Facing a storm of protest, the government announced on 6 May what appeared to be a significant U-turn. Legislation to force academy status was dropped.
However, the Tories have not retreated from their objective to turn all schools into academies. They will now pursue this aim through a number of different routes.
Academies are state-funded schools which are independent from the local authority (LA).
The concept was introduced into the English education system by the last Labour government in 2003, as a supposed solution to “underperformance” in a small number of secondary schools, as deemed by Ofsted or because of exam results. The policy has never applied to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, where there are no academy schools.
Under Labour academy schools were “sponsored”, i.e. taken over by some outside outfit. Vast academy chains (United Learning, AET, EACT, Harris) quickly emerged. By the end of Labour’s term in office in 2010 there were 203 academy schools in England.
After the election of the coalition Government in 2010, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, used emergency legislation to rush through an Academies Act which allowed and encouraged schools deemed outstanding by Ofsted to convert with the minimum of consultation.
Funding was provided to facilitate the process, Department of Education officials were employed to tour the schools putting pressure on heads and governors to convert, and these schools had no need to join any of the big chains. At the same time Gove introduced the concept of “forced academy conversion”, under which certain schools could be issued with an order which imposed the new status. It was a controversial idea and some heroic battles were fought to resist, most prominently Downhills in Haringey, but victories were rare.
By March 2016 roughly 60% of secondary schools (2,075 out of 3,381) and 15% of primaries (2,440 out of 16,766) were academies.
In common with most neo-liberal “reforms” of public services the rhetoric around academy schools is that of “freedom, diversity and choice”. A school with academy status has a range of “freedoms”which are, according to the dogma, is the key to school improvement.
Unlike maintained schools they can adopt their own admissions criteria (though they have to abide by a national admissions code), set their own terms and conditions for staff outside national and local agreements, and vary their term dates.
They are “free” from the requirement to have elected parent or staff governors, or indeed to have governing bodies at all. One of the largest chains, EACT, recently abolished their local governing bodies and replaced them with “ambassadorial advisory committees” whose main function seems to be to promote their schools in the local community and give out prizes.
Academies cannot, so far, be run for profit, but the big chains top-slice sizeable shares of the funding allocated for education to manage their operations and pay for their very expensive management structures. Sir Daniel Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, is paid £370,000 for running 28 schools.
At the same time as academy chain bosses have seen their salaries skyrocket, teachers and support staff in their schools have seen their wages frozen.
Academies have also introduced us to private sector corruption and nepotism.
There is another important funding issue here. When a school becomes an academy it is given money previously allocated to the local authority to provide support services to schools across the whole area. The academy can then choose to buy those services back, go to a cheaper supplier, or do without the services altogether. This has led to the decimation of many services that support young people with special needs, and, in some cases, the effective destruction of the local authority.
There are many Tory politicians and advisers who are quite open about their desire to see schools run for profit. The academy programme promotes individual self-interest and social atomisation against collective provision for all children and the pooling of our resources for the benefit of all. It is the marketisation of our school system.
One of the striking aspects of the White Paper (Educational Excellence Everywhere) is that it contains no evidence for its recommendations.
During the last Labour government Price Waterhouse Cooper were commissioned to produce a report into progress with academies. They concluded that “there is no significant academy factor which improves outcomes”. Since then a wide range of organisations and public bodies have reinforced and expanded on this conclusion including the House of Commons Education Select Committee, the Sutton Trust, the Local Schools’ Network and Ofsted itself.
Michael Wilshaw summarised an inspection report into the seven largest academy chains earlier this year by stating that they were “contributing to poor progress and outcomes for too many pupils”. In December 2015 data released by Ofsted in response to a question from a Labour peer showed that among schools rated as “inadequate “those taken over by academy chains were 12 times more likely to remain inadequate at their next inspection compared to local authority schools.”
For its main advocates academies are really the means to abolish local authorities and dramatically weaken the power of teacher unions who, with 90% plus membership density, remain a major influence in the education system.
The National Union of Teachers has taken the lead in campaigning against forced academies and bases its public campaign on four key objections — the complete lack of evidence that academies deliver on their promise, democracy, the unions and the real needs of schools.
There are problems which really could do with a White Paper from a radical government that wanted to improve the school system.
There is a growing teacher shortage, plus recruitment and retention problems, a severe lack of pupil places, increasing class sizes and savage funding cuts. 2016 has also seen the testing and assessment system descend into chaos.
The free school programme makes the pupil places crisis worse as it bars local authorities from opening new school provision, while pouring millions into the pet projects of supporters who can open schools whether they are needed or not.
Forced academies are an attack on local democracy. They remove the role of local elected councils in managing the school system, replacing them with private organisations with no accountability (and no requirement for governors).
In effect the forced academy programme would mean the complete de-regulation of all pay and conditions in state schools.
Support staff don’t have guaranteed national pay and conditions, but rely on local agreements with their local authority and the “Green Book”.
For teachers the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Documents apply by law to all maintained and foundation (mainly religious) schools. These documents include pay ranges, working hours, notice periods, maternity and sickness rights and a host of other conditions. The teacher unions use them as the minimum standard for negotiating with academy chains and schools. If there are no maintained schools, then these documents have no status in law. They automatically apply to no-one, and it is difficult to see why any government would bother going through the process of renewing them.
The scale and breadth of opposition to the forced academy proposal and the public climb-down indicates the government had overreached.
A number of Labour local councils opposed the plans with Birmingham the first to act.Recently the largest Tory local authority in the country, West Sussex, became the latest to pass an anti-forced academies motion. When Jeremy Corbyn led on the plans at PMQs in April it was one of his best interventions. Two petitions launched to oppose the plans exceeded 100,000 signatures within days of the policy announcement. Forced academies were opposed in the Financial Times, the Economist and by the National Governors’ Association.
The danger now is that academy conversions proceed piecemeal under provisions of existing legislation.
Under the revised White Paper ,all schools in a local authority area will be forced to convert where the number of academy schools in that area reaches a “critical mass” and it is judged that the council no longer has the capacity to support its remaining schools. This can also happen where it is judged that the authority is not supporting its schools adequately.
Since schools, local authorities and diocesan education bodies know very well that the agenda hasn’t really changed, academy conversions are being actively considered all over the country.
The most common tactic of those reluctant or sceptical about academies seems to be to mitigate the threat rather than oppose it outright. Individual schools often seek out benign sponsors. Local authorities and church dioceses are considering setting up their own Multi-academy trusts to fend off predatory and unknown sponsors. This is the educational equivalent of fools’ gold. Once a school or group of schools adopt academy status, there is no going back and they are vulnerable to being taken over by a chain or trust other than the one they started with.
The DfE has the power to break up trusts and hand their schools over to one of the private academy chains. There will be no choice, no consultation and no local authority to fall back on.
But the government’s revised plans can be beaten! They still have little or no support and the campaign of opposition to the original proposals was a potential game-changer.
Knowledge and understanding of the academy programme has grown, and opposition can still become a mighty community force.