Education, Education, Education – Part One: Who Rules the Schools?

  When the Blair government created the Academy Programme in 2000, their intention was to lift the performance of failing schools in deprived areas to match the standards of more affluent areas. As of May 2010, and the end of New Labour’s tenure, there were 203 academies in England (devolved authorities not having implemented the programme). 

  An academy, for those who don’t know, is a publicly funded school which is independent of local authority control. Generally constituted as charities, academies’ most important feature is that they have private ‘sponsors’. These can be individuals or organisations such as the United Learning Trust which sponsors 36 academies across the country. In exchange for providing 10% of the academy’s startup costs, a sponsor gains considerable influence  over the curriculum, ethos, specialism (academies specialise in a particular subject area such as technology or languages) and even the buildings of the school. They also have the power to appoint governors to the school’s board. 

  This is a considerable amount of power to transfer into the hands of a third party – especially to large organisations which, as shown above, can control large numbers of different academies. The ability to appoint governors is particularly worrying, as this allows major decisions about the school – including the appointment of the headteacher – to be unduly influenced by the sponsor. For the relatively modest asking price of 10% of capital costs, anyone with the cash can essentially buy control of a school.

  Now, though it pains me to accept that New Labour was anything other than a poisonous blot upon the history of this country, it must – reluctantly – be admitted that the initial run of academies largely fulfilled their aims. Transforming 203 poorly-performing schools into relatively good ones is not a bad outcome for such a programme, and indeed many academies towards the end of the New Labour period began to significantly outperform local state schools. All well and good, you might think, and maybe the surrender of power to private individuals is just about compensation for the vast increase in performance. I disagree, but it’s an argument at least – power for results.

  Until, that is, the coalition got involved. *sigh*

  Michael Gove in his infinite wisdom (NB: for ‘wisdom’, please read ‘idiocy’) removed the need for academies to be poorly performing schools – in fact, whilst such academies can still be forcibly created, the vast majority of new academies ask for the status to be granted. And, of course, in order to do so they have to have achieved at least a ‘good’, preferably an ‘outstanding’, in their Ofsted report. This has the effect of completely ruining the point of academies in the first place, and of completely scuppering the above argument which is the only possible justification for their existence.

  Now, power is not exchanged for results – the schools are already good – but simply surrendered in return for a paltry contribution towards the cost of establishing the academy, a cost which wouldn’t of course exist were the sponsor not involved in the first place. The Coalition, in effect, is allowing rich individuals and large organisations to buy schools. 

  And why wouldn’t you? You look philanthropic and you get the ability to force your own views and ethos upon the children of tomorrow. What’s not to like?! Well, from the perspective of the sponsors, nothing – which probably has had something to do with the vast explosion of academy numbers since the Coalition came into power. As of November last year, the most recent data available, 3,444 schools in England have converted to academies – including around 45% of all secondary schools.

  This is not good. And there’s worse. Academies are bad, sure, but compared to Free Schools, they seem tame and gentle. 

  A Free School is essentially a super-academy – the logical extension of the decentralisation principle behind the academy programme. The difference is that they are entirely, rather than partially, controlled by the group which establishes them – and that group doesn’t even need to pay the 10%. Groups which can establish Free Schools include parents’ groups, education trusts and universities – but also private schools, businesses and religious organisations.

  The extra powers of Free Schools mean that, whereas Academies can vary the national curriculum, they can depart completely from it. This has led to fears that some groups, particularly religious organisations, will be able to avoid teaching topics which do not fit their particular ethos, such as natural selection, or to teach entirely discredited theories such as creationism as if they were scientifically valid.

  These fears were confirmed in July 2012 when Grindon Hall Christian School, Exemplar Academy, and Sevenoaks Christian School were found to be doing just that – despite assurances from the government that religious fundamentalists would not be able to use the Free School system to indoctrinate children. Concerns have been raised about the possibility of an Islamic fundamentalist takeover of schools in Birmingham, while the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby has already been closed due to a series of increasingly worrying reports of sinister goings-on, including the forcing of female teachers to wear headscarves and the segregation of students along gender lines. 

  The Free School system is clearly open to abuse, and to cap it all it’s not even been successful. Many Free Schools are failing their pupils: the closure of the Discovery Free School in December 2013 was the first sign of this trend, and official papers recently leaked to the Observer show that Michael Gove has targeted a number of other Free Schools for high-priority improvements to limit the ‘political ramifications of any more free schools being judged inadequate‘.

  This evidence of Free Schools being given undue prioritisation for political reasons is typical of Gove’s DfE. More shocking is the Education Act 2011, which states that local authorities can only open a new school in an area which needs one once they have put out a request for proposals for Free Schools and Academies. This not only means that residents will have to suffer an even longer consultation process before a new school can be built, but also that free schools and academies are essentially being forced upon local authorities by central government, purely to advance the Coalition’s political agenda.

  The bottom line on these schools is this: they are failing children, open to abuse and must be stopped. We must call on Gove and his team to roll back the academies and free schools programme, repeal the Academies Act 2010 and Education Act 2011 and return openness and educational independence to our schools.

  That’ll might mean voting the Tories out of power, though. What a shame…


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