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Academies and Free Schools – A failed experiment in education

PowellAs of June 2015 there are over four thousand academies in England. Originally introduced by New Labour back in 2000 in order to support failing schools in socially deprived areas, academies have long since remained a controversial topic. Touted by governments as the miraculous magic answer to improving standards and loathed quite rightly by teaching unions opposed to their undemocratic nature and the neo-liberal free market approach they are constructed around. ‘Academies equals success’ has been the long repeated mantra for many years now, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is the only approach to education and LEA controlled state schools have been an all-round epic failure, yet statistically does this add up?

Well in a word, no. A report by the cross party education select committee earlier on this year showed that there was no evidence so far that academies raised standards for either disadvantaged pupils or overall. In addition to this, the Local Schools Network data showed that a primary school rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted is 12 times more likely to remain ‘inadequate’ at its next inspection if it becomes a sponsored academy than if it had remained a maintained school. Secondary-sponsored academies are four times as likely to remain inadequate when next inspected. Even Nick Gibb, Minister of State for Schools, conceded in September of this year that: “This government does not believe that all academies and free schools are necessarily better than maintained schools.”

On top of the damning statistical evidence, the education select committee also recognised the serious lack of transparency, conflicts of interest with regards governance as well as inadequate oversight. A prime example of this being the Durand Academy Trust (DAT) which runs the Durand Academy in London as well as a boarding school in West Sussex. Not only was it served its final notice to improve from the Education Funding Agency (EFA), which is responsible for funding and monitoring academies but the linked Durand Education Trust (DET) is currently being investigated by the Charities Commission over what it describes as ‘lack of separation’ between the two charities as well as concerns over the lack of oversight of its investment assets. If this wasn’t scandalous enough, earlier on this year it was discovered that the academy’s Headteacher Sir Greg Martin ran a dating agency registered as the school’s address.

Free schools, the hideous turbo-charged offspring of academies with a penchant for employing unqualified teachers fare little better, The Anti-Academies Alliance April 2015 briefing noted that Ofsted has inspected 76 free schools and rated 30% as ‘Requiring Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’. Ofsted’s 2013/14 Annual Report on Schools said: “Free schools succeed or fail for broadly the same reasons as all other types of school”. In other words: free schools are no more likely to be outstanding or inadequate than other schools.

It is also worth noting that it is the decision of the Secretary of State to open a free school, not the LEA, with very little regard given to community views even when impact assessments have shown they may be detrimental to local schools. According to evidence provided to the Education Select Committee, “35% of the first four waves of free schools were in districts with no forecast need and that 52% were in districts with either no forecast need or only moderate need”. In other words a fair few free schools have been opened in areas where there is no shortage of school places at the expense of the taxpayer. It is difficult to mention free schools without noting some of the scandals they have been involved in, with one of the most notable being The Durham Free School.

The Durham Free School, which was set up in 2012, and founded upon Christian principles was closed earlier this year when it was found to be ‘inadequate’ in all areas of its Ofsted report. Originally lauded by Michael Gove upon its opening it was found by inspectors to be inadequate as a result of bullying, religious bigotry and financial mismanagement. In addition to the less than glowing statistics and media scandals, one criminally ignored aspect of the academies model for education is their attitude towards equality. The 2014 TUC report ‘Education Not for Sale’ found that while attitudes towards equality is a concern for all schools, academies were particularly prone to ignoring their Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). A 2013 study by Race on the Agenda (ROTA) commissioned by the teaching union NASUWT found that less than a quarter of them referred to their PSED duties, with an even lower figure for free schools. The TUC report also found that a number of cases whereby Free Schools had rejected the admission of disabled pupils and claimed their funding agreements exempted them from the appeal procedure. Furthermore, fewer than a quarter of free schools seem to know about the 2010 Equalities Act, and their duty to promote equality for women, black, LGBT and disabled pupils and staff.

All this paints a less than idyllic picture for the academies and free schools programme. The newly appointed shadow education secretary Lucy Powell stated in an interview with the Times Educational Supplement that handing control of schools back to local, democratically-elected officials would be at the “heart” of future Labour policy. Jeremy Corbyn’s position on academies has always been clear having been a staunch opponent to them since their introduction. Jeremy in his own words has stated, “Why was it believed the ability to run a business, to sell cars or carpets might make you best-placed to run a school?” Quite right Jeremy, quite right.


  1. David Ellis says:

    Nice piece. Not sure it was an experiment in education though. More an experiment in handing over public property to private individuals.

  2. Gary Brooke says:

    For more information, get regular updates from Anti-Academies Alliance who will provide you with almost daily examples of failing free schools and academies, and outrageous examples of mismanagement and malpractice. If these practices occurred in maintained schools then they would be on the front page of the Telegraph and the Mail, but they’re not so they aren’t.In addition, Local Schools Network (mentioned above) regularly bombards the DFE and Ofsted with freedom of information requests to prove that the whole academisation ‘revolution’ is actually a privatisation scam. Their research is impeccable. Finally, try the Socialist Educational Association for more proof, if more proof be needed that it’s a dangerous con.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Good article.

    It is true that Academies were introduced by Labour to address the problem of failing schools but that doesn’t get Labour of the hook. Labour’s academies got extra resources but only on condition of moving out of the framework of local democracy and becoming state-supported independent schools with all that follows from that. It was a perfect idea for the Tories to pick up and run with and that is exactly what Gove did.

    To that we also have to add the lamentable record of many Labour councils in failing to put up any meaningful resistance to academisation aided and abetted by the Lamentable performance of Labour’s Shadow Education Secretaries (Stephen Twigg and then Tristram Hunt). Ed Miliband seemed not to understand the situation. When he was asked by a Socialist Educational Association member why Labour did not stand up for comprehensive schools he replied “Academies are comprehensive schools”.

    This virtual total lack of leadership was brought to an end by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign. He was the only candidate who had the same view as the various groups working for the return of schools to a local government framework (which is not the same thing as micro-managing schools from the town hall). He made his opposition to academies and free schools clear and that he wanted to see schools once again within the orbit of local government.

    That’s the good news. The bad news is that these views are evidently not shared by Lucy Powell the Labour Shadow Minister for education. Her very weak Labour Conference speech could have been given by Tristram Hunt. Although the TES blurb for the its interview with her “Ms Powell said she wanted to devolve power over education, and that handing control of schools back to local, democratically elected officials would be at the “heart” of future Labour policy”. This is completely contradicted by previous and subsequent statements in which she accepts the continued existence of not only Academies and Free Schools but also of Academy chains. She, like Tristram Hunt, says only that they should be subject to local “oversight”. People who followed this idea up to the last election will be aware of just how far this can be from a local democatic framework for education.

    On this, as on all the other contentious issues putting a gulf between the PLP including some members of the Shadow Cabinet and the Party membership the answer is to debate to organise informed debate at the base of the Party so that it is made quite clear to MPs what it is that the Party members as a whole want them to do. I hope that organisations like the Socialist Educational Association will contribut to launching such a process by providing good quality materials for all Party members wanting to take part in such a debate.

  4. Nick Wright says:

    Oversight is meaningless unless making local authorities responsible for school improvement means giving them powers over academics and free schools alike. This must include oversight of financial arrangements, coordination of in service training, governance and appointments.
    The London Challenge demonstrated how important are the local and regional resevoirs of knowledge and experience are in school improvement.

  5. Naomi’s analysis is very good, but is on the line of the Anti Academies Alliance and sadly this has not been effective, partly because the Labour front bench always bought the line that the academy programme was a miracle cure. This is still the position of Progress, and as Lucy Powell takes the position of that group there is no likelihood of a shift till that wider position is tackled.

    This will be difficult partly because the local authority system is going to disappear unless the academy act and its unaccountable power to the secretary of state is blocked. Unlikely to happen so Local Authorities will not have any money by the time of 2020.

    More to the point, the heads will campaign against the move, one did so in the Times Educational Supplement the week after the conference speech. Heads get total control of the budget and powers over admission and expulsion and unless they can be neutralised any attempt to move back to the old structures will be opposed. Even good heads will oppose losing the top sliced money LAs had in an age of austerity – and their parents will back them. 24000 heads opposed to a Labour policy talking on a weekly basis (as they can) to 16 million English parents is a political disaster.

    this can be antidote if there is a concerted campaign on the weak points of the academy policy. Immediately L As are having to expand schools and Barking is talking about a 2500 strong comp. the issue here should be the right to have L A schools able to tackle the places crisis.

    A titan school as it is called is outrageous. But it is not the fault of the L A. They should be able to build a school which they are not able to do

    medium term the heads have to come on board to any policy – this is hard to do as they are still at the moment on board the formation of federation of schools model, which gives them the money. However this will collapse as the tory policy is to hand schools over to chains

    While heads don’t want L As back they certainly don’t want to be controlled by secretive chain groupings. The immediate pressure point here is that Morgan will not allow OFSTED to inspect chains. Its not rocket science why this is.

    So unblocking the inspection of chains is a pressure point. And tackling why the Westminster bubble thinks academies a miracle cure is second up – the select committee decided that all schools should be able to abolish the national curriculum as all schools must be able to innovate.

    Its an almost anarcho syndicalist view of every school its own boss in a world of competitive units. Tackling this vision is essential and can’t be avoided by planning to go back to L A control which in areas like Manchester the local Labour leadership has already given up on.

    There is alas no miracle cure. But Labour Progress thinks it has one – and if you read Blair’s A JOURNEY he makes it clear the plan was always total academisation. page 575
    Yes I do have it by my bedside,

    Trevor Fisher

  6. James Martin says:

    I think it is worth thinking tactically here. Yes, we want the ending of academies (and private schools), and we want all schools to be good, well funded, locally democratically accountable state comprehensives.

    But from where we are now what could we achieve quickly with maximum support?

    First, an easy step would be to force all state funded schools to pay the national rates of pay to both teachers and support staff (Burgundy and Green Book terms), and link this to a return to pay portability (so that someone at the top of the scale does not risk starting again at the bottom if they move to another school) as both of these can currently be absent in academies and free schools.

    Second, we need effective local democratic oversight and a local level for intervention (school improvement), resolution (workforce disputes) and parents (from local place planning to appeals). I’m relaxed at how precisely that would look, although I would prefer something closer to the old LEA’s to the new remote individuals working as school commissionaires even if these were to be elected by LA’s.

    Those two issues are the most important things we need to unite around and push as a minimum programme, because if we had both of them the negative aspects of academies (marketisation, breaking of national staff pay and conditions of service) would at a stroke be ended. It would the solve a potentially difficult distraction about the existing ‘good’ academies and free schools as it would not put them at risk in the eyes of parents, and while I am passionate in opposition to both types of schools we do need to recognise that some have been useful innovations, in particular the ones run by some of the bigger football clubs that have been a viable and better alternative to a pupil referral unit for some kids not happy or suited to a traditional school environment, and the performing arts type establishments. Therefore if we can successfully reintegrate them within national pay and conditions structures by common-sense oversight while still allowing the ‘freedom’ of variation I think it would go a hell of a long way to making life better for the workers in them.

    1. David Pavett says:

      James, I agree with your aim of looking for practical steps which will get us from where we are now closer to where we want to be. I also agree about national pay and conditions for all state-funded schools.

      I think though that the requirement of “local oversight” is too vague. This was Labour policy under Stephen Twigg and Tristram Hunt. You go further than them in saying that not only should LAs be allowed to set up new schools but that they should have the role of commisioning them.

      I agree with the aim but it is not a simple step. As a result of the Gove revolution LAs educational function have diminished, expertise has been lost and staff have been shed. In many/most LAs virtually all the secondary schools have been academised.

      What is possible and practical is, of course, not a purely technical question but also depends on the level of understanding of educational issues of MPs/councillors, Party menbers and the general public. That level is currently dreadfully low in all three categories. That is something that has to change if we are to have a solid basis for change.

      So for me the first step following Corbyn’s election is to raise the level of understanding throughout the Labour Party and then, on that basis to conduct a public campaign for good local schools with no selection run within a framework of democratised LAs. I think this is possible with Corbyn in a way it has never been possible before. I hope we seize the opportunity to win majority support for a democratic education service that works in the best interests of all children.

  7. there is no election for four and a half years. The Labour Party can do nothing. Therefore its a campaign outside the party to mobilise parents that is needed. The pressure point immediately available is the absolute lack of evidence academies improve schools, and the need to suspend the act and the school revolution for an independent inquiry. Even Gibb now accepts academies are not necessarily better than maintained schools.

    So why a school revolution? Focus on the big picture

    trevor fisher.

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