The policy of allowing schools to become academies, that is schools independent of local authorities, originated unsurprisingly from a Conservative government. They were emulating Charter Schools, an American innovation, where schools were given freedom from regulation in return for a more creative and innovative approach to the curriculum.
If academies are so effective, why force academisation?
In England, City Technology Colleges were established, which allowed the Tories to target their wider political objectives of increasing selection, weakening the power of local education authorities and teacher trade unions, and introducing privatisation into English state education.
Now being applied to all schools
To the surprise of many who voted for Tony Blair he extended the privatisation of education in his policy of academisation. David Blunkett, Minister for Education, stated that academies would “break the cycle of failing schools”. A laudable aim, but sadly one that has not been achieved: a strategy that was designed to help a small percentage of schools is now being applied to all without any reliable data to assess the impact on children’s learning. In a crucial departure from the Charter Schools protocol, academies in England are allowed to be denominational.
Today about 43 percent of state schools are academies, many organised into 2700 Multi-Academy Trusts, (MATS). The majority of these academies are secondaries while there continues to be significant resistance to academisation in primary schools. A recent white paper has declared the government’s desire that all schools will be in “strong MATS by 2030.” Schools judged requiring improvement or inadequate will be forced into academisation without consultation with school management, parents, or students.
The National Association of Head Teachers has spoken out against this policy, which will reduce autonomy for school leaders and in their view, cause schools to lose their unique local context and control of their finances. In a recent survey, three quarters of their members said they did not expect MATS to improve outcomes for children.
So what are the benefits of academisation?
So, what benefits has academisation brought to English schools? Firstly, there is little evidence that academies educate their students better than those schools who have chosen to remain with Local Authorities, (LAS). You will find academies among those at the top of league tables but also at the bottom. You will also find schools which were rated Good by Ofsted until they became part of a MAT and are now Requiring Improvement.
Some schools, unwilling to join MATS, have chosen to become stand-alone academies, because of promises of financial benefits: however, once cut off from the support of the local authority they must buy in a range of services which results in expensive and wasteful duplication. Many have chosen to continue to use the LA for services such as Human Resources and Improvement Support but must now buy them in. Thankfully most have also kept their policies in line with the LA and followed the national agreement for Teachers’ Pay and Conditions.
The excessive pay of academy school leaders
In contrast, MATS can use their freedom from regulation to set up different policies and pay scales which weakens the ability of the teacher trade unions to engage in collective bargaining. The teacher unions are one of the last bastions of organised labour and are a target for the present government. Clearly MATS could use their independence to reward teachers and disregard government pay freezes, however, so far, the financial benefits have only been awarded to the senior management teams and as ever denied to the classroom teacher.
There have been several widely publicised cases in the press of excessive salaries for CEOs. Last year there were 98 school leaders paid in excess of £158 754 p.a. – the salary of the Prime Minister. The CEO of the Harris Federation Sir Dan Moynihan received £455 000 in 2020 – 2021 for running the Trust’s 50 schools. However, in the same year, Colin Hall was paid £280 000 for running one school: Holland Park.
Pay differentials weaken teaching
There is wide discrepancy in pay between academy CEOs, but more worrying a shocking divide between the pay for the leadership team and that of the classroom teacher – the person who is undertaking the core work of the academy. The excessive pay of CEOs is taking money out of the classroom and away from students.
The fate of Holland Park School exemplifies the dangers of schools detached from the oversight of the local education authority. Colin Hall has now left his post after accusations of bullying of staff and pupils, ineffective safeguarding, and misleading Ofsted.
In line with the recent white paper there is now a plan to force Holland Park School to join the United Learning Trust (ULT), based in Peterborough, comprising more than 80 schools. Parents are launching legal action to try and stop this process complaining that they have not been consulted. The staff and students are frustrated that they have no say in the future of their school and no forum to express their views and they protest that no other options apart from joining ULT have been presented. The parents are questioning how this Peterborough chain can understand this north London community and keep the local identity of the school.
Teachers leaving the profession
The government’s white paper continues the smoke and mirrors surrounding this whole question. When we look to choose a school for our children, what do we want? For me, the most important thing is not the new branding, new uniform, or the mind-numbingly banal mission statement – it’s the quality of teachers and their commitment to the children. Data continues to show that about a third of teachers leave the profession within five years of qualifying, citing intolerable workload and interestingly also the declining status of their profession – hardly surprising when they have been the target of the gutter press.
There is also evidence of the use of gagging orders on teachers when they choose to leave jobs working for MATS. Why would a graduate with a good maths or English degree choose teaching today? Good teachers change lives – they are the most important people in the organisation not the army of managers now drafted in to lead MATS.
Children get one shot at education, and they deserve better than the free for all that this government has created.