Ten years on, schools are still fighting academisation

The reform of Britain's schools has been controversial and extensive, but has it succeeded in making education better? 

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“The school system is not being privatised”, declared the Department for Education in April 2016, when it published an article on its website to “dispel some common myths” about academisation, the project that has now dominated education policy in the UK for a decade. “Instead,” the DfE continued, “heads and teachers are being given greater freedom to run their schools”.

Freedom is the stated aim of academisation. It is a policy designed to give schools more autonomy in spending, teaching and organisation. Brought into law by the Academies Act 2010, academisation is the process by which publicly funded schools are moved out of the control of local education authorities and into the control of private organisations called charitable trusts. These trusts can run multiple schools, and are free to choose what they teach (without having to follow the National Curriculum), who they appoint as board members or teachers, and how they spend their budget, which comes directly from the Department for Education. They are not allowed to make a profit. 

Are schools made more free by academisation, and does freedom lead to a better education for children? 

These questions have become the subject of fierce debate as academisation has swept through the UK’s education system. When the Conservatives came to power in 2010, academies were a specialist solution – there were 203 in total. By the beginning of last year nearly 7,000 schools, including 72 per cent of all secondary schools, had been converted into academies. These conversions have involved hundreds of protests by parents, teacher strikes, and legal challenges. 

One school that has resisted the process – twice – is the John Roan school in Greenwich, south-east London. It is one of the oldest state schools in the country, having been founded in 1677. Elizabeth Gould’s son is a pupil at the John Roan, and she has another child who she says “would go there this year” were it not for the prospect of academisation, about which she has “extreme reservations”. Gould is one of a group of parents who questioned the need for the John Roan to convert to an academy. “I became an accidental activist,” she says. 

Gould became concerned when the school’s head teacher left abruptly, and parents were told that the school would be “getting support” from an academy chain called University Schools Trust, or UST. “We weren’t sure why we needed support,” says Gould. “We thought we were a good school. But we were told we were getting a ‘support package’ from the UST. Not much information was given – they were just ‘coming in to help’. So they were brought in in September 2017. Around the same time, we had a visit from the DfE, and they said they felt the school was doing well.”

The following March, however, the school was inspected by Ofsted. A teacher from the John Roan, who spoke to Spotlight under condition of anonymity, described the inspection as “cursory”. The teacher claims to have been asked “leading questions” by inspectors. 

“They asked ‘do you agree that the corridors are unsafe’, or ‘do you agree that the behaviour in this building is unacceptable’. It was certainly my sense that they went in with an agenda.”

There followed an unusual delay in releasing the results of the visit. Ofsted reports are normally issued within two weeks, but the John Roan waited for three months. This delay, the teacher says, “was unaccounted for, and still hasn’t been explained. A lot of people were confused by that.” The John Roan was found to be inadequate, and was issued with a forced academisation order. 

Parents and teachers were surprised and dismayed. Ofsted’s portrayal of the John Roan, says Gould, “wasn’t a school that I recognised… my son’s English teacher – the report on her is not anything that I as a parent would recognise”. The teacher agrees that “most people were surprised by the severity” of the report. Much faster, and perhaps less surprising, was the news that a sponsor had been found to academise the school: University Schools Trust, the academy chain that had been brought in six months earlier to “support” the school. 

Mistrust of academisation is widespread, for a number of reasons. Foremost among these is that it involves moving control of state schools to organisations that are not part of the state, a fact that supporters of state education oppose on principle. And while these companies are not allowed to make a profit, their spending – particularly on pay for senior managers – has been controversial. In other schools in south London, one academy chain head paid is over £500,000 a year, while another received a severance package of £850,000. 

There is, too, a sense that academisation represents not only the privatisation but also the politicisation of education. Multi-academy trusts (MATs) certainly appear to have greater access to central government than local authorities; DfE records show that Lord Agnew, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, met with MATs or their representatives 25 times between July and September last year. No meetings with local authorities are recorded over the same period. 

MATs are also more likely to have a government minister as a trustee. Lord Agnew is himself the founder and former chair of a MAT, the Inspiration Trust, which runs 13 schools in Norfolk and Suffolk. His predecessor, Lord Nash, founded Future Academies (five schools) with his wife, Caroline; their daughter, Jo, was a teacher in a Future school despite having no teaching qualifications. Richard Pennycook, the DfE’s lead non-executive board member, is a former CEO of the Co-operative Group, the country’s largest corporate sponsor of academies. The businessman David Meller, who was a non-executive board member at the DfE until he resigned in January 2018 in the wake of the Presidents Club scandal (Meller was the club’s joint chairman) established the Meller Educational Trust (two schools). 

Below the ministerial level at the DfE are the National Schools Commissioner and the Regional Schools Commissioners. These officials decide which MAT gets to take over a school. They, too, have strong links to MATs; Sir David Carter, the National Schools Commissioner until last year, founded the Cabot Learning Federation, a MAT that now runs 16 schools. And of the eight Regional Schools Commissioner positions, at least six have seen the holder leave the department for a senior role in an academy chain. 

Connections can also be drawn not only between MATs and politicians, but between MATs and the people who fund politicians. Lord Harris, sponsor of the Harris Federation (which runs 47 schools in the London area) has been a Conservative Party donor since the 1980s. The Conservative Party donor Lord Ashcroft sponsors the Ashcroft Technology Academy in London. The businessman and Conservative Party donor Sir Peter Vardy was involved in the creation of the first City Technical College under Margaret Thatcher and chaired the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, which ran four academies until 2010. Yet another Conservative Party donor, the Carphone Warehouse tycoon David Ross, chairs the David Ross Education Trust (35 academies). Ross also chairs the New Schools Network (NSN), the organisation that promotes free schools. The NSN is part-funded by the government but also accepts private donations; its latest accounts credit its most generous benefactors as the Garfield Weston Foundation, which does not itself make political donations but was reprimanded in 2010 by the Charity Commission for having donated £900,000 (through holding company Wittington Investments) to the Conservative Party, and the Blavatnik Family Foundation, headed by Len Blavatnik – who has, through one of his companies, made significant donations to the Conservative Party. 

While no suggestion is made that any of those named above have acted improperly, it is not hard to see why people who oppose academisation feel uncomfortable about the potential conflicts of interest in a system that has been stocked with those who support the policy and the party behind it, and who in many cases have some financial involvement in its implementation. And in some cases, the cosy associations made possible by academisation have become very controversial indeed. 

Last September, BBC Panorama visited schools in Essex and Cumbria that were run by Bright Tribe, a multi-academy trust that ran ten schools. The programme alleged that the trust had taken public money for building work and improvements – including fire safety work and structural repairs – that were not carried out. Companies owned by the founder of Bright Tribe, Michael Dwan, were paid £8m by Bright Tribe for services, although Dwan has claimed that these services were offered at “a substantial loss”. Bright Tribe is now in the process of closing, but “related party transactions” - contracts awarded to companies connected to the board members or trustees of academy trusts – are another major factor in the public mistrust of academisation. Some 40 per cent of academies engaged in related-party transactions in 2016, accounting for £120m in school spending. The DfE has announced that trusts will soon need permission from the Education and Skills Funding Agency for any transaction with a company run by its own members or their families, but it remains to be seen how effective this will be when more than ten per cent of UK companies fail to disclose persons of significant control. 

Back at the John Roan school, the immediate concern of the teaching staff was that their working lives were about to change. The UST, the teacher says, “refused to guarantee the hours and jobs of support staff”, meaning teaching assistants, learning mentors, cleaning staff, catering staff and others.

The teacher Spotlight spoke to said this would have had very serious ramifications for children at the John Roan, especially those with special educational or language needs. Elizabeth Gould, who is also a teacher, says her experience of having worked at a school that was academised made her deeply apprehensive of what was to come. “We were told that we had to cover other people’s lessons, in subjects we didn’t teach.” As at the John Roan, support staff became a bargaining chip; “we were told that if we didn’t do it, they’d have to sack the lunchtime supervisors.” The result was “a Spanish teacher teaching science, a French teacher teaching geography… What really alarmed me was that certain teachers were put into the autistic unit, with no specialist training.” High-achieving students, says Gould, were told that they were “not allowed” to study art, music or drama. “The ones that are probably going to get good GCSEs, have been told they have to focus on Progress 8 [league table] subjects.”

Concerned that the same would happen at her son’s school, Gould and others contacted another London school that had been taken over by UST. They were told “horror stories… parents spoke out about serious safeguarding issues, the turnover of teachers was really high, 21 to 25 per cent.” 

Both Gould and the teacher say that they were attracted to the John Roan by the fact that it offered a chance to teach, or to learn among, children of all abilities and from all walks of life. A regular criticism of multi-academy trusts is that the pressure created by league tables and other performance measures leads to the “off-rolling” of children who aren’t expected to do well academically in order to raise the average grades achieved at GCSE. At another Greenwich school run by a large multi-academy trust, says Gould, “something like 25 per cent of their Year 11s” won’t sit GCSEs, while another nearby academy has its weaker students study for a “Certificate of Personal Effectiveness” rather than GCSEs. “So then they can say to the outside world, look! When we were with the local authority, we only got 40 per cent pass rate, and now we’ve got 80 per cent!” As a parent, Gould says she is now “very suspicious” of exam performance as the measure of a school. “Low outcome doesn’t bother me.” 

One problem multi-academy trusts present for parents and teachers who question them is that the decisions they make are not as transparent as those made by a local authority. Anne West, professor of education policy and director of the Education Research Group at LSE, points out that “with maintained schools, minutes of meetings of the governing body are publicly available. Single academies and MATs don’t have to do that… you don’t get anything like as much information as to how decisions are made.”

The opaque nature of academy management extends to other areas, too, West says. “The DfE sets hardly any requirements as regards the constitution of the board of trustees. Although academy trusts should publish the content of the curriculum this is not a requirement. There is little transparency regarding expenditure and procurement. Although trusts have to file their annual accounts with Companies House and publish the annual accounts, these don’t give much information. They don’t give anything like as much detail as the accounts provided by maintained schools to the local authority, and that’s all set by statute… It’s like what would happen with a private company.”

After an organised campaign of strikes and protest and petitions signed by over a thousand parents, teachers and carers, the John Roan has resisted academisation, for now. But neither Gould nor the teacher think that this is the end – three more multi-academy trusts are thought to be preparing bids for the school. 

The teacher in particular gives a grim prognosis for a fully academised education system: “Certain schools will become places where there’s an increasingly high concentration of students with more serious needs, whilst other schools boast about their exam results because they’ve got rid of that responsibility. I didn’t become a teacher to help students who are already well supported do even better, at the expense of students who need a bit more support.”

Has academisation worked, then? As a policy it was designed to offer schools freedom – to choose what they teach, how they spend their budgets, and who they employ – and to varying degrees this has been achieved. But in doing so, politicians made the damaging assumption that these freedoms would be created from nothing – that they did not already belong to someone else. As academy trusts were given the freedom to spend and appoint as they saw fit, the people for whom schools are most important lost the freedom to know about the people running their schools, to question them, and to have a voice in the decisions that affect them at the most important time in their lives.

Will Dunn edits the New Statesman's regular policy supplement, Spotlight.