This week the Conservative government announced that it is going to force all schools in England to become ‘academies’, however well they are performing and whether they, or the parents and children, want to or not.
An LEA school is basically owned and run by the council on behalf of the local population, and it has been done this way since 1902. LEA-run schools must teach the national curriculum, employ qualified teachers that are paid according to nationally-set pay scales, and serve meals that meet national nutritional standards. The local authority is responsible for the provision and quality of the schools, and there is therefore public accountability - they can be voted out if the schools have problems, or other councils with better ideas for education can be voted in. Importantly, because the council has control of the schools in its area it can create strategic plans between its schools for dealing with populations and differing needs of children within it.
What happens when an LEA school becomes an academy? Firstly, school buildings and land that are publicly owned are handed-over to the organisations that will run the academy. This is sometimes done via long leases, but sometimes a complete and permanent transfer of assets. This is an important point - buildings and land that we all own are taken from us, and we receive absolutely nothing in return. The total value of public assets lost to us when all schools in England are forced to become academies will be in the hundreds of millions.
Those who defend academies will claim that this isn’t an issue, since academies are run by charities. This might be strictly true, but that doesn’t mean there are not vast profits to be made. Almost all academies are part of ‘academy chains’, and the staff they employ get very generous salaries - much more than under the LEA system. It is also easy to set-up for-profit firms that supply schools, so you often find that those involved in academies are making a tidy profit indirectly. All in all, although academies themselves may be ‘not for profit’ in the strictest sense, vast profits and salaries are generated around them. This is all money being taken out of educating our children.
Another thing to consider is that academies do not have to follow the national curriculum, so as a parent it’s much more difficult to know what your child is actually being taught. Not only that, but if your child has to move schools for any reason they could end-up finding themselves in the middle of an entirely different syllabus. What’s worse is that the people teaching them don’t even have to be qualified teachers - academies are not obligated to employ teachers with Qualified Teacher Status. As a parent you have no assurance that teaching staff have really done any training at all.
Of course, another announcement this week is relevant here - the QTS itself is being scrapped. This is just another step on the path of devaluing teaching as a profession. Any teacher will tell you that teaching can be very hard and is most certainly a skill. Can anyone just walk in to a classroom and be an effective teacher? Of course not. Is QTS a perfect way of indicating those that can? No, but it’s something. If there are problems with the QTS then the thing to do is improve QTS itself. What we’ll have instead is a system where the head teacher of a school determines if a teacher is good enough or not. This is so open to a massive variation in standards that it’s a problem waiting to happen.
Along with not having to employ qualified teachers, academies also do not have to pay teachers according to national pay scales. The outcome of this is obvious, with better teachers being lured away to wealthier areas and pay disparity making teacher morale even lower in schools where they are paid less.
Quite apart from the teaching, academies aren’t great for pupils in other ways. Their meals don’t have to meet national nutritional standards (quite why they are exempt is, quite frankly, inexplicable), and academies don’t have to meet standards for the amount of outdoor play space available to pupils either. It’s not unreasonable that given this we’ll see a large number of schools sell-off playing fields once academy status is forced, especially given how money can now be creamed-off such sales and into the pockets of individuals.
We must also consider the impact of all of this on children with special educational needs. As an LEA loses the scale required to make SEN services viable, it will become increasingly impossible for them to be run by the public sector. As the ‘market’ in academies develops, consultancy companies will therefore grow up to provide SEN services and, as they strive to cut costs and hit targets (i.e. identifying specific needs and/or coming up with ways to accelerate progress so that academy chains buy into their services more) the actual drive to meet the needs of children, which are almost always more complex than a single assessment can achieve, will be lost. These companies will also seek to pay lower than market salaries meaning less well qualified or inexperienced staff will fill the market and more expensive experienced staff, who know what they are doing, understand how schools work and have spent years developing relationships with the communities that they serve, will be lost. Ultimately, children with any sort of SEN will lose out, but so will other children, particularly in schools that strive (despite forced academy status) to remain inclusive end up being the dumping ground for unwanted children, meaning that the other children in those schools will not be given the teacher time and support that they need. In turn, inclusive schools will fail to meet attainment and progress targets and will be shuffled from academy chain to academy chain in an effort to achieve that elusive improvement that will be all but impossible because the high quality support services that these schools need are not profitable enough for the private sector to bother running properly. As with so many actions of this government, those that need the most help will lose the most.
Finally, while this isn’t part of the forced academy programme, it’s worth mentioning that the government has announced that it will scrap parent governors. There doesn’t seem to have been a single reason put forward for this, but it must make even the most ardent Tory voter sit up and take note. For a party that constantly bangs-on about ‘small government’ and putting power in the hands of the people, this is a move that is all about taking away the voice of the parents. The government has described some sort of mechanism for parents holding schools to account, but it is completely toothless and inconsequential compared to actually having them on the board of governors. Parents are going to lose both democratic oversight of schools and their representation at governor level - a massive loss of power from end users and a transfer to people potentially making vast profits from academy chains.
So there are a number of reasons that we should all be concerned about this forced privatisation of our schooling system, whether we have children or not: it’s bad news for children given the lessening of standards of teaching, food and play, it’s bad news for parents with less oversight of schools and difficulty changing them, and it’s bad news for residents, who will lose democratic accountability for how their taxes are spent and face vast sums of those funds being siphoned-off in huge salaries by unaccountable bodies.
This move is not based on evidence. It’s not based on what teachers have asked for. It’s not based on what pupils need. The only reason for it is shifting assets and services into the private sector - Tory ideology - and we’re seeing it in pretty much every public service. Education is simply the latest battle in an ongoing war being waged against us. And we’re losing.