The concept of academies in the UK has a history that spans both Labour and Conservative administrations, and as a result its original objective have now been almost lost. This raises the point of just how much is now understood by parents and the population in general – and what questions remain unanswered.
Originally it was Labour who promoted the idea, advanced by the now Lord Adonis, of the provision of academies, in an attempt to improve education in certain deprived areas that were specifically identified. However, from the start it did have an aspect, popular with Tony Blair at the time, of recruiting an element of sponsorship from industry and commerce at the same time, It was to be a contribution of 10% of the cost of providing the necessary new buildings and additional resources. It was an evolutionary move , in a sense, of supplementing the then well-established comprehensive system, although there was always some apprehension from some quarters about the existence of private interest.
However, a case could be made that industry and commerce should be encouraged to get involved in the production of those they would eventually employ. Currently, the situation is further clouded by that fact that such a reputable and thoughtful commentator as Will Hutton has recently stated that he is converted by Adonis in his crusade. This decision is based purely on the sweeping belief that academies provide a better standard of education, without consideration of many other related issues.
The situation now is that Michael Gove appears to be making policy almost on the hoof, so to speak, with little or no cabinet input – so that the general educational scene is being sweepingly changed now and in the long term. The major matter of principle that has changed is that free schools and academies can now be set up anywhere, regardless of overall local need, simply by a proposal from a sponsor, supported by some parents. Initially academies were to come from a revamped existing school in need of support, but now academies and free schools can be created from scratch, no existing institution being required, or whether the local authority perceived the need or not. How this fact will ultimately reflect back on local authority long-term planning is yet to be revealed.
There are many reasons why the whole concept of academies and free schools must ultimately be divisive to the national educational system, from the points of view of both teachers and pupils. Some of these rest on the fact that academies have different terms of reference for conditions of employment, pay, and general ‘hiring and firing’, as well as the selection of pupils who attend.. These are well set out on the NUT website. From the point of view of staff, they will then be faced with the choice of remaining in the state system or being tempted away by higher salaries, or for some other reason, into academies, although in them there is no guarantee of any statutory pay scales, for example, or regulated hours of working. From the point of view of some pupils with special needs, there appears to be no assurance that ‘statementing’, which attracts money from the local authority, will remain ‘ring-fenced’.
Some sponsors are described as non-profit-making, but this is not a requirement. In Sweden in very recent weeks there have been reports of at least one group of academies becoming insolvent. Who picks up the pieces then? If free school sponsors have found the secrets of improved education why has the state not recognised these too, and adopted them in their own schools. If not, what are academies ‘selling’? From the point of view of Labour, there is the major objection that free schools are selective, so are a distinct retreat from a cherished concept that had been responsible for the creation of comprehensive schools in the first place. Michael Gove’s passion for examination results as a measure of good education stands strangely contrary to the fact that no qualifications are a necessity for employment as a teacher, or even a head, in his academy schools. What sort of logic is that?
There is clearly a case for a focussed campaign by Labour against such wholesale application of an idea that has become so distorted and so contrary to the original basic educational tenets of the party.