Friday, 27 July 2012

Academies – The Privatisation of Education

  Note: this post is the opinion of the author, not Radical Islington

What are Academies? How do they differ from state schools?

 Academies are schools that are funded by the government, but set up by private-interest groups, such as businesses, faith groups, or charities (often called ‘sponsors’). These groups then have control of the school, and can appoint a board of directors without including parents, teachers, or anyone that has been elected. This differs from state schools, which have a board of governors, including elected parents, teachers, and local councillors. Academies are basically state-funded, but can be run like a private school.

Academies can opt out of the national curriculum, although they are “required to provide a broad and balanced curriculum to include English, maths and science”. Academies have greater freedom in their admissions policies than state schools.

What are Free Schools? How do they differ from Academies?

 Free schools are like Academies, but they are set up by local people and/or parents with a common idea about what kind of school they want, for example, if they want a local faith school in their area.

Are Academies worse or better than state schools?

There are many reasons to think the presence of Academies is bad both for the children attending those Academies as well as for children still attending state schools. 

Exam results for Academies are mixed, although judging a school by exam results is flawed because how rich or poor the students attending that school are will effect the results, and exam results are often not a good measurement of learning anyway (see last section for a fuller explanation).

One problem with academies is that they are set up by businesses, and other vested interest groups. In some cases, these groups will have a lot of control of how the school is run. They will often not have children’s best interests at heart. Recently, it has been discovered that the majority of academies are selling products in vending machines that have been banned from state schools because they are so unhealthy. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg – businesses cannot be trusted to put people before profit, or education before profit. Even if Academies and Free Schools are not meant to overtly and directly make a profit, we can expect that businesses will have a business interest in becoming sponsors of academies.

However, during the Leveson Enquiry, Michael Gove announced that he was open to the idea that Free Schools could be run for profit in the future. This is not surprising, and it will be not surprising if it is the same for Academies.

Furthermore – Academies can have advertisements in the school building. One Academy I worked in had advertisements for HSBC on walls of their staircases. Schools are becoming just another place to emphasise our role as consumers.

Another reason that Academies will be worse for children is that they are a departure from the idea that every school should be as good as possible. Academy status hands a lot of power to individual headteachers, and the group that set them up, which are often businesses, or unpleasant charities. Academies also have more freedom on their admissions policies, which may disadvantage poor children. The combination of these circumstances means that the quality of education in schools will probably vary even more than it currently does, because the quality of a school will depend on the whims of the particular headteacher and sponsor, and what the admission policies of the other schools in the local area are.

This does not mean that every Academy will be bad, some headteachers will have good ideas and wont have elitist admission policies. For many teachers and students, it will be good that they don’t have to follow a national curriculum, which can be very limiting. However, it swings both ways. It is also possible for Academies and Free Schools to be exclusive in their admission, and/or very constraining in the teaching they offer.

Academies and Free Schools may lead to a more segregated society, sorting people into types. It has recently been reported that a third of the recent wave of Free Schools classify themselves as faith schools, and will be able to select students based on faith.

Although it is a trend in state schools as well, Academies can to be extremely disciplinarian and authoritarian. While Mossbourne in Hackney is heralded for its apparent success, it is very strict, and it enacts militaristic ideas of discipline and complete obedience. Other Academies are following suit. And it is not a pleasant environment for children. While I was working for a day in another Academy in Hackney, the children were asked the question, ‘if you were prime-minister what would be the first 5 things you would do’ by their teacher, and one child’s first reaction was ‘burn down the school’, a couple of others made similar remarks.

There is also the problem that the creation of Academies has diverted funds from the improvement of existing schools, into the creation of new ones. In Suffolk recently, which has  10,600 free spaces in their current schools, the Department of Education has approved plans for at least four Free Schools. A freedom of information request for  why the permission was granted has been refused.

Don’t academies have closer link to the communities they are in? Surely it is better that there is less government interference in schools?

The ConDems claim that academies are about ‘community’, ‘localism’, ‘autonomy’, and shrinking the power of the state. However, the opposite is the case. Melissa Benn (yes, daughter of Tony Benn) has summarised the Tories plans for educations as ‘rigid centralization with widespread privatisation’.

Academies are accountable to central government through OFSTED who inspect schools, but since they can be largely privately run, they are less accountable to parents and local people.
The people on the decision-making bodies in Academies can be directly chosen by the group that sets them up (the sponsor), without elections. If there is representation from parents or teachers on these boards (there doesn’t have to be), they are often far less represented than in state schools. State schools are required to have elected governors, which include parents and teachers, as well as local councillors. Therefore, Academies generally give less power to parents, and have less local participation, than state schools. 

This is not a defence of the current system of parent governors, and representative democracy in itself, but that the decision-making bodies of state schools is worth defending from what those decision-making bodies will be replaced with in Academies. The difference is between state schools, who’s decision-making is occasionally moderately bottom-up, and Academies, which can be always, and entirely, top-down, run by businesses or charities and headteachers. Furthermore, headteachers that are becoming increasingly authoritarian, therefore having some type of participatory structures in place is more important than ever.

Similarly, it doesn’t seem to be the case that the ConDems plan to stop central government having control of education. An example of unprecedented central government interference occurred when Michael Gove (the Education Minister) sacked the board of governors of Downhill school in Haringey, because they are resisting attempts by government to force the school to become an Academy. The board of governors were replaced by an ‘Interim Executive Board’ – consisting of people who have an interest in the school becoming an Academy. The fact that the government wants to force schools into becoming Academies is proof enough that they don’t plan on giving up any power.

How will it effect teachers? What does this mean for a child’s education? 

Academies do not have to recognise Unions, and they can set there own terms and conditions. Therefore, it is likely that the large increase in Academies will cause most teacher’s conditions to get worse. This is obviously bad for teachers. It is also bad for children, because being taught by overworked, tired people will effect the quality of teaching, and how enjoyable school is. 

 A detour/footnote into the problem of exams and exams results as mentioned earlier 

Judging children, teachers and schools on exam results is problematic for several reasons. One, as mentions above, is that socio-economic factors play a role in what grades children achieve, so schools with poorer students may have a good level of teaching, but the school is likely to have worse overall GCSE’s than schools with richer students. Additionally, being good at exams is not the same as learning: when so much emphasis is on exam grades, teachers teach children to pass exams, which involves cramming in ‘knowledge’ without exploring ideas fully or teaching children to think for themselves, or allowing them to debate amongst themselves. Furthermore, emphasis on grading has introduced a market-place dynamic in schools, where schools compete in league tables for grades rather than actually thinking about what is best for their students. This leads to some nasty practices. For instance, children who are deemed capable of getting a grade ‘C’ but are on the C/D borderline may get a lot of help and support, whereas children who aren’t expected to be able to get a C don’t get this support. So a students worth is based on whether they will help the school in the league tables. 

Resources to help you fight academies…

There is a handout made by Unite union called ‘ACADEMY SCHOOLS - Questions parents frequently ask’ with simple advice for parents, on this website:

 The Anti-Academy Alliance helps groups campaign against academies and has a lot of resources on their website. Although useful, they are a front for the Socialist Workers Party, an authoritarian Marxist group. They can be found at
This website investigates and clarifies all the legal aspects of academies, how, and if, they differ from state schools:
If there doesn’t seem to be any option for your school other than becoming an Academy, you might want to consider becoming a Co-operative Trust school. These Academies are meant to have elected people on the Board of Directors, including teachers and parents.
You can find more information if you go to
then click on ‘co-operative schools’.

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