Some independent thinking on the Academies Programme

by Helen Gunter, School of Education.

The ‘independent’ school continues to dominate thinking about the appropriate way to educate children. It remains iconic in ways that show how publicly funded schools are always in deficit and how reform needs to learn from this successful approach to education. For the past thirty years the independent school has been used as a model for experimental reforms to publicly funded education:

  • In 1986 the Conservative Government launched the City Technology College initiative. The plan was to establish CTCs as ‘state-independent schools’ in urban areas, sponsored by business and with an emphasis on practical and technical education. 15 were set up, and the majority have now converted to Academy status.In 1988 the Conservative Government enabled schools to obtain Grant Maintained Status (GMS) by opting out of Local Education Authorities. A total of 1196 schools opted out, and they were brought back into the system by New Labour in 1997 as Foundation Schools.
  • In 2000 the New Labour Government launched the City Academies Programme where in urban areas schools deemed to be ‘failing’ would be closed and relaunched as Academies free from Local Education Authorities. In return for sponsorship of up to £2m, sponsors took control of the school, curriculum and workforce. The Academies Programme changed, notably the emphasis on ‘City’ was dropped in 2002, and from 2006 sponsorship was dropped. In 2010 the Conservative led Coalition expanded the Academies Programme as a system wide reform, offering academy status to schools that were officially outstanding. At the time of writing 629 Academies as state independent schools have been created.
  • In 2006 the New Labour Education and Inspections Act allowed for parents, cooperative groups and private businesses to run schools. The Conservative led Coalition from 2010 see this as their preferred option, and have launched Free Schools as demand led (by parents, teachers, businesses) state independent schools. At the time of writing 24 Free Schools as state independent schools have been created.

This emphasis on the independent school has its origins in a neoliberal and neoconservative alliance. Neoliberal in the sense of bringing private interests and private business cultures and practices into public services, and as the reform of schools shows through the dismantling public services as a means of opening up provision to the market. Neoconservative through the control of the curriculum, student behaviour, and workforce terms and conditions of service, with an emphasis on either a traditional academic curriculum for those deemed suitable, and a vocational curriculum for the labour force.

I will focus specifically on the Academies Programme, and in examining the literatures there are accounts that are pro-Academies, an indeed are written by insider apologists for the dominance of elite and powerful private interests, e.g. Astle, J. and Ryan, C. (eds) (2008) Academies and the Future of State Education. (London: CentreForum). There are oppositional accounts that have opened up the way in which pro-Academy interests have used public money and systems to gain advantages in ways that border on corruption, e.g. Beckett, F. (2007) The Great City Academy Fraud. (London: Continuum). There is the Anti Academies Alliance that operates as a national activist campaign against the undemocratic way in which schools are being closed.

Official accounts of the Academies Programme have recognized gains, but in the main reports have identified the problems associated with this huge investment, and the PricewaterhouseCoopers five year evaluation for the Government showed that there is  no “Academy Effect”. In other words, operating as an independent school with all the advantages generated by the Academies Programme has not created an identifiable and distinctive impact on teaching and learning. The irony being that Academies depended on the very professionals, children and families that the predecessor schools had, but through the market the composition of these schools and the educational product they offered has changed.

I recently edited a collection of papers from people directly involved in the Academies Programme: The State and Education Policy: the Academies Programme (London: Continuum) where professionals; researchers; a lawyer; consultants; and activists have examined the evidence and recounted their experiences. Over all, the general view is that the Academies Programme is highly problematic. This is on a number of levels: first, the Academies have not been successful on their own terms – they have not improved on their predecessor schools. There is important evidence that the curriculum has been dumbed down in order to enable Key Stage results to improve, and there is evidence that Academies are now teaching different children to those in the predecessor schools, with claims that the composition of Academies have been manipulated in order to exclude children and parents who don’t, or won’t, or can’t play the game. Second, there are bigger picture issues about the state of the polity. The stories of how parents, children and communities have been ridden roughshod over are plentiful, and in the name of choice people have been denied a choice.

It was and remains a policy without a robust and convincing evidence base – the Gove mythbuster document is a selection of soundbites rather than a detailed analysis of data. It is a policy that is framed on the basis of giving children in disadvantaged areas more of an investment, but in reality it is about promoting markets and generating a labour force. I did research in a city academy and it was turning what had been two improved comprehensive schools into a ‘secondary modern by the back door’: the sponsors were helping the school to buy a garage so that the boys could train as car mechanics, and a hairdressing salon so that the girls could train in beauty therapy! One of the sponsors insisted a House system be set up as their son was at an independent school and the sponsor liked this system. It seems that education is being determined by the whims of rich people and out of date ideas about the curriculum, and about education!

I used to teach in a very successful 11-18 comprehensive school and I currently work as a researcher in a very successful 11-18 comprehensive school. The country is full of successful comprehensive schools, including our inner cities. But these schools are being forced to convert to Academy status. I used to own a share in the two comprehensives in my town: as a tax payer I funded the schools and I support this as a citizen. I now no longer have this shared and communal ownership as one of the schools is now an academy and is no longer under local democratic control. Interestingly academies are grouping together as Chains, with owners able to control a number of schools. It seems that the discredited idea of a local authority is being recreated, but the taxpayer cannot remove the people who own or run the chain. While currently there is a not for profit approach in England, we need to ask how long this will last as this does exist in the US where much inspiration for the Academies come from.

The emphasis has been on centralized regulation of publicly funded education through testing and performance management. Independence in the form of CTCs, GMS schools, Academies and Free Schools, is presented as a reward for good behaviour. Direct and centralized control through testing remains, and the role and powers of the Secretary of State continue to grow so that schools are directly controlled. Even though these experimental school types usually fail, it does not seem to prevent the idea of independence being repackaged and promoted in new ways. While the voucher system was deemed not to be appropriate in the 1980s, the situation is such that vouchers may be seen as a viable option in the privatization process.

The opportunity for the democratic renewal in the public provision of education continues to exist, and there is evidence through the opposition to Academies that parents and communities want to be involved in productive ways. People have been politicized through the process. New and innovative ways of being involved could have been generated. So there are important issues to discuss about the purposes of education, and what a publicly funded SYSTEM as distinct from schools as autonomous businesses means. It is clear that both Blair and Cameron want the dismantling of a public system – after all they are both beneficiaries of the independent sector – and that they will dress this up as being in the interests of children like me who grew up and went to school in an urban area. I am a beneficiary of the comprehensive system – I failed the 11+ and went to a secondary modern school, and then the school went comprehensive and all of a sudden we had new investment, new teachers with degrees, and a sixth form. So my commitment is to the common school where all can learn together – we may not have got it right in the 1960s, but this was no reason to abolish it by stealth.

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2 thoughts on “Some independent thinking on the Academies Programme

  1. Edward Granter

    Excellent analysis. I like the concept of ‘owning a share’ in state schools, as a taxpayer. It’s a bit like the ‘stakeholder’ or ‘big’ society, except that everyone benefits and no one makes a profit. Stated thus, and given the thirst for profit of an ever more lupine neo-liberal elite, the creeping privatisation of education should not be so surprising…

    Reply
  2. Helen Gunter

    Yes, thanks for pointing this out. I can see how our language can be used in ways that can be turned against us. It would be great to recapture the word ‘share’ as a collaborative process rather than having ownership through having wealth to invest as a shareholder. I find the every day normal use of ‘stakeholder’ equally problematic. I am reminded of the traditional response to when the common land was enclosed by the lord of the manor in 18th century England “all I know is I once had a cow and an act of parliament has taken it away from me”, and I can see how this might be brought up to date: “all I know is we once had a local school and a philanthropist has taken it away from me!”

    Reply

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