2016 04 – Editorial – Schools as Academies

The Nationalisation and Privatisation of English Education

The White Paper on Education, bombastically entitled ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’, is the natural conclusion of the privatisation of education begun under Blair through the agency of Andrew Adonis. It is, however, a curious kind of privatisation, where funding and ultimately accountability rests with central government, but without local or regional intermediaries. Academy schools are run by trusts controlled by a sponsor who can appoint most of the governing body.  The White Paper proposes that all schools become academies by 2023, the great majority of them to be located in multi-academy chains (MATs). Currently around 60% of secondary schools and 15% of primary schools are academies, implying that the great majority of schools will be converted will-nilly over the next seven years.

It is difficult to see why the government is so set on cutting local authorities out of any significant role in running education. Although academies were originally set up in order to take over schools from incompetent local authorities, their record overall  has been no better. Fundamental problems with British education have been alleviated but not diminished. The White Paper points to improvements since 2012 in literacy levels, from 1 in 4 to 1 in 5 not achieving expected standards by the age of 11 (p.5). This is a good achievement for local authority led primary schools over a four year period, even if it still leaves an awful lot to be desired. On the other hand, even with 60% academisation, “around two in five young people leave secondary school without five or more A*-C GCSEs or equivalents including English and maths.” (p.6). So the schools which are really showing improvements are to be subject to structural upheaval, while those that are still struggling are to serve as the model to be emulated by all other schools. The Government’s own figures demonstrate the vacuity of the reasons for such an upheaval.

There can be little doubt that local authorities do not always do a good job with their educational responsibilities. However, the government’s own figures suggest that, with suitable guidance they can do a lot better. One of the reasons that Conservative local authorities are so opposed to the Government’s proposed measures is that they take a pride in their work as education providers. They, along with Labour, the teaching trade unions and parent groups, not to mention dissident Tory MPs, will provide considerable opposition to these proposals. On the other hand, the fact that the SNP will not intervene in a purely English affair means that the Government holds a strong hand and the measure will probably go through.

Why should anyone object to mass academisation of schools? We have already given one reason. A decent education system depends on the success of its primary schools. If they fail to do their job properly, then pupils reaching secondary school will not be able to access the curriculum and education for them is, to all intents and purposes, over. But we have seen that it is the primary schools that have shown themselves to be capable of improvement and they are largely in the hands of local authorities. The current structure, together with investment in the quality of teaching staff in primary schools is the way to secure further systemic improvement. However, academisation will mean that no school will need to employ qualified teachers, since academies do not need to do so. This in itself, together with measures to exclude universities from the preparation of teachers, will strike a blow at the quality of primary teaching. By presenting teaching as a ‘craft’ carried out by enthusiasts liberally endowed with ‘common sense’ the government hopes to raise the standard of teaching. There is no evidence from anywhere in the world that amateurism in the difficult job of primary teaching succeeds better than a systematic and professional approach.

The second reason is that the performance of academies has been indifferent, no better than that of local authority schools. We have seen that great improvements have taken place in the local authority sector with little in the academy sector. The White Paper goes on about the importance of leadership of schools. Leadership is needed to provide coherent aims and the right priorities, to maintain a sensible management structure, to initiate co-operation between schools and to engage successfully with parents. By all means ensure that schools get effective leaders with the right priorities, together with accountability structures which ensure that they do what they are supposed to do.  But the main resource of a school is its teachers. There is no substitute for recruiting, investing in and retaining the very best teachers. Academisation will, if anything, jeopardise this.

Academies and academy chains will be subject to no scrutiny except for eight Regional School Commissioners. The main job of ‘holding schools to account’ for their performance will be academy and academy chain trusts and governing bodies (p.111). But these are the very people who will be running the academies. So much for independent scrutiny. No-one in their right mind can imagine that 8 commissars across the whole of England will be able to control and improve wayward academies. In a quasi-nationalised school system the privatised buck will definitely stop at Whitehall. How Whitehall is going to deal with the inevitable problems and crises that the new system will throw up is anybody’s guess.

There are very good reasons to suppose that there will be problems. Governing bodies will be self-appointed technical specialists, breaking down the stakeholder model of governance that has existed since 1978. Academies can run their own affairs, setting up their own management structures, salary levels and even running businesses out of their premises. Academy trusts can be run by commercial organisations who can make money by getting ‘their’ schools to commission services from them. There are plenty of cases of schools paying bloated salaries to senior employees, one notorious but not untypical example being an academy chain ‘CEO’ pocketing £400k per annum of taxpayers’ money. The exclusion of parent governors from the governing boards of academy chains increases the likelihood of such continuing abuse.

Although a hybrid form of nationalisation and privatisation, the national character of English schooling will diminish. Academy chains will run schools as they want them to, without regard to common standards set across the country. They do not even have to teach the national curriculum, thus setting aside one of the valuable reforms of the Thatcher period. The idea seems to be that Multi-academy Trusts (MATs) to which the great majority of schools will belong, will act in competition with each other like businesses, thus improving standards. But they are already in competition with local authorities, with no discernible competitive advantage, so the idea that competition between them will drive up standards looks like a fantasy.

Structural reform will cost hundreds of millions of pounds and will divert teachers and school leaders from their main tasks. This will jeopardise standards. There is no evidence for the view that further structural reform will improve education. The problems with English education are deep-rooted. They consist in a labour market large sections of which does not value education, a teaching workforce of variable quality that suffers from significant attrition and areas of the country where education is simply not seen as that important. There is no quick fix for a distinctively English problem with education. A decent occupational labour market with high quality and stable jobs would certainly help. A well-qualified teaching force with priority given to the primary sector would also help. The proposed combination of nationalisation and privatisation has the potential to cause chaos and to set back the considerable improvements that have been made over the last twenty years or so. These have been achieved by a combination of government action and inter-school co-operation within the context of local authorities. The improved performance of London schools has testified to this. It is now about to be jeopardised.