Today we take an in-depth look at publicly funded independent schools, also known as academies, to understand what they are, why their numbers are growing, and the principal differences between regular state schools and academies.
Academies at a Glance
Academies are primary or secondary education providers in England (no academies exist in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland). As of July 2018, there are 7,369 academies: 4,765 are primary level, 2,256 are secondary level, 268 are special academies (focusing on students with special needs), and 80 are alternative provision academies (focusing on students who are at risk of being or have been permanently excluded from school).
The Context for Academies
An academy is a publicly funded independent school. Unlike regular state schools, academies are not controlled by local authorities (LA). Academies enjoy more freedom than regular state schools over their finances, curriculum and pay. Before the 2010 Academies Act was passed, the government said the conversion to an academy will “give schools the freedoms and flexibilities they need to continue to drive up standards.” Some viewed academies as a way of shifting control from local to central government.
Historically, LAs had strict control over schools within their catchment area. However, as Liberal Democrat Peter Downes (a former secondary school headteacher) explained in 2010, much has changed regarding the power LAs have: “It’s the head and the governors who make the vast majority of the decisions as to how the school functions.” Mr Downes, instead, argued that it was central government’s “highly prescriptive national curriculum… [and] an obsession with targets” that caused the most damage.
Alongside academies, free schools were also introduced. Free schools are essentially academies created from scratch, instead of converted secondary schools. Free schools can be formed by groups of parents, teachers, charities, trusts, religious groups, and voluntary groups. Both academies and free schools are allowed to hire unqualified teachers.
In 2016, then Chancellor, George Osborne, announced a “forced academisation plan,” in which all schools would have to convert or commit to converting by 2022, but the plan was abandoned after criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as teachers.
How Has the Academisation of Education Faired?
Figures from 2016 indicate academies are generally doing well; however, the statistics point to several underlying factors that undoubtedly contributed to the success. The earliest academy figures were based on the government’s pledge to allow only the best performing schools to convert. Likewise, around 70% of secondary academies “were usually doing well before they became academies.”
Sponsored academies, those which concentrate on underperforming schools, showed improvements. Likewise, disadvantaged students also benefited from their respective academy or free school, according to the report by education data company SchoolDash. SchoolDash owner, Timo Hannay, said the results suggested that “good schools [are] staying good and bad schools [are] getting better.”
While results appear equal to or better than the pre-academy days, there are growing concerns about the lack of transparency in academies and multi-academy trusts (MAT). Control of some schools has been forcibly handed to MATs (a set of members and directors that govern a group of schools).
There have been several reports of MATs paying their top-tier staff eye-watering amounts – one MAT chief executive paid himself “£82,000 over a three-month period.” The same trust went on to pay £440,000 to companies owned by the chief executive and his daughter.
Waltham Holy Cross – A Warning?
By taking away LA safeguards, schools have opened up the possibility of questionable practices. One example saw Waltham Holy Cross primary school deemed “inadequate” by Ofsted forcibly turned over to an academy trust. Questions were raised regarding the conversion because the Ofsted report was “shot through with errors”, such as the name of the headteacher and the number of classes. The school had shown signs of improvement, but that made little difference; instead, MAT Net Academies will be given the reins, despite itself having two schools of their academies ranked “inadequate”.
Reports explained how the headteacher of Waltham Holy Cross school had asked their regional schools commissioner (RSC) to visit the school and reconsider the choice of Net Academies because of poor results. The RSC did not take up the headteacher on her offer.
Worryingly, the director of education for the local council also acts as a representative for Net Academies after being a trustee of Net Academies’ previous iteration – New Education Trust. Did the forced conversion have anything to do with their position?
Profiting from Schools?
The logic behind multi-academy trusts is admirable; if one school is performing well, why not share that success and partner with another school? But the shadowy practices in some academies appear to be allowing some to “sidestep laws that prevent people profiting from schools,” Labour MP Jon Trickett told reporter Sonia Sodha.
Just “one in six ‘fat cat’ academy bosses has agreed to cut their salary”; clearly, the practice of making a profit from children’s education is unlikely to change without direct government intervention.
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