Some criticisms-but are they justified?
There are a number of criticisms being levelled at Academies. Lets look at four.
First, they amount to privatising the state education system. George Monbiot, the privately educated left wing commentator, recently made this claim in R4s Any Questions?. The normal definition of privatisation is that it involves transfer of government services or assets to the private sector. Wikipedia puts it as follows ‘the process of transferring ownership of a business, enterprise, agency, public service or property from the public sector (the state or government) to the private sector (businesses that operate for a private profit) or to private non-profit organizations.’ So does this apply to Academies? Clearly, not. Academies are not owned by private sector companies, nor are any of their assets. In ,fact they are required to be charities by law. Private companies can ,of course, now support the Trusts that run Academies, just as they were able to under the last Labour government. Indeed private companies can also support local education authorities (Islington /CEA) too. But the body running an academy school has to be a charitable trust. One is tempted to think that that the Government might as well privatise the system given they are accused as having done so already, so in a political sense the issue has already been discounted. To claim these supply side reforms amount to privatisation is nonsense on stilts.
But Academies are selective aren’t they? Well, this is not quite so cut and dried. Quite a few state schools have always had some form of selection. Church or faith schools may ask for confirmation of attendance at a relevant place of worship. This is a form of selection and they have been accused of not taking a proper share of pupils eligible for FSM(See this weeks Guardian story). There are also grammar schools, and, this is something of a secret, quite a few other schools that select a proportion of their pupils on the basis of academic ability, award places on the basis of an entrance exam or a selection test. Specialist schools that award a percentage of their places (10%) to pupils with an aptitude for certain subjects may use some form of assessment or audition where appropriate. State boarding schools may interview a child to assess their suitability to be a boarder (interviewing is not allowed for admission into any other type of state-funded school-although there are ways of getting round this-ie having school open days which provides the school a chance to meet informally with parents and children.) As far as academies are concerned (around 50% of all secondary schools will have academy status by the end of this parliament) the Academies Act 2010 allows schools that already select all or some of their pupils on the basis of ability to continue to do so. It does not provide for existing academies to become selective. When a school becomes an academy, the academy trust will become the admission authority. For some schools, such as foundation and voluntary aided schools, this will mean little change, but for community schools and voluntary controlled schools the academy will need to manage its own admissions process. This will involve periodic consultation, and regularly publishing the academy’s admission arrangements but they still remain subject to the Admissions Code. Indeed the academy funding agreement requires them to be non-selective. Remember most academies started their lives providing education in disadvantaged areas. Most have high numbers of FSM pupils, and many use banding to achieve fairer intakes than many comprehensives with middle class catchments. And you can criticise Michael Gove for a few things but surely not his commitment to disadvantaged pupils and their education which is one of the key priorities that inform government reforms.
But what about their accountability? Surely without the overarching Local Authority responsible for the school, accountability is lost. Pause for a second, and think how many local authorities have allowed badly underperforming schools to continue teaching pupils year in ,year out while either failing to intervene or intervening ineffectively? The traditional local democratic accountability regime, which can be termed ‘long’ accountability which allows officials who have presided over failure to stay in place, regardless of local election results, is hardly a panacea. Take a look at the academy funding agreements. Through funding agreements academies are accountable to the elected national, rather than local government. It is true ,that with so many schools directly accountable to the Secretary of State (over 1500 schools are now academies), there is an interesting debate to be had around the notion of local school commissioners, providing additional accountability (which the IPPR think tank has been looking at ), which is on-going. But the Ofsted accountability regime is firmly in place and the newly revamped league tables give a clearer idea of how schools are actually performing, than they did before. And academies are now subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which means that it is much easier to find out what they are up to and what exams their pupils are sitting. So , although academies are ‘autonomous’, they are accountable, with accountability working at several levels . It’s also worth noting that academies are not that autonomous and very much remain part of the state system-though their funding agreements. They certainly don’t have the kind of independence from politicians and officials enjoyed by schools in the independent sector.
But are academies still focused on the most disadvantaged? Labour Academies were focused in the most disadvantaged areas and the Coalition government is now allowing outstanding schools in wealthier areas to become academies. Some including Ed Balls argued that this was a corruption of the original idea behind academies . But critics forget that not all the Academies started under Labour were in the most deprived areas. Indeed, Ed Balls who gave the impression of being ambivalent about academies, (like Gordon Brown,) when he was education secretary gave academy status, as Conor Ryan has pointed out, to two highly successful secondaries that wanted to help improve weaker schools. Indeed this is an area where the new, successful academies can play a significant role in the future.
And then there is the issue of how academies are using their autonomy. Are they being more innovative than peer schools that are not academies and personalising education, making good use of technology, providing a rounded education for their children perhaps encouraging more positive attitudes resilience and the development of non-cognitive skills ? The suspicion is that rather a lot of schools converted not because they were in pursuit of new freedoms but they wanted the extra cash. This goes against the grain. Supply side reforms alone will not transform our system. Structural changes need to go hand in hand with improved teaching at the chalk face and a move away from teaching to the test combined with new cutting edge thinking about what education is actually for. Interestingly the Reform think tank is shortly to publish a report on this very issue and the extent to which academies are using their new freedoms.
Note: Total number of secondary school places in England 3,608,970
Total Number of (wholly ie Grammar) selective school places 161,660
Percentage of places in selective schools 4.5%
The three authorities with the highest percentage of places in selective schools are Buckinghamshire 41%, Trafford 40% and Slough 37.%
1,580 Schools are now academies
1,243 Schools have converted to academy status since the election, of which 578 are outstanding
37 are sponsoring 44 academies
47% of all secondary schools are academies
53% of all outstanding secondary schools are academies.
Source: Hansard 6 March