Is the government’s drive to increase the number of academies coming at the detriment of students’ education?

Ever since Tony Blair’s government established the first string of academies with the Learning and Skills Act of 2000, and particularly since the Conservative party’s return to government in the 2010 election, the shift towards academisation of England’s schools has proceeded at a startling rate. Almost two thirds of the country’s secondary schools now either operate as academies or are in the process of achieving academy status, and the number of primary schools in the same situation is rising year on year. When the original arguments for the introduction of the academy system are considered, this may not seem, on the face of it, the most lamentable state of affairs. Traditionally, it was the duty of local councils to ensure that underperforming schools received the help they needed to maintain the standards of education we as a society had come to expect, in addition to providing everything from payroll services to psychological help for put-upon teachers. To many, this arrangement was perfectly reasonable; parents concerned with the quality of their children’s education could, if a school’s management proved unresponsive, hold democratically elected councillors to account, and furthermore as Local Education Authorities (LEAs) had power over both admissions and the expansion of schools under their jurisdiction meant that the task of finding a place for every chid within a given area could be handled effectively, along with any other issues a more remote authority would have difficulty resolving. The problems, arose when these LEAs proved just as inept as the schools they oversaw, or, perhaps more frustratingly, when a school’s senior staff were perfectly competent but were hindered by ineffectual local authorities. Inevitably, it was the country’s deprived areas which disproportionately tended to suffer the consequences of mismanaged education, and so the academy system was introduced to provide an escape route for schools in the greatest need.

The idea is fairly straightforward. Under this system, underperforming schools were placed in the care of government approved trusts, to be funded directly by the Department for Education with additional support being provided by private sponsors. Though these schools are often presented by detractors as autonomous entities unbeholden to the national curriculum and free to teach in whatever innovative, unconventional manner they think best, this is only technically correct. There is no obligation to adhere to the syllabus taught in state run schools, but students are still required to pass the same Key Stage 3 and GCSE exams as everybody else, and teachers are still subject to the same uncompromising Ofsted appraisals as their LEA-employed counterparts. There are problems, of course. Handing over control of our education system to unelected, unaccountable organisations whose governing bodies and corporate backers may or may not have ulterior motives
has the potential to allow some troubling corruption to creep into the system. Whether dealing with the likes of Sir Peter Vardy, the evangelical chair of the Emmanuel Schools Foundation accused of allowing creationism to be taught alongside evolution in his schools’ science classes, or with ethically questionable sponsors entering their schools into licencing agreements which prevent them from purchasing the resources and services of any other companies, it is clear that a great deal of regulation is necessary if the academy system is to prove sustainable. That said, the fact remains that academisation, when implemented correctly, does appear to have improved both GCSE results and the quality of facilities in many schools which would otherwise have likely languished at the wrong end of the league tables for many years.

This fact does not, however, make George Osborne’s recent announcement that every school in the country is to be converted into an academy by the year 2022 any less baffling. This blatantly ideological project is estimated to cost around £600m, far in excess of the £140m allocated in Osborne’s budget. It also gives no thought to the issue of where so many willing, credible and principled trust leaders are to be found. More reckless is the fact that such a radical structural change will be applied not only to schools which are failing or seeking an alternate route, but to the many thousands of schools, mostly primary, which are functioning perfectly well under the old system. The policy has so far been framed, as expected, as a way to improve standards of education for England’s children. A commendable goal, but why would any government which truly cared about education endanger the schools judged to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by forcing them into a model which has by no
means earned the right to be considered the unquestionably superior one?

Ultimately, it is likely that academisation will prove to be the best course for some schools, but not others. This is all that our experience over the last decade or so can tell us for certain, and no reasonable person would presume to know better without further investigation and observation. Our education system, particularly the curriculum and teaching style enforced by Ofsted, is a patchwork relic of the nineteenth century; a product of the mindset which put dozens of generations through a classical syllabus so far removed from everyday life as to be utterly irrelevant to all but a tiny enclave of academics. Abstract notions of restructuring the way in which schools are governed only distract from the more pressing issue of engineering an education which will produce a generation of thoughtful, mature children who know exactly what awaits them in the wider world, and exactly how to face it.


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Charlie Dwyer

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September 2021
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