Education Secretary Nicky Morgan announced at the time of the recent local elections, later confirmed in the Queen’s Speech, that the planned enforced conversion of all schools to academies by 2022 had been dropped. This was reported as a major U-turn in the media, and certainly it was a response to the growing opposition to academies, with campaigns to prevent conversions taking place across the country and the major teaching unions taking an opposing position.
However, the government remains committed to its aim. Indeed, the majority of secondary schools have already become academies and the kinds of tactics employed by the government to pressure schools to convert have been widely publicised. The academy system has already become big business and is growing fast.
Since their inception, academies have become the favoured form of primary and secondary education in England by the neo-liberal establishment. Furthermore, a new arrangement is being brought about whereby these academies are run by Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs).
Academies under the control of such trusts is the organisational form being found for a capital-centric school system. The arrangement is a kind of “public-private partnership” aimed at tailoring education to the needs of business, where private competing interests become the main determining factor over the system.
The Education White Paper released in March elaborates the government’s concept of what they call “supported autonomy”. On this view, the role of the government in education should no longer be one of directing or standardising teaching methods, but one of measuring outcomes. Through this stepping-back by the government over methods, private interests are given increased space to take control.
The Education Secretary’s forward to White Paper explains: “We believe in supported autonomy: aligning funding, control, responsibility and accountability in one place, as close to the front line as possible, and ensuring that institutions can collaborate and access the support they need to set them up for success. And we will work to build a system which is responsive to need and performance, ensuring that institutions respond to changing needs. Autonomy will be both earned and lost, with our most successful leaders extending their influence, and weaker ones doing the opposite.”
Dressed up as a “school-led” system with teachers and heads finding their own best methods, touted as a move away from the bad old days of stringent national curricula and micromanagement, the new arrangements are sold as providing “freedom”. The question is freedom from what, for whom, to do what? The question is what forces are in control of schools and with what aim.
What the government is actually instituting is a kind of business model for the school system, and it is marked by the same pragmatism: all that matters is what works. Education becomes performance and outcome-based, just as business. Who cares how a business operates as long as it makes a profit?
Implicit in the “supported autonomy” notion is the operation of competition and market forces in the school system. A school market in terms of league tables has existed for some time. The new concept introduces a role for the state through what it calls “accountability”.
The idea is that tighter measures will be created on which schools must be focused on scoring highly. The role of the state is then to set targets for these metrics. Such a target-based approach borrows heavily from project and performance management practices common in the corporate world.
This outcome-based market-style approach will filter out good and bad practices, goes the argument, which are supposed to be consolidated via Multi-Academy Trusts. Rather than a government directive, the idea is that the market will find the best practises.
The notion of a planned and scientifically organised system does not figure. The state simply does not care about the theory and practise of education. It is not interested what practises come to be, only the targets and international competition.
While the foreword bemoans that “our education standards have remained static, at best, whilst other countries have moved ahead”, chapter 1 claims: “The better educated our society, the fairer, more cohesive, productive and innovative it can be. This is vital to Britain’s position in the 21st century. Our education system must compete with those around the world – because while we improve, so do they.”
This brings us to the notion of education underlies the government’s vision. It is clear from the above that it is directed at British business “success in the global market”, to borrow the well-worn phrase.
Nicky Morgan tells us her mission: “Education has the power to transform lives and, for me, is a matter of social justice – extending opportunity to every child, wherever they live and whatever their background.”
The student movement, particularly since the 2010 upsurge, has been very vocal in its demand that education be recognised as a right, not a privilege, to the extent that it has changed the conditions of the debate. Morgan goes as far as to reflect this: “Access to a great education is not a luxury but a right for everyone.”
However, the notion expressed in the White Paper is strictly individual and on analysis is not the modern conception of a right at all. It is, rather, the usual neo-liberal notion of an “opportunity society”, a collection of individuals essentially in competition, each with a fair chance of “success” (and also failure), in the context of an economic environment under the total direction of the most powerful monopolies.
Thus education simply has the potential to “transform lives”. This is antithetical to the notion that all people are born to society and should be fully involved in participating in developing society, engaged in productive activity to that end and playing a role in decision-making and thinking. Without a well-organised education system that serves the whole public this is not possible. Such an education is therefore a right. Rather than one-sidedly giving the individual the opportunity to transform their life, it is enabling the individual to fully participate in transforming society, the conditions of all life, and flourishing as an individual in that context.
Ultimately, the vision is a mass education system that churns out young people like a product on a production line. Each factory might have its own techniques, while the government has the role of quality control. In this manner, the state gives up responsibility to provide for the needs of citizens, this being replaced by a consumer-service relation between pupils and parents on the one hand and schools and trusts on the other.
Academies: a brief summary
Academies are schools run under a form of public-private partnership arrangement whereby they are independent of local authority control, receiving funding from central government together with private sponsorship. They are not bound by the national curriculum, are able to set their own school hours, can choose to award bonuses to staff and pay heads more than ordinary state schools.
They were originally introduced in 2000 by Blair’s New Labour government. Secondary schools deemed “failing” were converted to academies, initially in the cities and particularly in deprived areas, the programme later being extended to rural areas. The scale of the project began small, with just 202 out of 24,000 schools having been converted by the 2010 general election.
The Conservative-Liberal coalition put the programme into high gear and switched focus onto all schools, particularly incentivising those considered to be successful. Former Education Secretary Michael Gove began the drive for academies to become the new norm, and for the first time, primary schools became able to convert. Reports began to circulate of bullying tactics by the government and forced conversions. By the time of the 2015 election, over four and a half thousand schools had converted.
The current Conservative government and Education Secretary Nicky Morgan have pressed ahead with academisation of the school system, declaring their intention for all schools to become academies by 2022. By May 7 this year, the majority of secondary schools, 2,075 out of 3,381, and 2,440 out of 16,766 primary schools have become academies.
Academies are run by nominally non-profit trusts with charity status, either individually or as part of an academy chain run by a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT), of which there are currently nearly one thousand in existence. Such MATs typically claim a few percent from the budgets of their member schools.
The non-profit requirement in no way diminishes the character of academisation as the wholesale privatisation of school-age education. These trusts draw sponsorship from big investors, either individuals or corporate sponsors, which may be businesses with no relation to education. The trusts themselves are private in nature, e.g. Ark Schools, which runs 34 academies. This trust is part of the Ark charity founded in 2002 by a group of hedge fund financiers, which had an income of £13m in 2013-14.
A kind of market now exists in the school system as a result, which also plays off league tables and inspection scores. Within this context, these private trusts provide the strategic direction of the academies they oversee, and tailor methods and curricula accordingly, which have tended to become more pragmatic. Research in 2012 by Terry Wrigley, editor of the journal Improving Schools, showed that over 2/3 (68%) of academies rely more on vocational qualifications than traditional state schools, while even centre-right think tank Civitas called them, ironically, “inadequately academic”.
The issue therefore goes beyond purely privatisation. Academies open up primary and secondary education to business interest and influence, particularly big business. It does not take much predictive power to guess that the resulting market will become dominated by large academy monopolies. School education is becoming, in particular, tailored to the narrow private aims of competing businesses, and in general, openly capital-centric in form and content.