It was early and still quiet as I meandered around the recent Academies Show in London. Jars of promotional pens and key chains were lined up, while two young people in smocks painted the words “innovation” and “collaboration” on the ideas and inspiration wall in an area called the networking zone.
Stallholders like BioStore, an identity management provider, BehaviourWatch, Target Tracker, and Aspire Marketing attested to the results-driven current UK education landscape that was accelerated by the introduction of academies by New Labour in 2002.
There were 203 academies open in 2010, when the coalition government decided to vastly expand the programme. According to Frank Green, the department of education’s schools commissioner, speaking before MPs at a recent education select committee, as of May 2014, there are now 4,095 academies now open.
These schools receive funding directly from central government, operate outside of local authority control, and set their own pay and conditions. Despite the rhetoric of autonomy, academies are bound by the same results-driven demands of central government, such as Ofsted inspections, as traditional state schools.
Undemocratic and irreversible
The recent forcible conversion of some schools to academies, despite the protests of parents, has been likened to “a sham”. It signals the lack of meaningful debate taking place about the ongoing push towards academisation.
Birmingham City University professor Richard Hatcher has also described how local communities’ views have been ignored in rapid consultation processes with little democratic deliberation.
At the Academies Show, Dominic Herrington, director of the department for education’s Academies Delivery Group, announced academies were “an irreversible change in the school system”. He showed slides depicting smiling, mostly ethnic-minority children in the West Midlands and related a familiar story of a heroic academy head breaking a council estate cycle of drugs, deprivation and benefits. In this story, receiving state assistance or living on a council estate is presented as a poor lifestyle choice: better decisions can be made through help from an academy’s aspirational training.
Hierarchies of race and class are reinforced through these comments, and there is no attention to the roots of socioeconomic inequality. My own research on Beaumont Academy in London has shown how inequalities of race and class are reinforced through its practices, despite appeals to equality.
In his 2007 book Education PLC, sociologist Stephen Ball described how academies “replace the democratic processes of local authority control over schools with technical or market solutions”, breaking with structures and relationships that existed previously.
Yet the department of education seems to have little intention of addressing this persistent problem. Instead, John Nash, parliamentary under secretary of state for schools, announced a “big push on governance” within schools at the academies event.
He added: “We confuse representation and governance at our peril and there are much better ways for groups of parents, teachers and students to be heard and represented than having a few seats on a governing body.” Yet it was unclear to me – even after talking to civil servants – what these “better ways” might be.
All this highlights the gaping democratic vacuum at the core of the academy program, where transformational changes are administered in an authoritarian fashion, uninterested in public opinion.
The pace of academisation is overwhelming. One civil servant I spoke with said the speed of the changes was not problematic. The civil servant said the department’s attitude was “4,000 down, 20,000 to go”, in a sweep that included free schools, studio schools, and university technical colleges. There were 21,911 schools in England in 2013 (24,328 including independent schools).
But this aim is not openly acknowledged. During a subsequent education select committee meeting on academies and free schools on May 13, the department of education’s schools commissioner Frank Green said moving towards a full academy system: “is certainly not the current policy of the department”.
Meanwhile, justification for rapid academisation is scant. A 2009 report by LSE academics Stephen Machin and Joan Wilson signals there was little proof that New Labour’s academies raised the attainment of poorer students more than similar schools. In another early study on academies, Durham academic Stephen Gorard concluded that the programme is low on effectiveness, but high on expense.
The converter problem
In the absence of persuasive data, the department of education has published its own. In his speech, Nash pointed said that “68% of pupils in secondary converter academies achieved five or more good GCSEs including English and maths, compared to 59% in LA [local authority] maintained schools”. These figures come from a 2013 parliamentary research brief.
He did not mention that this converter group largely consists of already high-performing schools: as schools ranked outstanding or “performing well” were made automatically eligible for conversion in November 2010.
In 2011-12, secondary converters have free school meal eligibility rates less than half the national average, fewer ethnic minority pupils and less Special Education Needs students.
But the research Nash quotes cautions us from taking converter achievement data too seriously. It says these students: “spent the majority of their secondary education in maintained schools… [so] any impact of the change in status on pupil attainment is limited”.
Nash clearly ignores this caveat, more than happy to take credit for local authority success stories, while also failing to mention that according to the same report, only 49.3% of students in sponsored academies achieved 5 or more good GCSEs in 2011-12.
Various financial incentives expedite conversion, including £25,000 for single schools converting and up to £100,000 for chains of three schools. In case schools are considering delaying their conversion, deputy director of the academies converters division Clare Simpson was quick to mention at the Academies Show that these grants were only available until funds lasted, or July 14.
Race not to get left behind
Beneath the government’s transformational rhetoric was the clear message that schools need to keep up with a changing, competitive market place or get left behind. As teachers and governors conscientiously scribbled down notes about the conversion process, there was a palpable sense of anxiety which jarred with the department of education’s relentless positivity.
Headteacher Kate Dethridge described how her school’s conversion meant “we are in charge of our own destiny”. She added that “while initially that might seem daunting, it has turned out to be extremely satisfying”.
If your destiny is proving bleak, there are numerous educational consultancies ready to share their recipes for success and guide you through the quagmire of Ofsted inspections, data management, and provide marketing strategies.
Head-turned-consultant Trevor Averre-Beeson claimed that teachers completing his companyLilac Sky’s outstanding teacher diploma program would move up one Ofsted rating or be refunded. He joked that when starting out as a teacher, he never would have anticipated he would end up a salesman offering money-back guarantees, but this was how education worked these days.
This shift to reframe the way education is being discussed and practiced leaves little room for debate. Pressing issues about inequality are brushed aside in favour of a self-help focus built on flimsy aspirational notions such as Averre-Beeson’s tagline to “flood your school with positivity”.
This circus is a coercive distraction, actively displacing vital discussions about learning, democracy and social justice that should consume our attention.