It is best if you don’t read this article.
After all, I am not sure that your opinions on education count for very much. You may have read the Conservative manifesto and not found it stated there that the party would turn all schools into academies. Most primary schools have chosen not to convert to academy status. The views of the governing bodies, staff, parents and children in those schools clearly don’t matter.
Perhaps the government doesn’t even take notice of what its own ministers say. Schools minister Nick Gibb said last September: “This government does not believe that all academies and free schools are necessarily better than maintained schools [which are mostly local authority schools].” One word of warning here: Gibb is a busy man. Recently, he has taken time out to write a letter to the Times Educational Supplement about the correct use of exclamation marks. Does this mean that the government has nationalised punctuation? Why not? This move on academies is about centralising education as never before.
One popular view of education is that it has been like that since governments first thought it was their job to provide education for all, but that is only half the story. The principle locked into the education system has always been that local people have a crucial role in running and checking schools where they live. Not that it has been totally local either; it has always been a partnership between central and local governments.
In one stroke, George Osborne has eliminated the public’s role in education where we live. Here he is explaining why: “It is simply unacceptable that Britain continues to sit too low down the global league tables for education.” In taking over ministerial responsibility for education, Osborne seems to have forgotten that this job applies only to England. The reference to “global” tables is part of the argument that says doing exclamation marks better than Johnny Foreigner enables British capitalism to compete better with the Chinese. “So I’m going to get on with finishing the job we started five years ago,” he continues, “to drive up standards and set schools free from the shackles of local bureaucracy.”
Osborne’s line of argument here seems to be that the reason Britain is “too low down” in the tables is because of the “shackles of local bureaucracy”. It’s a big claim – the kind of claim you might expect a minister to back up with evidence. When people have asked if there is, right now, a direct link between local authorities’ role in education and real or supposed low standards, answer comes there none.
So, if academies and free schools are not necessarily better than maintained, what particular kind of magic is going to raise the standards of the schools of England purely through the mechanism of turning them all into academies?
Suspicious minds have suggested that it is not really about standards, and have focused on the possibility that it is all to do with privatisation. In place of local government, an archipelago of individuals, trusts, charities, educational institutions and companies is involved in running academies and free schools. Some are organised into “chains” that resemble in shape the grouping of schools you get with local authorities. Some sponsors and chains succeed, some fail – as Gibb has noticed.
Through this labyrinth, dance interesting folk. Example: one academy headteacher notched up a salary of £390,000 in one year; he was the sole director of a dating website, a health club and accommodation business on the school site; the National Audit Office found that the head’s own firm was paid £508,000 in management fees over three years, though investigators were unable to determine the extent to which the head benefited from the arrangement. (That’s the labyrinth again.) This was one-time government favourite Sir Greg Martin and the Durand academy.
What kind of set-up is the government putting in place where something like this can go on? This is the invisible part of the equation. You can watch hours of chit-chat about academies on TV and one vital part of the story hardly ever gets a mention: who has got the keys?
This is how it works: your school is a local authority school. When it becomes an academy, the local authority is compelled to give (for a peppercorn rent) a 125-year lease to whichever “sponsor” comes in to take over the school. Leaseholders have rights over the properties they have leases on, including, perhaps, permission to run a “dating agency” on school premises. Where Sir Greg trod, others are sure to step, too. In the case of “foundation” schools – schools whose ownership is in the hands of a trust – switching to academy status entails a direct transfer of freehold from the trust to the new sponsors. There is room for some serious cash to be made here.
There is room for some other jiggery-pokery too. On several occasions in the past few years, I have been invited into schools by people from the soon-to-be-extinct species, local authority advisers. At some point in our chats, they have taken me to one side and told me that central government, academy chains and individual academies do not have a duty of care for all children. That is the local authority’s job. That duty covers vulnerable, “challenging”, at-risk, disabled, asylum-seeking and looked-after children. Advisers have told me they have found children who were once in academies somehow no longer being in academies, whether that is a result of the rush to improve test scores, prove “progress” or because of an unwillingness to spend money on supporting such children. Who has picked up the pieces? The local authority. We can imagine the wall-to-wall academies landscape of the future full of the same urge to offload “difficult” children. In which case, impoverished local authorities will end up having to run impoverished “units” for them, won’t they?
In the academies themselves, other possibilities are taking shape. In 2012, while education secretary, Michael Gove released them from the requirement to hire well-paid, trained teachers. This “advance” has coincided with automated teaching appearing on iPads. Why employ people trained to teach, when a software company can do it for you? A future beckons where the student will sit in a pod and press a button: the word “cheese” appears. The student types in “vache”, the machine says “no”. The student types in “fromage”, the machine says “yes”. An untrained operative walks past, nods, and walks on. One student is mucking about. The operative finds the student’s name on the discipline app, clicks on “negative comment”. As it’s the third time this week, the student’s name pops up on the deputy head’s screen. The student is sent off for an hour in the detention suite: no need for human contact – made all the easier through academicisation.
But look, says Osborne, the reason we are doing this is because we want to give schools autonomy: the national curriculum doesn’t apply to academies. I am not going to big up the national curriculum. A good deal of it is made up of Gove’s envelope jottings. Even so, it is worth remembering that it cost several millions to devise these programmes of study for local authority schools. They will now be binned.
What won’t be binned, though, is the test and exam industry – or the real curriculum, as I call it. The never-ending roll-out of tests enables ministers to micromanage what goes on in every classroom. That is why Gibb felt entitled to lecture the nation on punctuation. Does the minister responsible for sport issue directives on the offside rule? I don’t think so. Education seems to give ministers the entitlement to treat it as their toy.
At present, 2,075 out of 3,381 secondary schools and 2,440 out of 16,766 primary schools are academies. By 2022, every school will be an academy under the direct rule of the secretary of state. When Gove was in that post, I used to imagine that he had a map of England with each academy given a light for its exact location on the map ... when Rasheda in Northampton lost her ruler or Dave in Cornwall weed on the floor, the warning light came on and Gove was on the phone to deal with it ... when a parent had a complaint, Gove was on the end of the line to solve the problem ... But I was informed that this wasn’t how the secretary of state was spending his time.
Now, with many more schools under direct rule, what has arrived are what Osborne in other circumstances might perhaps have called “the shackles of local bureaucracy”. They are the innovative but unelected regional schools commissioners, whose job is to do what local authority advisers used to do, but with hundreds more schools on their books. Not so innovative, then. Perhaps these commissioners have bought Gove’s illuminating maps so that when the light comes on, they jump in their cars and head for the North York Moors, or Dover.
One time-saver: when they get there, they won’t have to meet the parent governor. That job has just been abolished. Another local election bites the dust. We parents don’t need one of our own to keep an eye on what goes on in academies, do we? We might find that the academy head is running a dating agency.
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