Jacob Sammon makes the case against academies, arguing how they disproportionately have a negative impact on students from working class backgrounds.
When Gove and Cummings took over the Department for Education in 2010, Cummings reported, via an op-ed in The Times, that a senior official ‘spat out’ at him: “You’re a mutant virus, I’m the immune system and it’s my job to expel you from the organism”. If only said senior official had been successful.
Gove, via the Academies Act 2010, reformed academies to allow any state school to become one. Academies receive funding from the state, but have a very high degree of autonomy. They report directly to the Department for Education, rather than the Local Education Authority, via a charitable company trust.
Initially, most schools converting to academy status were outstanding comprehensives (and state grammars), such as Holland Park School, often referred to in the tabloids as the ‘Socialist Eton’. Educating the children of politicians (notably those of Michael Gove and John Bercow), in flashy new buildings, and at the top of the result tables, the school converted to academy status in 2013, after an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating the year prior. A rags-to-riches story, the school was previously heavily criticised by Ofsted, but new headteacher Colin Hall had, seemingly, turned it all around.
But Gove wasn’t satisfied.
The Government began pressuring these ‘outstanding’ academies to form ‘chains’ of schools, whereby a charitable trust would take control of more than one school, called a multi-academy trust (MAT). The idea was that ‘best practice’ could be easily spread, and Cummings believed this would leach Whitehall of its powers over education, as private companies would run schools.
80% of secondary schools and 40% of primary schools are now academies, most part of these MAT ‘chains’. Over half of all pupils across England attend an academy, with a large proportion of the 80% of secondary schools which are academies having had being forced into their status, and forced under an MAT, as the Department for Education now forces an ‘Academy Order’ upon any school which does not receive a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating. Parents’ and governors’ wishes to keep the school under the LEA can be overrode, and once a school is an academy, it cannot change MAT unless its MAT collapses (at which point the Department for Education appoints a new one), and cannot – ever – go back to being under the LEA.
Alas, academies have failed to provide the life-changing, social mobility-inducing results which so many advocates promised. Semi-privatisation of our schools has failed. Whilst some MATs prosper, a very large proportion are nepotistic, corrupt, failing institutions, which run free due to their distinct lack of oversight, and fail hundreds-of-thousands of, especially working-class, pupils.
For instance, MAT directors and academy ‘principals’ have been revealed to claim salaries which place them in the top 1% of earners, often three times higher than what their LEA-maintained school counterparts earn. Colin Hall at the aforementioned Holland Park School was raking in £290,000 for a single, under-2,000 pupil school.
Academies and MATs decide salaries themselves, and are not required to follow pay grades, as LEA-maintained schools are. The issue got so bad that the Government had to ask 213 academy bosses to reduce their ‘excessive pay’.
Chains like Outwood Grange Academies Trust (OGAT) have been accused, by their own teachers, of running “flattening the grass” assemblies with the intent of public humiliation. The Guardian revealed in 2019 that de facto MAT policy was for members of the MAT’s executive to come into new schools and “scream at the children, shouting in their faces in an intimidating fashion”, in order to create a pretext to exclude the pupils.
Excluding children with behavioural issues is a key tool for MATs to increase results and Ofsted ratings. Rather than offering a safe environment with reasonable discipline, and involving other agencies where appropriate, they prefer to deny children with behavioural issues an education. And it is much harder for local authorities (whose responsibility it becomes to aid these children) to force academies to take on problem children, as they can with their own schools.
Indeed, Outwood Academy Ormesby excluded 41% of its pupils in one academic year (2016-17), the highest in the UK. Of the 45 schools which excluded over 20% of their pupils in that same time period, nine were Outwood academies, and the overwhelming majority of the rest were also academies. Harrowing accounts of pupils spending more than a month of school time in isolation booths also hold merit.
And, yet, despite public humiliation, mediocre or poor progress from primary school, and denying education to a large minority of pupils, the majority of OGAT’s academies have Ofsted ‘good’ ratings. Arguably, Ofsted has become corrupt – LEA-maintained schools fail their inspections, and are forced to become academies, whilst academies exclude pupils and marginally raise exam results, gaining shining ratings.
Proponents of the academy system argue that everything done by the all-mighty MAT is justified, so long as they’re improving Ofsted results and exam outcomes. Alas, even this is not happening.
The LGA commissioned research this year, which showed that 92% of LEA-maintained schools got ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted ratings, versus 85% of academies (graded after their conversion). And only 45% of schools which were academies in August 2018 raised standards, versus 56% of LEA-maintained schools. LEA-maintained schools are also 9% more likely to retain an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating.
What’s more, academies have greater control over admissions. Several cases have been reported of, especially high-performing, academies refusing the admission of children with special needs, and children in local-authority care. The latter is such an issue that the Education Secretary had to intervene 28 times between March 2017 and May 2018, to force academies to take on these children.
Even high-performing academies aren’t immune from problems. The flagship Holland Park School came crashing down spectacularly last year, after staff revealed a ‘toxic’ culture, culminating in headteacher Colin Hall resigning, and an independent enquiry revealing ‘safeguarding breaches, discrimination, bullying and favouritism’. Public humiliation seems deep embedded in the academy system, as the report also revealed ‘… staff and students publicly humiliated’. Ofsted questionnaires reporting issues, submitted by staff, parents, and pupils, were destroyed by the academy.
And, yet, with this mountain of evidence showing a flawed system, which operates in a dangerous manner, affecting millions of school children, the Government is ploughing forward with new legislation to mandate that all schools become academies by 2030; it’s clear to see that this will have catastrophic impacts on pupils across the country, and disproportionately affect those of a working-class background.
Jacob Sammon is a student interested in politics and history. Jacob is keenly interested in education reform, as it affects us all, and which, done wrong, ruins lives. He is a member of the Labour Party and Fabian Society. He tweets at @jacob_smmn.