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Academies: privatising England's schools: privatising schools will not solve England's educational problems.

Lord Harris informed the Financial Times in June 2007: 'I have a very good relationship with Andrew [Lord Adonis, then Schools Minister]. He rings me up and says, "Do you want this school?" and I ask what it's like and if it sounds like the sort of place that we are interested in I say yes.'

This quotation neatly illustrates the subjectivity and arbitrariness that is involved in the transformation of schools into academies - in effect the transference of power from locally elected bodies to business leaders. However it is not simply the initial establishment of academies that is at stake in this process, but the power relationships under which they are subsequently controlled. As lawyers have pointed out, once a school becomes an academy, education law, which regulates state schools and provides important protection to parents, students and staff, is discarded. The sponsor has almost absolute power: appointing the headteacher and (after initial transfers) other staff; and determining who will be on its board of governors, the nature of the curriculum, the design of any new buildings, and which young people to include or exclude. As many parents of children with special educational needs have discovered, it is no use lobbying your councillor if provision for your child is inadequate.

Government ministers deny that academies are a form of privatisation (despite David Blunkett's initial bluntness on first announcing that they would be 'owned and run by sponsors'). But the government defence depends on a narrow interpretation of privatisation: it argues that academies are not for profit (well, not yet); that they are funded from the public purse (but then so is the arms industry); and that they are subject to some rules regarding admissions - a concession resulting from a back bench revolt (but then all private businesses face some legal restrictions). Academies are clearly privatised bodies on any broader definition, since they are institutions that have been withdrawn from collective democratic accountability and delivered over into the power of individuals and unaccountable institutions. In all important respects, power over children's education is being handed over to a rag-tag bunch of second-hand car dealers, carpet salesmen and tax-evading city traders.

The first stage of this handover has not gone well for the government. In the absence of cutting-edge high-tech companies rushing forward to replace local authorities in the running of schools, the government was forced into what is in effect a re-launching of the process, with universities and evangelical fractions of the Church of England becoming the sponsors of choice. This has only led to new problems. Universities have been chosen as sponsors that don't even have teacher education departments, and some prestigious institutions such as Cambridge University and the Institute of Education in London have refused to participate. Principled opposition has come from the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), and local campaign groups opposing academies have continued to grow.

Paradoxically, a few local authorities have now been accepted as sponsors - partly as a result of the government's desperation, but also as an effect of the complex hybridisation of public and private as neoliberalism continues to evolve. Within a week of hearing from a Director of Education that local councillors had outwitted the government by offering that the authority should become co-sponsors of some academies, I was emailed by a company boasting that they were installing a practice call-centre into one of those schools - 'to raise aspirations' (sic).

Similarly, Manchester's plan to co-sponsor six of its own schools as academies is tied to the vocationalising of school learning: 10-year-old children and their parents are expected to choose secondary schools on the basis of career interests. I can imagine the conversation: 'Please can I go to the Manchester Airport Academy of Travel and Tourism mummy, so that I can become a baggage handler when I grow up'.

The privatisation process has been gathering pace over the past two decades, across basic public services such as schools, hospitals and council housing. In education it began in the mid 1980s, when school meals provision and cleaning were put out to tender. (Predictably, local healthy eating initiatives went out the window.) It then spread to support services such as careers advice and staff development, before reaching a high point when private businesses were handed not only the construction projects for new schools but also the ownership and control of the buildings themselves, under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI, later PPP and Building Schools for the Future). These have provided a real bonanza for construction firms and banks, who now own school buildings and land, and rent them out to the education authorities.

However the academies mark a qualitative change in this expanding involvement of the private sector, since they involve transferring control of the education process itself into private hands (the curriculum, teaching, school relationships). Nor is this a marginal project: the government's declared intention is that academies (still mostly urban and secondary) should be followed by Trust Schools (which can be secondary, primary or special, and in any location).

What is ultimately at stake is the changing purpose of education. As Stephen Ball argues in The Education Debate (2008, pp11-12):
  Within policy, education is now regarded primarily from an economic
  point of view. The social and economic purposes of education have
  been collapsed into a single, overriding emphasis on policy making
  for economic competitiveness and an increasing neglect or sidelining
  (other than in rhetoric) of the social purposes of education.

Ball describes in great detail, in this and his previous book Education PLC (2007), the extent to which education policy has become dominated by issues of economic competitiveness within a global economy which is understood in neoliberal terms.

Perhaps the biggest marker of this changing emphasis in English school policy is the clause in the 2006 education act which divides the school population into two from age 14 onwards - an academic and a vocational track. The former will be entitled to a broad and balanced curriculum, including English, maths, science, a foreign language, history or geography, a design and technology subject, and one of the arts (including media). The latter, pursuing a work-related diploma, will receive a narrower and more functionalist version of the 'core' (English, maths and science) and have no entitlement to a foreign language, history or geography, design and technology, or the arts. This is both a deep incursion into the comprehensive school principle, and a shift in educational purpose such that preparation for work would dominate. (It is important to emphasise that I am not arguing here against vocational subjects, but against them dominating the curriculum and dividing students into two halves.)

There is always the possibility lurking that the academies project is intended to pave the way for private companies to make a profit out of state-funded schools, as is already happening with many US Charter Schools and a few Swedish schools. At present, though, the greater threat is posed by this new structure of privatised management, directed by a unit of the DCSF, which appears dedicated to the most rapid possible reorientation towards a narrower educational purpose. Almost all academies have a business or related specialism. In many, history, geography and the arts have essentially been sacrificed to new vocational qualifications. Overwhelmingly, academies are using their autonomy to convert the curriculum into preparation for work - often for insecure low-paid jobs - to the neglect of other educational aims such as personal expression through the arts and a critical understanding of social and environmental issues.

The impact of private governance

There is no space here to examine all the ramifications of private control. Already some excellent resources are available. These include Francis Beckett's book The Great City Academy Fraud (2007); a special issue of Forum The academy fiasco (2008); and the findings of a Commons enquiry involving presentations from many local campaign groups (Report on the MPs Committee of enquiry into academies and trust schools, 12 June 2007). All these, and other substantial information, can be found on the website of the Anti-Academies Alliance ( My aim here is to provide a few headlines from these various sources.

One of the main problems in academies is the arbitrariness of forms of control. Most state schools already enjoy substantial autonomy. The majority of their governing body consists of elected representatives of parents and staff. In the academies, however, the board is appointed by the sponsor, who even decides who will represent the staff. The sponsor also chooses the head, and the rest of the staff, as well as deciding on their pay and conditions. Despite the legal safeguards for staff from the predecessor school, conflict is already occurring as sponsors deny rights of trade union representation and attempts are made to lengthen working hours; not surprisingly, many academies suffer from high levels of staff turnover and inexperienced teachers.

In some instances the religious convictions of sponsors appear to override other considerations, as in the following witness statement from a local campaign group to the MPs enquiry:
  Instead of being asked about teaching style he was quizzed on his
  views on birth control and whether or not he believed in Noah's Ark
  ...'I was cut short by a sarcastic and disturbing comment - What's
  the point of sending young people out into the world with 20 GCSEs
  when they're going to Hell?' [The interviewee complaining about this
  treatment was not anti-religious: he was himself a Methodist lay

In some cases, the religious fervour of academy sponsors has led to disciplinary regimes worthy of a boot camp.

The greatest incentive to winning consent for a change to academy status is the promise of an impressive new building. The additional cost of such buildings vastly outweighs the sponsor's [pounds sterling]2,000,000 contribution (which is any case often fictitious). And in spite of the fact that almost all the cost of the new buildings comes from the public purse, many of them become monuments to the sponsor's ego. Many academies look impressive but cold: shiny steel and glass surfaces, grey and brown colour schemes, and balconies and spaces designed for surveillance, with few quiet places to sit, relax and work collaboratively - other than at computers. They often appear to be modelled on City offices, rather than seeking to provide a welcoming social and learning environment for inner-city adolescents. The Bexley Business Academy has had to be substantially rebuilt: classrooms had been designed without a fourth wall. In one case a nearly new sports hall was demolished and rebuilt, at a cost of [pounds sterling]1,000,000, to avoid paying VAT when the building was hired out for community use. A Peterborough academy was built without a playground or recreational space. When reporters challenged the head on this he replied that the students wouldn't need such space because they wouldn't have any free time either - but they would be able to drink water during lessons. Actually, his precise words were: 'They will be able to hydrate during the learning experience'.

The ethics of buying control of a school are dubious. And scandals soon emerged, such as the sponsorship moneys that went unpaid, the special offer to 'sponsor three for the price of two', instances of money finding its way back to the sponsors or their relatives, and the discovery that some potential sponsors were being bribed with the offer of peerages.

Sponsors clearly have a variety of motives, from religious zeal and public esteem to a more general desire to make education more business-oriented. Some have used the rhetoric of philanthropy - hyper-rich people 'putting something back' - though this rebounded in the case of ARK, a charity run by merchant bankers and hedge fund speculators, who tried to take over Islington Green School. First on the list of ARK's sponsors is a hedge fund based in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands. Ken Muller, NUT rep at the school, confronted ARK in public: 'If you really want to help our school, pay your taxes!' (for more on this see Francis Beckett's book and Muller's article in the Forum special issue).

Saving the inner city

'Philanthropy' essentially involves rich men and women enhancing their self-respect and public reputation by handing back some money to the desperately poor. Whatever the motives of the individual philanthropist, it is inherently hypocritical, since philanthropists generally become rich by exploiting the poor.

Not surprisingly in our neoliberal age, Victorian philanthropy is back in fashion. Recent decades have seen a massively increased gap between rich and poor, moderated only slightly by devices such as tax credits. Around a quarter of Britain's children are growing up in poverty. The link between family circumstances/background and school achievement is extremely high, and actually increases during the years of schooling. Even those poorer children who, against all odds, are doing well at the end of primary school tend to fall behind in secondary school. A recent research report (Wasted talent? attrition rates of high-achieving pupils between school and university, Sutton Trust) looks at children on free meals who are among the top fifth of performers at age 11; only about a quarter of them are still among the top fifth at age 16, and only about 1 in 7 of them reach university. New Labour is to blame both for the very slow reduction in child poverty rates and, arguably, for an education system in which poorer children are so prone to failure. Many critics ascribe some of this failure to the government's centralised control of curriculum and teaching methods, which make it difficult for teachers to connect with these young people's lives.

Against this background, the government's espousal of privatisation as the answer to 'failing schools' is problematic in several respects. Firstly, it is a diversion: the freedoms given to academies should have been given to all schools. Secondly, it continues placing blame on individual schools. Thirdly, the government are using social justice as a pretext for promoting their wider privatisation agenda.

Rather than learn from the scandals and failures of the academy project, the government are intent on accelerating it. They have identified secondary schools where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieve five or more A*-C grades including English and Maths. Not surprisingly, these include the majority of schools serving poorer neighbourhoods. Unless these schools can pull rabbits out of the hat very quickly, they are candidates for privatisation as academies or (an equally dubious category) 'trust schools'. Have the government considered handing back to the local authorities the academies which are failing, according to the same definition?

This so-called 'National Challenge' is a net that has been cast to catch large numbers of schools and convert them into academies; but relatively successful schools are not safe either. A notorious example is Islington Green School, serving a very deprived inner London area. The school featured on a government poster in the shape of a Tube Map, highlighting London's most successful and improved schools - but in the same week was informed that it would be closed for conversion into an academy. This was despite the fact that, against all the odds, 35 per cent of its pupils had gained five or more A*-C grades including English and Maths in 2007 - compared with the 25 per cent average for academies.

The freedom of academy sponsors to decide their own admissions policy, within the law, has enabled academies to re-engineer their school population, so that it is no longer as deprived as the school it replaced. The law forbids selection by interview, but this hasn't deterred some academies from meeting all prospective parents to warn them that their children 'won't be able to benefit' from the education offered unless they have broadband access. In other cases, expensive school uniforms and sports kit have served as a selection mechanism. In others, tests have been set on a Saturday morning a year before school transfer. Although they purport to choose a quarter of pupils from each attainment band (a so-called 'balanced intake'), the bands are reflective of divisions of the national population rather than of the local area, and this enables a school in an area where there are fewer children in the top bands to bring in more able pupils from outside. Furthermore, less informed or ambitious or well-organised families tend not to turn up for these voluntary selection tests, and are in effect de-selected. It is not surprising that, across all the academies, the proportion of pupils entitled to free meals has substantially declined.

Similarly, the freedom to exclude pupils has placed some of the most vulnerable young people at greater risk. In Middlesbrough, for example, it was discovered that the academies had expelled more pupils than all the city's other secondary schools put together.

The education of children growing up in poverty desperately needs improving, but academies are not the answer. We should be looking, for example, at the advantages of smaller and more welcoming schools, or dividing up schools into smaller communities of pupils and teachers, as in parts of Scandinavia. We need to abandon the extensive labelling and segregation of disadvantaged children as low achievers, often from the first month of primary school. We need to connect schools with communities, and enable teachers to connect with the lifeworlds of children by redesigning the curriculum and through more engaging and dialogic pedagogies.

But is it raising standards?

The government desperately needed evidence to justify their headlong rush to turn schools into academies. Their target of 200 academies was announced even before pupils who had been at the first three academies throughout Key Stage 4 had sat for their GCSEs. They therefore soon got into the situation of creating 'policy-based evidence' rather than 'evidence-based policy'. And almost immediately Andrew Adonis was announcing miraculous improvements in GCSE results. It didn't take long to dig below the surface: the academies were entering pupils for easier qualifications.

It quickly became apparent that the academies were being advised to enter as many pupils as possible for GNVQs. Indeed, almost all academy pupils were entered for at least one - a thirteen-fold increase over the predecessor schools.

The logic behind this derived from a previous government decision that a GNVQ Intermediate pass would count as equivalent to four A*-C grades at GCSE. Therefore a pupil passing GNVQ and gaining a C in any other subject would count as having jumped the magic hurdle of 'five A*-Cs or the equivalent'. Pupils could also repeat the GNVQ assessment tasks and tests until they passed them. (Although GNVQ has since disappeared, the scam is now re-emerging through more recent qualifications, including BTEC and literacy and numeracy tests in place of GCSE.) Neither OfSTED nor QCA have been able to provide any justification for this supposed 'equivalence'. And indeed some academy pupils were entered for three or more GNVQs as well as a range of other subjects, so clearly the notion that each was equivalent to four GCSE subjects was suspect: these pupils would have been working throughout the night. Large numbers of pupils passing GNVQ Intermediate were gaining D and E grades in most other subjects, so I tested the qualitative equivalence by making comparisons with results in similar subjects. For example, over 90 per cent of pupils with a C or higher in GCSE Science also gain A*-C in Maths, but only half of those passing GNVQ Intermediate in Science gained A*-C in Maths. Similar results emerged when comparing ICT and Maths. In general, a GNVQ pass appeared to equate to A* - E grades at GCSE, not A*-C. It should be noted that the increase in GNVQ entries did not represent an expansion of the curriculum through new subjects such as construction and engineering, but was almost entirely in Science and Computing, replacing well-established GCSEs.

Of course other schools have used the GNVQ to this effect, though to a lesser extent. By 2006, after an intensive media debate about the quality of qualifications, the government were forced to adopt a new measure: the 'five A*-Cs or equivalent' had to include English and Maths. In other words, at a minimum, a student needs a C in English and in Maths as well a GNVQ Intermediate. Three subjects is still narrow as a school leaving certificate, but it provides a rather more reliable comparison between schools.

Using this new official criterion, the academies had made a gain of 10 percentage points between 2002 and 2007 (i.e. in comparison with their predecessors' results, just before the first academies opened), from 15 per cent to 25 per cent. But since all schools nationally had improved 6 percentage points in that period, the net benefit of becoming academies over that extended period of time was only 4 percentage points (see MPs Committee of Enquiry 2007). This is a very small increase, given the money spent on construction, books and computers, and the lower proportion of poorer students in the academies (as measured by free school meals). Meanwhile, the government continued to spin to the media the story that the percentage gaining 'five A*-Cs' had doubled (using the old criterion, neglecting to explain about the GNVQ 'equivalence', and that this didn't take into account English and Maths).

This 'achievement' was at the price of a considerable curriculum narrowing, as academies were driven towards quick-fix improvements in results. Looking only at their relatively successful pupils (i.e. the 42 per cent gaining five A*-Cs or equivalent, regardless of English and Maths), Roger Titcombe and I discovered that:
  only two - thirds achieved C or above in English (ditto Maths)

  around half achieved this level in science

  only a quarter achieved C or above in history or geography

  only a quarter gained C or above in a language (indeed, only
  two-thirds of the academies' relatively successful pupils even
  studied a language at KS4)

  the massive increase in GNVQ entries (more than one entry per pupil
  on average) was almost always in Science and ICT, i.e. existing GCSEs
  were being replaced with an easier qualification, rather than the
  curriculum being broadened to introduce new vocational choices.

Breadth of curriculum was being sacrificed to quick-fix tactics to demonstrate success: these pupils would not count as well-educated school leavers elsewhere in Europe. And ironically, the academies were not providing what the Confederation of British Industry were demanding - success in core skills of literacy and numeracy, and improved vocational preparation.

The proportion jumping the new hurdle (five A*-C or equivalent including English and Maths) continues to rise, but the academies' student population is changing dramatically. Many academies have reduced the proportion of pupils on free meals; many have drawn in large numbers of pupils who would have attended other schools; and some appear to have 'lost' a significant number of pupils between KS3 tests and GCSE, whether by expulsion or by removing them from the data. Even so, some academies are desperate, and under such serious pressure to reach 30 per cent of pupils attaining 5 A*-C or equivalent, with English and Maths, that pupils have been removed from all other subjects and are cramming English and Maths all day long.

Without taking into account the factor of a less disadvantaged student population, official statistical analyses show a gain in numbers of those achieving five A*-Cs with English and Maths of only 4 percentage points beyond the improvement of other schools. This presents a problem of how to factor in the changing pupil population. National statistics show that around half of all pupils not on free meals gain five A*-Cs with English and Maths. When you factor in this figure, even the net gain of 4 percentage points disappears. But the reduction in pupils on free meals is not the only factor that needs to be taken into account when making comparisons. Perhaps more important is the influx of new pupils who are not particularly disadvantaged. In some academies, nearly half the population are newcomers, i.e. an increase beyond the number of pupils at the predecessor schools. Many of these additional pupils are the children of ambitious concerned parents who have made a positive choice in favour of the academy - hardly surprising given the hype about attainment and the impressive new buildings. Basically, after account is taken of the population change in such schools, the academies project has brought about a net improvement in attainment of zero. They are simply teaching different children from before.

The future

Massive pressure has been put on local councils to hand over some of their schools for privatisation. They have been threatened that their area would receive no money for new school buildings unless they handed over some schools. Only a few have been able to stand up to this blackmail. The 'consultation process' has been scandalously flawed. As the Oxford delegation to the MPs Committee of Enquiry stated:
  The academy proposals were accompanied by a vast amount of spin. The
  consultation documents were not balanced consultations seeking to
  elicit genuine views and opinions - they were more like sales-pitches
  full of glitzy photographs of pupils in public schools. More like
  something an expensive advertising agency would produce (Delegation
  from Oxford, see Anti-Academies Alliance 2007, pp30-31).

The local Labour MP sent a questionnaire to parents, with the following choice of boxes to tick:
  Yes, I am in favour of raising standards at Mitcham Vale and Tamworth
  Manor High School by getting academy status.

  No, I am against these changes to Mitcham Vale and Tamworth Manor
  High Schools designed to improve examination standards.

However, resistance is growing. Local campaign groups soon formed a national Anti-Academies Alliance (, which secured the affiliation of the major teaching unions, Unison, UCU and others. Some local victories have been won, though the juggernaut continues to roll.

It is impossible to predict the impact of the financial crisis on all this. Maybe potential sponsors will realise they have more pressing concerns. Perhaps the government will no longer be able to lavish funds on these privately-managed publicly funded schools. Without a broad professional and public campaign, however, it seems likely that many more schools will become academies or trust schools.

The establishment of academies continues to be troubled, and recent news of local victories is encouraging. A bulletin from the Anti-Academies Alliance lists the following:
  The Headteacher in ULT's Walthamstow Academy left suddenly when NUT
  members prepared for a ballot. Lord Bhatia had to resign as Chief
  Executive of Edutrust following financial mismanagement. The press
  reported that OASIS had a 'riot' in their newly opened Mayfield
  Academy, and had to sack the Head. The Head got the sack in Richard
  Rose Academy in Carlisle after parent, pupil and teacher protest.

  Derby, Dudley, Northampton, Sheffield and Stoke have all recently
  pulled back from academy plans. At their Spring Conference the Lib
  Dems announced they had turned against academies and now the Tories
  are split too.

There have been strikes by teachers in Bolton, Newham, Tamworth and Croydon. Even the government-commissioned PriceWaterhouseCoopers evaluation in November 2008 concluded: 'there is insufficient evidence to make a definitive judgement about the academies as a model for school improvement'.

The struggle against academies forms part of a wider battle. As I argued at the start of this article, privatisation isn't simply a matter of ownership and control, but about the purposes of schooling. It is self - evident that schools need to prepare young people to make a future economic contribution to society, but students are more than 'human resources'. Schools which are reduced to serving only economic goals, to the neglect of personal and cultural development and global citizenship, simply don't deserve the name of education.
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Author:Wrigley, Terry
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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