The Tories’ plans for forced academisation of all schools were announced only a week after the third reading of the Education and Adoption Bill which widens the group of schools who can be forced to become academies by adding a new category called ″coasting″.
The threat posed by the Education and Adoption Bill and rumours about the White Paper have already led clusters of schools around the country to make their own decisions to become academies in advance in the hope that going earlier will give them more control let them and avoid predatory sponsors. It is also becoming much harder and rarer for local campaigns to defeat academy proposals. Consultation requirements are now minimal. and conversions take place rapidly. The inability of the unions representing school workers to unite and mobilise a serious national challenge to the academy agenda has both emboldened the government and demoralised anti-academy campaigners. However, this all out assault can be defeated.
This is a government with a small majority, divided bitterly over Europe and now over cuts. The Tories are also divided on academisation. Immediately after Osborne’s announcement, the Tory Cabinet Member for Education at Hampshire County Council went public to express his horror at a policy which could ″lead to the country’s education system imploding″. He invited anyone who agreed to contact him and claimed to be determined to oppose it. In any case, it will be neither easy nor appealing for Tories to spend time defending and taking flak for a major policy which was not in their manifesto.
A week before the budget, Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw publicly denounced seven of the largest academy chains as worse than the worst local authorities. The National Union of Teachers, the Anti-Academies Alliance, and the Local Schools Network have been diligently tracking the evidence on pupil outcomes and Ofsted judgements for years. Even if those are your only measures, academisation does not improve schools. The Hampshire Tory said: ″I do not understand it [the academisation plan], particularly as there is no evidence whatsoever that the academy conversion of schools is improving standards″. The conversion of every school to academy status is, in purely practical terms, a mammoth undertaking. More than a decade after the programme was first introduced by the Blair Labour government, about 60% of secondary schools are academies. However, only around 15% of primaries are academies, and so only about 19% of state schools overall. The majority of the conversions were also the result of coercion of one kind or another. The government are desperately short of sponsors for new academies and openly dissatisfied with the existing large academy chains, many of whom they have prevented from taking on more schools. There is a serious possibility that they have over-reached in making this announcement. All of these factors should provide grounds for a major and loud public campaign to defend state schools and local democracy.
Organise across academies!
Teachers and other workers already in academies can be united with the resistance to forced academisation of other schools by a union battle for a national contract, negotiated with the government, which sets terms and conditions for all schools. At present academy and free school bosses are not bound by the “Blue Book” and “Burgundy Book” which set pay and conditions in most state schools. An effective campaign requires union organisation across academy chains. At present, academy bosses can “divide and rule” even within the same chain, telling one school in the chain that it must accept worsened conditions because another school already has them. Most organisation in the National Union of Teachers, the biggest teachers’ union, is still through local associations geared to local authority areas. New forms of organisation — “combine committees” across academy chains, fighting to level up not down across the chains — are urgently needed.
Failing students, fattening bosses
Michael Wilshaw is the head of the official schools-inspection body Ofsted, and before that was the head teacher of an academy. Yet even he has concluded that turning schools into academies often does much more to raise the pay of school bosses than to help students.
In an official letter to the Government on 10 March, he wrote: “The average pay of the chief executives in these seven [of the biggest multi-academy] trusts is higher than the Prime Minister’s salary, with one chief executive’s salary reaching £225k.
“This poor use of public money is compounded by some trusts holding very large cash reserves... Furthermore, some of these trusts are spending money on expensive consultants or advisers to compensate for deficits in leadership. Put together, these seven trusts spent at least £8.5 million on education consultancy in 2014/15 alone”.
Wilshaw did not go into it, but there have been numerous cases of academy bosses giving contracts to firms run by themselves or their family members or cronies. Academisation offers great scope for corruption and the creation of top-heavy, overpaid management hierarchies. Wilshaw found that the seven trusts had poor results and “many of the academies in these trusts are failing their poorest children”.