The Tories’ flagship education policy, the drive to make all schools academies, is floundering. As an explicit goal enshrined in legislation “forced academisation” was defeated before it developed any real momentum.
The proposal for an Education White Paper which would force all schools to become academies by 2020 were announced by George Osborn in his March 2016 budget. The response was a relentless, nationwide campaign of opposition which exploited opposition within the Tory Party. The proposals were withdrawn within a few months. When the idea was ditched the government insisted that their intentions had not changed and the aim to make all schools academies by 2020 should stand.
Since then things have not gone well for the academy programme. The rapid rate of academy conversion following the Gove 2010 Academies Act has slowed down significantly. The defeat of the forced academies bill gave heart to those opposing conversion and brought many of the arguments against academies into the public spotlight.
For the first time since the academy programme was introduced (by Labour) a tangible national victory has been won, the academy steamroller has been slowed down.
This reputational damage has been made worse by developments in a number of academy chains or the more local multi-academy trusts (MATs), most dramatically, at Wakefield City Academy Trust (WCAT). As reported in Solidarity, following a long period of financial investigation and criticism WCAT announced in September 2017 that they no longer had the capacity to manage their 21 schools, were closing down their operation and abandoning the schools, their pupils and parents. Since there is no legal provision for academy schools to return to their local authority, the 21 schools would be reallocated to alternative MATs (in DfE language they would be “rebrokered”).
Parents, school staff and trade unions within WCAT were furious. They thought that most of the problems with WCAT are endemic to the academies system and not unique to one chain or MAT. In December, Wakefield City council (not an especially left-wing Labour body) voted to have the WCAT schools returned to the local authority and for a public enquiry into the financial management of the Trust. This is the first Labour council to take this step and is the result of energetic campaigning by unions and parents in the area.
In December, a Freedom of Information request revealed that, in fact, there were over 40,000 children in what Labour education spokesperson, Angela Rayner, called “zombie academies” — schools which had either been abandoned by, or taken from, their original academy sponsor. Unable to return to a local authority these schools and their pupils are awaiting reallocation to a new academy sponsor. There are 64 such schools, over half of which were part of two trusts, WCAT and the Education Fellowship Trust. The latter became the first MAT to abandon all of their 12 schools in March 2017. Schools in this position are often subject to strict conditions which stop them, for example, spending money on resources or appointing new staff.
A significant problem for the government and academy advocates is that few sponsors want to take over additional schools, particularly if those schools are more likely to depress than enhance the headline results for their new MAT.
There is no obligation on any academy sponsor to take over any other school, and yet there is no route back to the local authority. In the entirely plausible circumstance where a larger number of chains containing many more schools decide to close down, there would be a serious crisis in education provision.
There have been other less high profile signs that the academy programme is losing its grip. In late November 2017 the Bright Tribe Academy Trust announced that they would let go of Whitehaven Academy in Cumbria following complaints by teachers, parents and pupils that the school was in a dilapidated state.
Explaining this decision Bright Tribe said, “As we have been unable to grow beyond a single school in Cumbria, we recognise the need to explore alternative sponsor options for Whitehaven academy.”
At the same time the Harris Federation has been asked to take over the Durand Academy in south London after the school failed to address financial concerns and potential conflicts of interests and had its funding agreement terminated.
On the Isle of Wight an academy run by the Academies Enterprise Trust, Sandown Academy, plans to close and be replaced by a local authority school on the same site. These plans have the support of the local authority and have been approved by the DfE. This is being widely seen as the first “renationalisation” of an academy school.
Finally in Hackney the Labour Council recently approved plans to set up a Hackney Schools Group with a budget of £100 million to support 50 schools. The details of this plan are not yet known but emerged after a consultation of residents.
The Deputy Mayor of the borough claimed that “One of the strongest things that came out of the Schools for Everyone [consultation], is that residents felt that the council still should have a role in education.”
The academy programme became an ideological crusade for a small group of neo-liberal zealots spearheaded by Michael Gove. Gove was succeeded as Education Secretary by Nicky Morgan who was in post when the forced academies plan was announced.
Following the Brexit vote and the election of May as Tory leader, Morgan was removed and replaced by Justine Greening. Now Justine Greening has been replaced by Damian Hinds.
The impact of Brexit, the divisions exposed in the Tory Party and the damage done by the forced academies debate, combined with the removal of successive Education Secretaries took the drive out of the programme. The Tories can now propose only those new laws that have more or less unanimous support amongst their MPs. Pushing the academy programme further isn’t such a policy.
As stated repeatedly by anti-academy activists, there is absolutely no evidence that academies improve school standards or outcomes for children. Indeed, that was the finding of the first ever government research into the programme carried out by Price Waterhouse Cooper for the last Labour government. Subsequent reports by the Education Select Committee and the Education Policy Institute have also found no evidence that academy status improves standards in primary or secondary schools respectively.
In addition a 2017 Sutton Trust report concluded that “disadvantaged pupils in sponsored academies did less well than those in all mainstream schools”. Research by the National Education Union found that a child was more likely to be taught by an unqualified teacher and that their teacher was more likely to leave their job in an academy. The NEU also found that teachers are likely to be paid less in academies, while senior management are more likely to earn more than in local authority schools. The academy programme has offered the government little or no tangible gain for significant and now growing political embarrassment and criticism.
The public dialogue about academies now centres almost exclusively on financial scandal, excessive CEO and leadership pay, and abandoned children in “zombie schools”. School education is now an area ripe for a clear and popular Labour response.
Although Corbyn's Labour has, rightly, promoted the idea of a national education service to match the NHS and been much more prepared to criticise the government’s obsession with academies, it hasn't committed to a clear and unambiguous policy of bringing existing academies back into local authority management.
The importance of a policy like this cannot be overstated. In a political climate where Labour’s performance in the last election and standing in the polls makes them the government in waiting, such a commitment would act as a huge disincentive to any school currently considering conversion. It would embolden more local authorities to follow the lead of Wakefield and call for the return of academies to the maintained system.
The end of the Tories’ flagship education policy is within our grasp, but we need the political wing of the labour movement to catch up with the trade union wing and the mood of parents.
We need a commitment to ending academies and moving back to local, democratic, accountable and comprehensive education.