Academy schools – robbing peter to pay paul

There’s a recording of a pre-election panel convened by The Observer to debate free schools which is worth a listen (aside: despite the BBC’s decision to go with the needlessly sensationalist and machismo-ridden debate format when some kind of parallel thinking exercise would have been far more informative, here). Academy schools, aka free schools, are another incarnation of a Labour policy, the difference being now that the Lib-Con coalition is pushing them as part of its schools revolution.

Shortly after the Lib-Con coalition formed, the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove wrote to the best schools inviting them to apply to become academies, subsequently overstated the take-up by about 800%, and then railroaded his Academies Bill through Parliament (317 in favour, 225 against) using emergency procedures developed to counter terrorism. The Conservative Chair of the Education Select Committee had concerns (and where were the Liberal so-called-Democrats while Gove was hanging democratic process out to dry?). Caroline Lucas’ amendments, including one about the National Curriculum which would have conferred some protection against ideologues, fell.

The Lib-Cons surmise (I surmise) that if enough schools opt out of Local Authorities, it’s cheaper to pay unemployment benefit for former Council employees than pay their wages and pension contributions. The rhetoric, though, is about ending local government interference – “it’s our money and we should say how we spend it” sort of thing. But it’s not “their” money – hey, we’re the Big Society. That’s our collective money and if local government is pissing it up the wall on inefficient contracts, then that’s our collective problem.The outcome of academy schools will be a two-tier system, when what we need is an excellent comprehensive system and equal opportunities for all children where they live. And local government interference, such as it is, has always been far, far surpassed by central government interference, and there’s no proposal to limit that. And, strongly supporting a comprehensive system funded by central taxation, I favour that involvement for the same reasons I like local government representatives I can vote down, and schools’ boards of governors which are accountable to them and to parents, and the same reasons I worry about private companies, charities and unelected bodies with long-term contracts.

As of May 2010 there were 203 academies. They haven’t been rigorously evaluated, tend to be run by companies with legal obligations to shareholders (Institute of Education professor Stephen Ball‘s 2007 book Education Plc looks worth reading). And although they can fail, it’s the successful ones we hear about from the politicians proposing the scheme. One threat academies pose is lowering standards for “educational providers” and exacerbating inequality of wage through outsourcing. Another threat is the sharp-elbowed and better-off, as Seumas Milne puts it, prising money out of public funds that are supposed to be redistributing wealth, while the remaining schools in local authority control sink.

And if Toby Young the climate change skeptic and Peter Vardy the creationist are any indication, these schools will attract people hoping to inculcate ideologies. 300 expressions of interest came from faith schools – and I thought about the King Fahd School (now ironically the King Fahad Academy – though not the kind we’re talking about).

They will certainly attract diversifying omni-coms looking to make 10% or something like that on their contracts. This makes me very despondent because where local council members and workers are inefficient or otherwise fail to operate with the public spirit and solicitude we should expect from a bunch of people in custody, not to mention receipt, of their neighbourhoods’ tax take, it’s that that needs to change, not the ‘public’ part. If there’s 10% to be saved then it belongs back in the schools, not in some company’s profit.

Given the middle classes tend to be the most knowing, confident and organised, we should be falling over ourselves to keep them (as stakeholders in the schools where the poor kids, with their – often – less knowing, confident and organised parents, go. Educators have difficulties getting poor kids through school – always have, always will. If we’re stuck with social stratification, then the wealthier parents are to be cherished and encouraged to throw in their lot with everybody else. Because it’s the right thing to do. Instead the Conservocrats encourage them to split off.

Despite government claims of interest from over 1100 schools, only 153 schools have applied, and those may change their mind between beginning their consultation exercises and signing the agreement. Good. Hopefully the others are sticking with their local authorities on principle, rather than because they’re waiting for better information.

However, many expressions of interest came from teachers in inner-city areas. Councils have got to facilitate these people’s ideas for innovation. Require efficiency and individualisation from our Councils, yes. Good local schools, yes. Academy schools, no.

The Anti-Academies Alliance have more (in disappointingly self-indulgent tone).

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7 thoughts on “Academy schools – robbing peter to pay paul

  1. Pingback: The Most Ideological PM. « ModernityBlog

  2. It’s much easier to change a single school than it is a town’s entire elected body and the inertia that comes with it. Yes, academy schools are a compromise. But they’re necessary because the ideal you aspire too is out of reach.

    • But we’re talking about the best-performing schools here, am-em… They’re the ones the government wants to make independent. But they are already doing fine. In fact, most schools do fine, in relative terms…

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