The academies programme is a political attack on state education, writes Alex Snowdon
In one sense it is a shock that George Osborne has used his budget to announce plans for turning every state school into an academy. This wasn't part of the predictions. But in another sense it is to be expected: this has been the direction of travel for a long time. Labour introduced the academies programme and the Tories - first in coalition, now with a Commons majority - have accelerated academy conversion.
Control of what happens in schools has never been more centralised than it is in 2016. That's after years of academy conversions, a process that is supposed to be about local autonomy - cutting bureaucracy and putting teachers in charge of schools.
Yet we see heavy interference from the Department for Education in all matters relating to curriculum and assessment. Recently we even had Nick Gibb, schools minister, intervening directly in a controversy over when year 2 children can, and cannot, use exclamation marks! Ofsted is used as a tool of compliance in schools; high-stakes testing, performance management and performance related pay all play their part, too, in enforcing narrow, rigid orthodoxies.
The whole academies programme has always had scope for allowing private business into the public sphere of schooling, enabling them to profit from education. This is wrong in principle and, if the government is allowed to pursue forced academisation, we will no doubt see numerous examples of unscrupulous characters profiting from the further carving up of our schools system.
It also doesn’t work on the government’s own declared terms of raising standards. There is damning evidence that academies are in fact more likely to remain stuck in Ofsted’s ‘inadequate’ category, for example. But this has never been about improving schools or raising standards. It is a highly political attack on state education and many of the values and practices that have long been embedded in it, as well as a means of opening up public services to those seeking private profit.
The Tories have tried cajoling schools into converting for years. They have tried threats and bribery. Much of this effort has paid off, but many headteachers, governors and school staff have remained resistant - often supported by parents who simply want a good school for their children and don't (quite reasonably) see how the chimera of being an academy will make the slightest possible difference.
Insisting that every school becomes an academy can only make things worse. Increased central control is combined with the illusion of autonomy, more competition between schools, and greater fragmentation. The government trumpets multi-academy chains as a way for schools to work together. What's wrong with a local education authority? Other policies and trends - like league tables, the continuance of Ofsted and competition over school admissions - cut directly against the co-operative ethos and discourage schools from supporting each other.
What's needed, instead, is quite simple. We need a good local school for every child, with schools working together co-operatively, publicly accountable, and supported constructively by all possible means. There are examples of local authorities, or other networks of (non-academy) schools, that illustrate how schools can share successful practices, co-operate, and learn from each other. It doesn’t help, however, that local government has been devastated by cuts for the several years. We need increased funding for local education authorities so they can properly support schools.
To resist - and stop - the Tories' fresh assault we will need organisation, unity and dedication. Previously they have got away with it largely because there has been no nationally co-ordinated programme of academy conversion. The Tories are taking a risk here, triggering potential for a generalised response. The teaching unions need to work together to make that potential a reality.
Labour has consistently been weak on this issue. That hasn't changed substantially since Jeremy Corbyn's leadership election victory: Lucy Powell, shadow education secretary, has had little to say about anything at all, including academies. Thankfully Labour's initial response to the latest development is one of clear opposition, but the party will need sustained pressure to make it a priority, and to join with unions and campaign groups in building real opposition.
The key to success for teaching unions will be combining cross-union cooperation with building a broader coalition involving parents and the wider community. This is not simply, or even primarily, an issue affecting teachers, but one with an impact on the education that current and future generations have access to. The stakes are high - the fight is on.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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