There has been a transformation in English education in the last decade – the academies programme has brought private trusts and corporate sponsors into the schools system. These have included a steady trickle of the country’s universities as they seek a business advantage, a better corporate image, and perhaps even a revenue stream. All this while attempting to also steer a way clear of ethical and reputational risks.
Education policy in England, as elsewhere, assumes the effectiveness of market competition in driving up performance. In Higher Education (HE) this has resulted in rising fees, competition for students, and institutions jostling for position. The impact of corporate language and culture is evident in the increasing focus on the “business case”; on marketing and branding. The stratified nature of the sector is reflected in the way universities and other higher education institutions market themselves to distinguish their offer, construct their identities and position themselves in the “market”.
In the schools sector, the same policy assumptions have resulted in the “academies programme” and increased privatisation and diversification. By September 2015, 64% of secondary schools and 16% of primary schools had been taken over by private trusts.
The academies programme
Informed by the previous government’s city technology colleges and US charter schools, New Labour introduced the policy of closing failing schools and replacing them with privately sponsored schools in 2000. Academy trusts are independent, self governing and answerable directly to the Department for Education, bypassing local democratic accountability.
In 2007, universities were specifically encouraged to sponsor academies by exempting them from the £2m sponsor contribution (this has since been removed from all sponsors). However, there was no unseemly rush to take on failing schools – by 2010, there were 203 academies in England, but only 11 sponsored by universities.
Since the Academies Act of 2010, academies come in a wide and confusing array. There are now “sponsored” academies (failing schools forced to convert), converter academies (good schools allowed to convert), free schools (new schools which by law must be academies), University Technical Colleges (UTCs) and studio schools (both 14-19 vocational and technical colleges). Since 2010 the total number of academies has grown 25-fold (from 203 to 5,165) and the number of academies sponsored by universities has grown 11-fold (from 11 to 71 academy schools and 59 UTCs).
A two-tier system?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hierarchy of the university system is reflected in the way universities engage with schools.
The table below, derived from government data, shows that Oxford and Cambridge and the 39 “old” universities in the top tier have been less interested in sponsoring failing schools in favour of opening new secondary schools and sixth form colleges as ‘free schools’.
While individual prestigious schools are being sponsored by “old” universities, “new” universities are seeking to establish Multiple Academy Trusts (MATs) with tens of schools. The five universities which have taken on converter academies are all “new” universities.
What’s in it for universities?
Sponsoring a school can be understood as a form of corporate philanthropy or social responsibility with associated corporate benefits. And there is the sniff of a business opportunity too. Academy trusts are not-for-profit but the management fee payable to MATs, for example, allows for possible significant revenue streams and, as they grow larger, economies of scale and potential surplus.
Universities may also have an eye on how larger MATs may support their education faculties by ensuring demand for their initial and continuing teacher education. Or, given increasing competition for students and their £9,000-a-year fees, sponsoring schools starts to look like a useful tool in promoting the institution to future fee-payers.
But there is a potential flipside. A school’s poor performance can impact negatively on a university’s “brand” and so universities and other higher education institutions are developing different rationales for sponsoring schools, and different ways of calculating benefits and managing risks.
Risk to reputation can be managed by relative anonymity and some university-led school trusts avoid association with the university’s name and brand. The University of Liverpool, for example, does not broadcast its role as lead sponsor of the Northern Schools Trust.
Alternatively, risk can be managed by close control of a single prestigious new school serving as a showcase for the brand of the university, as well as a source of potential students. To gain the financial benefits of larger MATs, risk can be managed by balancing the proportion of sponsored and converter academies.
What is at stake?
There is no compelling evidence that academy conversion is raising standards in England’s schools yet university participation could be seen as legitimating the policy. Although some might prefer a university to alternative sponsors, there is no evidence that universities make good sponsors (the worst performing trust in the country is university led) and university engagement in the academies programme introduces specific threats.
Simply put, academic integrity is undermined by a vested interest in a contested government policy; a commitment to growth of a MAT could result in pressure on schools to convert; and a university’s vested interest in particular schools could disadvantage other schools.
Inequality between schools is exacerbated if a wealthy and prestigious university is able to provide superlative facilities and resources to their free schools but to only a tiny proportion of pupils lucky enough to live in the catchment area or meet the selection criteria. And so the fear must be that the corporate interest of universities in the sponsorship of schools does not address educational inequality, but simply creates a few elite schools and contributes to the perpetuation of inequality and hierarchy which is such a feature of higher education.