In 2011 the government saw fit to introduce the ‘Academy/Free School Presumption’ to the Education Act whereby if a Local Authority felt there was the need to create a new school in its area, it must seek proposals to establish an academy/free school. Schools must then find a sponsor and agree on a location for the school. Therefore, in effect, in time all schools will eventually be taken from the control of Local Authorities. Currently over 60% of secondary schools, and roughly 13% of primary schools are already being run as an academy or free school. So what, I hear you ask, is the problem?
From the outset, let it be known that I have no problem with schools who choose to be academies. There are highly effective Academies out there providing an exceptional provision to education for the pupils that attend their schools. They do a fine job and such schools should be congratulated and celebrated. What I do however oppose is the assumption that the Academy model, as a whole, is a winning formula that should be forced upon all schools up and down the country. The current government’s belief that converting every school in the country to an academy will instantly shoot the UK to the top of the International League Tables is as absurd as it is insulting to all of those who work tirelessly to provide an excellent education in schools outside of Academy run chains.
In November 2012, despite having no legal authority to do so, the government announced its intention to turn 400 under-performing primary schools into academies. Governing bodies were warned that failure to comply with the government’s wishes would result in their dismissal, being replaced by those who would force through the conversion. In cases where the pupils, staff and parents voiced strong opposition to such a measure, the government sped ahead with their plans regardless. They have, in the time since, maintained the supposition that academies improve standards. The more sceptical of you may also wonder what would motivate ministers to deviate away from Local Authority intervention.
Academies, as independent state-funded schools, receive their funding directly from central government rather than through a Local Authority. This gives them more freedom over their finances, curriculum, term dates and pay and conditions for staff. Upon conversion to an Academy, a school will be awarded £25,000 and can receive access of up to 10% more funding which would previously have been allocated to the school through the Local Authority (This is money that would have been used to provide services for the school, and so isn’t extra funding per se). Should the Academy acquire the services it acquires more cheaply, it can benefit financially from becoming an academy. As such, large academy chains are now emerging being run by companies. Although they have the freedom to employ teachers without Qualified Teacher Status and pay teachers less, it is often the case that they follow the pay structure implemented in state run schools. They do, however, often differ in terms of conditions and expectations from their staff. Therefore academies can expect teachers to work longer contractual hours and alter their sickness and maternity arrangements should they wish to do so.
‘So what if academies have the potential to offer a slightly rougher deal to teachers; it will provide my child with a better education!’ I hear you say. Not quite. Yes, the government have been quick to point to academies that have rapidly improved following their transition from state schools, but careful interpretation of the data available suggests that there is a general upward trend in under-performing schools throughout the country. Many cases have been brough to public attention whereby schools that have already begun to see rapid improvement have been forced through the conversion process irregardless and then can be held up as examples of the process working. Despite countless soundbites by the current government, few of their claims stand up to any form of serious analysis. On the whole, progress markers as well as school improvement figures suggest that state schools and academies are working at strikingly similar levels. However, removing a school from Local Authority control removes their access to:
- specialist help for pupils with special educational needs as well as monitoring of this provision
- support for governors
- CPD for staff
- legal advice and guidance to make sure schools comply with the law to keep children safe.
Crucially, the Local Authority also has the ability to liaise between schools to co-ordinate admissions. With more than half of secondary schools now working independent of this body, organising schools admissions has become increasingly unclear. Gaps are appearing in accountability, admissions monitoring, school support services and school place planning. By 2023, it is estimated that there will be a surplus of 880,000 pupils in England alone and schools are already beginning to run out of places. The current government have spent £5bn in an effort to tackle this. Unfortunately, due to the amendment to the Education Act, sponsors of new academies haven’t always sought to place these new schools in areas of need. According to the National Audit Office, there have been no applications to open mainstream primary schools in half of the districts with a high or severe forecast need of new school places by 2015-1016.
I’m not here to argue that state schools are better than academies or vice versa. There are fantastic and terrible academies much in the same that there are fantastic and terrible state schools. My objection is to the rational that all schools must be academies; that academies are the savour of our school system and must be implemented all over the country. They do not raise standards any more dramatically than state schools already do. They are no more viable. They are the result of dwindling coffers for our local councils and efforts to break the unions. This policy of conversion at all costs bears the potential to be the onset of privatising the education system and is opening the door of our children’s education to businessmen with ulterier motives. The current government have raised many questions within education; academies are not the bloody answer!