools that have been stripped from an academy chain and are waiting for a sponsor. There are no mechanisms in place for an academy to return to local authority control.

Andrew Adonis, elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Adonis of Camden, was the ‘blue-sky’ thinker in charge of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Policy Unit and the architect of the academy school programme. His vision of autonomous schools, freed from local bureaucracy, could not answer simple questions. Who will be held accountable for the way public funds are spent? And who will be responsible for the students if a school goes bust?

Adonis has just left his job on the National Infrastructural Commission. In his resignation letter to Prime Minister May he criticises the negotiations on Brexit and warns of ‘the crises of housing, education, the NHS, and social and regional inequality which are undermining the fabric of our nation and feeding a populist surge’. He adds, ‘what Britain needs in 2018 is a radically reforming government in the tradition of Attlee, working tirelessly to eradicate social problems while strengthening Britain’s international alliances.’

This shameless reference to ‘the tradition of Attlee’ by a former ‘New’ Labour star is sheer opportunism. Adonis has held a stream of government advisory posts under both Labour and Tory administrations. He has an influential role in a variety of ‘think tanks’ like the Institute for Public Policy Research. In 2004 he proposed the introduction of student fees for higher education, and now complains about the current cost of over £9,000 a year and the massive wages of university heads. When he was given the £1,000 a day consultancy overseeing the development of the HS2 railway, however, no complaint was heard.

In 2015, Adonis produced a report on housing, City Villages: More Homes Better Communities which recommends the demolition of hundreds of council housing estates described as ‘brownfield sites’. The public land occupied by inner city council estates has increased rapidly in price and private property companies are eager to take it over. The resultant enforced clearances of working class tenants is social cleansing of a most ruthless kind, tearing apart families and communities. It will make the housing crisis worse.

Watch out for these well-paid opportunists in the run-up to the local and then the national elections. They will jump on any bandwagon, they have no principles as they hack their way through their chosen careers.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 263 April/May 2018

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