The academies system was designed to offer a fresh start to failing schools. It was a system so perfect, so well thought out that it would transform whole communities marred by youth employment and suffering from under-investment. The academies system was the answer to all troubling questions of the day. Except the brainchild of the previous Labour government and the pet-project of our very own Michael Gove has become an utter shambles.
About a year ago, I wrote a piece criticizing the academies scheme. I argued that the lack of accountability, private sector influence and the erosion of workers’ rights was something that we should not be proud of. The fiscal independence that the Department of Education talked about, I explained, was leading to financial mismanagement in schools up and down the country. Nothing has changed, but the argument was always clear that the ‘charm’ of academies, the only way to measure their true affect on the education system, was to wait until at least 2013 AS and A2 levels in England from sixth forms and colleges that had the academy gene well and truly inserted in to them. That time has come.
The Independent today reported that, despite hopeful early results from academies, their A-level point-results have fallen faster than in colleges and schools run directly by the Local Authority. The results clearly show that academies created between 2002 and 2008 are now falling back points-wise. The drop (from 676 to 661 points) is greater than that of traditional state schools, where there has been a meagre drop of just 3 points on average. Even in academies created since 2009, the results show a tailing off of the positive trend, and many academies and head teachers are now asking themselves; what has gone wrong?
Well, there is an array of other plausible answers to these bleak results. First we could assume that academies have always been in inner-city areas and so lower results should reflect this. Another could be the Government clamp-down grade inflation disproportionately affecting academies. However, these answers only really skim over the larger point. Yes, academies usually appear in inner-city areas, but to assume that is why schools are failing is misguided. The point score of academies rose heavily in the late 2000s (partly due to a feel-good factor and massive investment), proving the inner-city argument a myth. In addition, the spread of academies to traditional Conservation heartlands and more middle-class communities can hardly support this argument. Could it be then that grade inflation in the Labour years disproportionately benefitted inner-city schools and academies? This, again, is unlikely. Grade inflation – if it ever did happen – happened not solely at isolated school sites but in marking centres up and down the UK.
The answer then. The academy scheme is a toxic nightmare, and has been since its inception. In short, it is like the idea of austerity meets ordoliberalism for the education system. A rejection of the state for the benefit of competitive private benefactors, and the now more competitive pupil. Even in academies still receiving funding from Central Government, it is this ‘autonomy’ to give schools power that doesn’t empower parents and pupils – but puts them at a permanent disadvantage. Neil Kinnock spoke about this seller’s market in 2006, condemning the thought that in any way this could lead to equality of opportunity. And today, we are left to clean-up a system of blurred responsibilities and falling standards.
With the erosion of teachers’ pensions and deterioration of contracts, now many schools and colleges are paying the price. There are many options open to turning the system around again and putting it on a path where we can be safe in the knowledge that not only ourselves, but other pupils and students too, will receive the best teaching in the best environments. To tackle the social segregation that is worsening under academies schools could revert back to LA control. Alternatively, all private sector and third party interests could be removed and the subsequent funding gap fulfilled by the state. Whatever the direction that schools and colleges now need to take however, the message needs to be clear: the direction of schools policy needs to be one where the state leads from the front, where accountability is at the systems’ core and where opportunities are open to everyone.
By James Wand