Written by Lottie Sellers, OULC Women*s Officer and Secretary.
“Education, education, education” went the slogan that defined New Labour. The secondary school I attended transformed into a shiny, purpose-built structure, which, thanks to the ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme, replaced the 1960s edifice falling down around the ears of its over 1000 students. My school remained a local-authority comprehensive, but across the country, other schools were transforming into another New Labour initiative: academies.
20 years after the first academy opened its doors, the model accounts for 61% of English secondaries (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have choosen not to roll out academisation). Some poorer-performing local authority schools which have converted have had a boost in attainment upon academisation. Often these are ‘sponsored’ academies which, according to the Department of Education, aim to “bring added drive, expertise and capacity” through the sponsorship of an organisation or individual. These account for around a third of academies – the other two-thirds being ‘converter’ academies which transitioned of their own volition. Of these converter academies, 94% of those that were previously ‘Inadequate’ improved their ratings after conversion.
Despite these positives, sponsored academies lag behind in general Ofsted performance, with just 64% receiving ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ ratings compared to the respective 88% and 83% of local authority and converter academies. As flawed as Ofsted ratings are, evidence would therefore suggest that sponsored academies have fallen short in their envisaged role as an equaliser of school quality. According to a 2016 Education Policy Institute report, the vast majority of underperforming academy trusts and local authorities continue to be concentrated in poorer, northern areas of England, while the majority of successful ones are south-eastern. This failure has done nothing to counter the social and educational inequality which continues to dog the country. Middle-class parents and their children continue to be at a real advantage, and a recent Sutton Trust survey reported that a third of professional parents had used ‘ethically dubious’ tactics, such as renting second homes near good schools, to get their children places. Academies have often failed to reduce inequality, and while they are shielded from the worst of Conservative cuts, whatever extra funding and support they receive from their trusts is not, and has never been, enough to create the dynamic and progressive class of schools that New Labour envisaged. What’s gone wrong?
The businesslike structure of academies imposes a corporate aspect which seems to be at odds with the typical values of community-based education. Their management structure and funding are often opaque and they have no formal obligation to the communities in which they exist as they are not bound to the supervision of a local authority. Crucially, the school’s governors, appointed from the teaching and parental bodies, are often enitrely replaced. This takes admissions, appointments and resource management out of the hands of the community. While it would be disingenuous to suggest that all trusts are abusing their responsibilities, this is certainly more likely to occur than under local authority provision. A recent BBC Panorama investigation into Bright Tribe, the country’s lowest performing trust, found the trust’s director to be embezzling funds by asking the government for, in one case, £566,000 for structural safety work in one of its schools. Of this money, just £60,000 is estimated to have actually been spent on the task, carried out by a firm owned by the trust’s director. There was no way to account for the other £506,000 – the form detailing how the sum was spent simply read: “Work completed”. Attempting to investigate another Bright Tribe school, the local Conservative MP was escorted off the premises.
Clearly, there is much that needs to change. It is time that accountability was increased, and the government needs to monitor where the money they give academies is going. School admissions would also benefit from being lottery-based to stop the system being one that can be played by well-connected parents. For the remaining local authority schools, funding and local decision-making power simply needs to be increased. The present situation is untenable and puts the education and wellbeing of children and young people at risk. For all the tireless efforts of teachers, pupils and families, the success of ‘Education, education, education’ fundamentally did, and still does, rest on money, money, money.