The academisation of the English state school system has arguably been the most significant structural reform since comprehensivisation hit its peak in the 1970s. The academies programme had its roots in the City Colleges programme, legislated in 1988 but with only 15 opening owing to considerable expectations of investment from the private sector. Its failure meant that its legislative framework escaped repeal on New Labour’s election in 1997: this framework provided the key characteristics of subsequent academies, including autonomy from the local authority (LA) and the right to act as admissions authority, define pay and working conditions for staff, disregard the national curriculum and hire unqualified teachers — policy-makers attempting to recreate the conditions that favour entrepreneurialism in the neoliberal belief that this will solve educational, as well as economic problems. The majority of academies presently do not have a sponsor; nonetheless, the academies programme is inescapably collocated discursively at least with privatisation.
To discuss this, the first Manchester Education Debate of 2015 welcomed four speakers: Professor Becky Francis, director of the Academies Commission, which reported in 2013; Professor Helen Gunter, author of, inter alia, “The State and Education Policy: The Academies Programme”; Heather Loveridge, Assistant Executive Director of Education at Tameside MBC; and Mervyn Wilson, CEO of the Co-operative College. Just as in former debates, these speakers represented a range of positions on one of the most pressing questions in education today.
Mervyn positioned himself as an activist resisting the premise and symbolism of academies: he pointed out that ‘structural change does not change the demographics in some of our most disadvantaged communities’, and yet he rather magnificently embodies the Co-operative’s pointedly structural counterblast. His movement represents an attempt at the structuralisation of democratic schooling which ‘puts the community back into community schools’, and has managed to do so even incorporating academies.
Heather’s LA of Tameside achieved some notoriety recently when, following Sir Michael Wilshaw’s denunciation of Tameside schools’ performance, its officers took the opportunity to pose the perfectly reasonable question of why the LA should be held to account for schools which are autonomous from it. Tonight, she revealed that the relationship that LAs have with the academies in their quasi-jurisdiction is complicated. They are obliged to maintain strategic oversight, but it is hard to get through the door of underperforming academies — and as Becky pointed out, there is little evidence that academies do any better than maintained schools. Heather confirmed that in her LA, they are seeing problems highlighted by the Academies Commission concerning admissions and exclusions for vulnerable children or those with special educational needs. Quite simply, academies are finding ways not to have these children on their roll.
In light of this, it is quite difficult to accept Becky Francis’ claim that for most school leaders of academies, little has changed, since the greater proportion of these converted to academy status and have not used their “freedoms”. Becky argued that consequently, it is ‘important to challenge assumptions of privatisation and marketisation’. This seems to me to be overlooking the more widespread phenomenon of corporatisation, which my own research into the diversification of educational provision has uncovered (Courtney, forthcoming). Even where there is no private-sector sponsor, or where the school is LA-maintained, there is a growing tendency for headteachers to value corporate ways of thinking about and doing leadership. In part, this is because the reduction in the capacity of LAs described by Heather has meant that, inside or outside the academy system, headteachers are having to take on responsibilities that position them as CEOs: tendering for bids, managing contracts and working out buy-backs. In this regard, academisation is simply the latest stage in the CEO-ification of headship which started with local management of schools (LMS) in 1988. Heads are not necessarily unhappy about this: as Becky rightly argues, they largely value the autonomy that accompanies this. Nevertheless, these practices facilitate ever more pronounced corporatised leadership. Governors are increasingly sought for their corporate background and skills, and school leaders pay more attention to these. Educational processes, curricula, pedagogies and objectives are constructed as irrelevant and contrasted with the ‘real-life’ challenges and technologies provided by industrial and commercial experiences and partners, who are sought out and valued. Successful headteachers, even of maintained schools, may become accredited as National Leaders of Education (NLE) and hire themselves out as consultants after the corporate model. These are not small changes in the way school leaders understand their identity and practice.
These concerns are shared by Helen Gunter, who used the rather marvellous metaphor of the “Get this look for less” feature in Hello! magazine to make the point that academies represent merely a simulacrum of what is currently constructed in policy as a quality education — that provided in the independent sector. Just like the cheaper handbag in Hello!, academies offer the appearance of the lifestyle that we desire but cannot have. Helen painted a picture of what the future would look like in education should this continue to be the direction of travel for policy. In this vision, there is de-regulation, education vouchers and stratification, with poor children getting the Aldi version, the middle earners topping up and the super-rich, excused from having to pay for other children’s education, still able to go to Harrow.
It was clear by the end of the debate that the field is polarised and energised by what is happening to schools in England. Whether this is, as Becky suggested, a ‘last hurrah for structures’ before the policy focus settles again on teaching and learning, or whether Helen’s observation is true that last hurrah’s often turn out post-hoc to be a hiccough rather than an end, it is evident that academisation will continue to be a contested phenomenon.