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In April, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that he wants all schools to become academies.
While educators have rightly learned to treat Williamson's ill-considered pronouncements with disdain, his announcement was nevertheless a warning that this government still plans to push further towards doing away entirely with any kind of democratic local control over education through elected local authorities. Academies are schools that receive their funds directly from government and so operate independently of an elected local authority. They can set their own terms and conditions separately to national or local agreements.
A push for further academisation by ministers risks more governing bodies wondering if they should 'jump before they are pushed' into joining a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT), particularly if the Labour Party leadership's previously firmer opposition to academisation weakens under Starmer.
Meanwhile, the legislation that forces unwanted academy conversion onto schools deemed to have been 'failed' by Ofsted will continue to do its damage. But the tenacious struggle by staff and parents at Moulsecoomb Primary in Brighton to defend their community status shows how firm opposition can - and must - be built and given our full support (see 'Brighton marches to defend Moulsecoomb Primary School').
Instead of allowing further academisation, educators, parents and unions need to step up our calls for the return of schools to genuine democratic local control where they can work together in meaningful partnership, funded to fully meet needs, and with all staff employed under nationally agreed pay and conditions.
The academisation of schools has been just one aspect of a global drive to break up state education and impose an education market of competing chains of schools. In England, Ofsted, SATs and exam league tables have been the weapons used to unfairly grade and compare both schools and school students, creating a culture of 'failure', instead of genuine school improvement.
Research has consistently shown that academisation does not result in improved educational attainment. The results of a four-year evaluation by researchers at the UCL Institute of Education concluded that: "there is no positive impact on the attainment and progress scores of pupils in MATs when compared to equivalent non-MAT schools". It also noted that "pupils in larger MATs did worse, particularly in secondary schools".
Instead of encouraging genuine school improvement, through sharing of good practice, reduced workload, better training and support, and funding to meet needs, the marketisation of schools has done the opposite.
The pressure of league tables and Ofsted gradings has encouraged schools to 'game the system', changing their intake to improve results at the expense of their 'competitors', rather than genuinely improving education for all. "Two-thirds of academy chains perform below the national average for all state schools on key measures of attainment for disadvantaged young people," according to research from the Sutton Trust.
Fragmentation, and the undermining of national pay and conditions and facility time arrangements has also increased inequality for staff. The British Journal of Sociology has found that academies are more likely than other schools to employ teachers who are unqualified, and the government's own data shows that pay inequality is greater for staff working in academies than in schools under local authority control.
Just as in the NHS, imposing a market on schools was supposedly meant to improve 'efficiency'. The lack of accountability that comes with privatisation instead risks spending being diverted to cronyism and pay rises for those at the top.
Overall, the break-up of state education has been a mechanism to cheapen the cost of education, both by making it easier to cut local authority services, and by driving down staffing costs. Fragmentation of education into many different employers has helped to weaken trade union organisation and undermine nationally agreed pay and conditions.
While, in the initial drive to encourage academy transfers under Tony Blair, financial incentives were provided to encourage schools to convert, academisation is certainly no longer a way for governors to protect themselves from budget cuts. In fact, without the support of a local authority, an academy leaves itself more exposed. The most recent National Audit Office report into schools' financial sustainability - last compiled in 2016 - confirmed that a greater proportion of academies were running annual deficits than local authority maintained schools.
Academisation was sold to schools as a way of giving them 'freedom' from the 'bureaucracy' of a local authority. Certainly, when schools are returned to local democratic control, it must also be done in a way that ensures there is a genuine voice for schools, staff, parents, unions and the wider community.
In reality, academisation has provided no genuine 'freedom' at all. Instead it has allowed greater government centralisation and the growth of unaccountable MATs where parent, staff and student voices are rarely heard.
Once converted, schools become a commodity that can be transferred from one MAT business to another. If parents and governors want to change their mind and return to local authority maintained status, it's too late. The current legislation means that a decision to become an academy is irreversible. What's more, once that transfer has happened, the government is entitled to then transfer a school to a new trust, without any further say by staff, parents and governors. Over a thousand academies have been 'rebrokered' to new trusts in the last five years.
The real solution to ending the chaotic and damaging fragmentation of state education in England is to return all schools to democratic local control. But, until then, remaining maintained schools need to resist the pressure to convert, and develop their own school partnerships instead.
While educational research continues to show that the academisation is failing, it also shows that what really works is genuine partnership between local schools within a local authority.
For example, the successful school improvement initiatives around the London Challenge from 2003-2011 were based on local support for teaching and learning, not academisation.
Of course, if local authority services and education budgets continue to be cut, then the resources needed to meet all students' needs, and to develop genuine partnership and school improvement, will be even harder to find. That's why, in opposing academisation, we also have to fight for education funding and oppose cuts to local authority services.
We must make clear that academisation doesn't provide any way forward. In fact, it is part of a deliberate strategy to help governments drive down the costs of education. Instead, we have to organise to defend all schools fighting academisation and demand a return of all schools to democratic local control, funded to meet the needs of all.
Pupils, staff and parents at Pimlico Academy in south west London have scored another victory for collective action. This follows protests by pupils at the end of March against racist uniform policies, and staff in the National Education Union (NEU) passing a motion of no-confidence in the head.
Head teacher Daniel Smith has now resigned less than a year into the job, and he is not the first Pimlico head to leave in disgrace: in 2014 Jo Shuter faced a teaching ban for misuse of the academies funds (see 'Academy schools have become business ventures'). A day after Smith departed, staff in NEU received the result of their industrial action ballot with 85% voting in favour of strike action. The head may be gone, but staff still have demands on bullying management, and strikes could still take place.
Parents of the school's students have a protest planned for 31 May, to celebrate the victory and to stand in solidarity with staff in their ongoing battle.
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Article dated 26 May 2021
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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