Academies for All: The LEA DOA for Political Gain

How academies for all plan is a shoo-in for privatisation

Belligerent ghouls run English schools
Spineless ideologues with tiny minds…*

Since the start of the 20th Century, most of England’s schools have been accountable to the public. Methods of governance have included school boards, governors, and local education authorities. Private Schools and Public Schools [like Eton College] have continued to coexist.

Throughout the second half of the 20th Century, the comprehensive system was rolled out to English and Welsh secondary schools. This at the expense of the three-tier model of Grammar Schools, Secondary Modern schools and Technical Schools. as per Butler’s Education Act. As a consequence, the Eleven Plus examination was eliminated in areas where a fully comprehensive system was implemented.

Till the last five years, some local authorities such as Trafford MBC retained the 11+ system. Today, with the proliferation of specialist schools and colleges alongside fee-paying schools and academies, the education system is more fragmented than ever. As well as the ‘bog-standard comprehensive’, we also have Faith Schools, Free Schools, Sports Colleges, and Language Colleges. We still have an handful of City Technology Colleges from Thatcher’s Conservative Government, such as the Dixons City Academy in Bradford, West Yorkshire.

Education has become a brand. It has become a commodity, at least in the eyes of the present schools minister Nicky Morgan. League Tables are looked at with the same meticulous nature as oil stocks and Unit Trusts. Pupils are denigrated to mere cogs in the school’s machinery, instead of leaving school as well-rounded individuals. Hence the promotion of STEM subjects instead of the arts (they should be complementary).

Today’s decision to impose Academy Status on all of England’s schools – primary and secondary schools, even special schools – continues the commodification. Supposing every school in England becomes an Academy in 2020, could another five years of the Conservatives lead to their privatisation? Could schools be forced to make a profit in 2030? Will Home Economics lessons be sponsored by Unilever, with Costa Coffee for sale in school canteens?

In the last 40 years, the Tories have never been a fan of Local Education Authorities. To them, it is a barrier to centralised control from the Department for Education. The 1988 Education Act also deprived local authorities from making changes to the curriculum. Increasingly, teachers have been micro-managed and nano-managed thanks to OFSTED inspections, the National Curriculum, and political interference from Central Government. The most tacit sign of Central Government interference has been the use of “British Values” and the Prevent programme.

It is claimed that the government’s plans to impose Academy Status would give headteachers more control. This statement is bogus; Academies are subject to OFSTED inspection like all schools in England and Wales. Primary and Secondary school syllabuses would remain in National Curriculum hands. Department for Education targets would still have to be adhered to.

Any school outside of an Academy structure is accountable to its governors as well as the headteacher. There is also Parent Teacher Associations which give parental governors a stake in the school’s operations. A school should be representative of its community rather than the purlieu of one figurehead or as part of a chain. Turning every school into an Academy means a loss of accountability.

GCSE Results, Damned Lies, Statistics and Collective Bargaining

The most hackneyed educational stereotype of recent times is that Academies improve on the ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ or village school model. Au contraire. A report from the Education Select Committee stated there was no clear evidence of academies raising standards. Recent OFSTED findings have seen better reports for LEA governed schools than academies. Yet the present government still perpetuates the stereotype of them being a shot in the arm for educational standards.

Along with Free Schools, it is claimed they increase educational choice. In The Guardian (02 February 2015), Francis Gilbert regarded academies as “an expensive red herring“, which exposes the government’s premise. The use of academies to justify the end of Local Education Authorities. The fact that a new name doesn’t necessarily guarantee higher GCSE results.

Beside the sleek buildings, flashy uniforms and illustrious sponsors lies a darker secret which Nicky Morgan’s department could unravel. One is the undermining of the teaching unions. At present, the National Union of Teachers is the main trade union for teaching staff, along with the NASUWT. With the whole of England’s schools potentially becoming Academies, this could lead to differing pay and conditions among teaching and ancillary staff. A teacher in Manchester could be paid less per hour than his or her fellows in Dunstable.

The result could be greater staff retention issues. If a school owned by one academy chain sees its teachers go on strike, the impact on the profession’s ability for collective bargaining is reduced. Teachers’ strikes would no longer be national. Some heads could use the extra powers to introduce no-strike agreements and draft in scab labour to replace striking teachers.

Beyond academies

If unchallenged, an English education system comprised of Academies and Free Schools could see local schools being less accountable than our branch of The Cooperative. The worst case scenario could lead us to the end of local government we know today. If you took the schools away from our Shire Counties, Metropolitan Boroughs and Unitary Authorities, there would be hardly anything left of our local councils. The link between schools and public amenities – libraries, parks and leisure centres – would be lost.

This would leave privatisation as a future step. With the schools freed from local authority control, though not from DfE and OFSTED inspections, they could be given fundraising powers and chances to monetise their schools. Uniforms could be released every year like English Premier League football strips. The parental contribution towards the school fund could increase with inflation rates, continuing The Great Neoliberal Scam of Shifting The Costs To Its Users (see also train fares).

There could be greater use of schools as private exhibition spaces during school holidays. Private Tuition could be advertised as a boost to the school’s coffers. Schools could be sold off and centralised by locality if chains agree to merge.

Academically and physically, the introduction of the profit motive to compulsory education could be disruptive to students and residents. Bigger schools in centralised locations could lead to longer bus journeys. Schools moving from end of the borough to another could be a nightmare for municipal planning departments, not least the amount of noise affecting its neighbours.

Academically, schools for profit could take us back to the mid-Victorian era when schoolchildren had to pay for tuition. Back then, only the wealthiest children could have been properly educated.

Children with special educational needs could be neglected. Though schools have made positive steps to integrate SEN and MLD pupils into mainstream provision, some academy chains could see them as a liability. A pupil with severe form of autism spectrum condition could be forced to travel great distances to a school because local providers have snubbed him or her. All in pursuit of a dividend as well as top spot in the league tables.

There will be chaos. Teachers will change more often than the 415 bus has had service changes. Chains could merge, split, or close – leaving students stranded mid course. Courses could be discontinued due to low demand. What could happen to compulsory school provision has already happened before – in our further education colleges – since 1993! As well as the above detailed in this paragraph, I knew of lecturers being on Zero Hours Contracts before the term was invented!

So, would you want any of this to happen to you local school? You may put your hand up if this appeals to you.

Today’s story has also angered Conservative councils as well as trade unionists and Labour MPs. Free Schools was seen as a step too far (and we know how popular these are) but Morgan’s plans, the subject of a draft bill on Thursday, is enough to make the average UKIPer choke on their cocoa. Their manifesto from last year’s General Election favoured the return of the Eleven Plus and Grammar School. As for turning all schools to academies, nothing of the sort.

If we let this happen unhindered, expect to see a surge in enquiries for home-schooling. Or the people of Chester driving their children to schools in Mold and Holywell to avoid the Tories’ ideologically blended learning experiences.

S.V., 15 March 2016.

* With apologies to Stephen Patrick Morrissey (The Headmaster Ritual, The Smiths).


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