By Howard Stevenson, University of Nottingham, UK
Earlier this year the UK government published its plans for school reform in England in a White Paper – Educational Excellence Everywhere (DfE, 2016). Within the UK education policy is a matter for individual nations and so policy paths differ significantly across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England has long been considered as in the vanguard of the drive towards a privatised system of public education, and the White Paper seeks the acceleration of that process.
The school system in England highlights all the complexities of the contemporary privatisation agenda in public education systems. Private companies are seldom conspicuous in the system, and in law it is not possible for any part of the public system to be provided directly on a ‘for-profit’ basis. However, in reality private companies are present in almost every aspect of the English public education system, and considerable, and increasing, amounts of public funds are being siphoned out of the system into private hands.
The most obvious way in which English education is being privatised is through the creation of academy and free schools. These are schools that have been removed from local government control and are run as ‘independent schools’ funded directly by central government. A free school is the name given to a newly established (rather than ‘converted’) academy school. Academy schools were introduced by a Labour government as a ‘turn around’ strategy for inner city schools facing persistent problems. In 2010 the Conservative-led Coalition government encouraged all schools to become academies. ‘Successful’ schools could choose to become academies on their own, whilst schools considered ‘failing’ (by the inspection process) had to be ‘sponsored’ as academies by a successful school. At the end of the 2010-15 Coalition government a majority of all secondary schools had become academies, but only 15% of primary schools had done so.
The government’s White Paper is committed to every school becoming an academy by 2022, with school communities having no choice in the matter. Moreover, it was made clear that every individual academy should be part of a group of schools – often called a Multi-Academy Trust.
The government’s commitment to academy schools is based on a claim that ‘academisation’ (a clumsy term, but one that is now part of everyday educationspeak in England) will drive up standards, and the White Paper is replete with references to England becoming a ‘world class’ education system. There is however, no evidence base to support this claim. International evidence cited in support of this agenda used to include admiring references to the Swedish free school system, but these references have been quietly dropped. Within England the influential House of Commons Education Select Committee was forced to concede ‘There is at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools’, whilst the Committee Chair (and Conservative MP) asserted ‘current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children’ (BBC, 2015).
So why the drive to academisation?
The answer lies in understanding that academisation is not about quality education for all but about a fundamental transformation of the English school system whereby public schools are transferred into private hands – initially on a ‘not for profit’ basis, but in due course . . . . ?
The process is initially gradual as individual schools are forced to become academy schools and in due course all schools are drawn into Multi-Academy Trusts. In turn these Trusts become larger and larger. Indeed, the proposed legislation makes reversing these processes extraordinarily difficult and so a one way route to increased concentration and monopolisation is virtually institutionalised.
This new so-called ‘school-led system’ is intended to blur the lines between public and private, and thereby open the substantial ‘market’ that is English public education to private capital. The large ‘academy chains’ illustrate these tendencies clearly. ARK is an academy chain established by a group of hedge fund managers. A past Chairman, and current Trustee, is Lord Fink. He is also treasurer of the Conservative Party and one of the party’s 20 largest donors. Another chain, Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) has previously proposed a Joint Venture with a for-profit organisation which would have resulted in a large amount of its so-called ‘back office services’ being contracted out. This did not proceed in the face of widespread condemnation (and a joint union campaign), but it illustrates clearly a direction of travel. In September 2015 Dubai-based GEMS Education, the world’s largest for-profit provider of schooling, opened its first academy school in England, under the auspices of GEMS Education Solutions, the companys’ ‘public sector management and delivery arm’. Another GEMS academy school is planned for September 2016.
What is clear is that there is now a plethora of private sector organisations deeply embedded within the English public education system and strategically placed to expand rapidly if, or more likely when, the restriction on ‘for profit’ provision is lifted.
These commercial organisations already operate in very different ways to traditional public education schools in England. They are exempt from local government control, but they also have a diminishing input from parents and community members on governing bodies. Governance is increasingly through the Trust with a clear shift towards business rather than professional interests. Multi-Academy Trusts are direct employers of individual teachers and as such are being strongly encouraged to exercise their new-found institutional ‘freedoms’ in relation to teachers’ pay and conditions of service. The drive to 100% academisation would mean the complete break up of any system of national pay and conditions for teachers and the emergence of a hugely fragmented employee relations framework. The role of unions in such a system is unclear, but there can be no doubt that the fragmentation of the system is intended to divide, and to create a hostile environment for union organisation. Teacher unions have already had to wage a number of disputes in order to defend their right to be recognised and to represent their members.
The analysis presented here is of importance to teachers elsewhere in the world. England is not a ‘high performing’ system, but that does not stop many of the policies introduced into English schooling being replicated all over the world in different places and in different forms. Rightly or wrongly, English education policy has a disproportionate impact on education systems across the world with many of its policies copied with barely any suggestion of local adaptation. England is currently in the vanguard of a particular type of education reform in which marketization and privatisation are its defining features. Across the world the ‘edu-preneurs’ will be watching England closely with a view to seeing how public education systems can be opened up to those who seek to make a private profit from the provision of a public good. That is why it is not possible to easily dismiss developments in English school sector policy.
However, despite all the political capital being mobilised to drive this agenda forward, the aspirations articulated in the White Paper have encountered stiff resistance and the government has already been forced into making an important retreat from its commitment to 100% academisation. Teacher unions have emerged at the heart of an alliance that includes parents, local government politicians and others, all of whom see a system of education provision based on public service values being hijacked and passed into the hands of corporate interests.
The government’s retreat is obviously expedient, and it clearly remains committed, in principle, to a public system of schooling with no local democratic control. That said, the range of forces opposed to these developments have already struck a notable success, and if they can maintain the broad alliance that has emerged in this campaign, it may well be that the tide of privatisation in the English school system can be turned. The outcomes are far from certain, but there is everything to play for.
BBC (2015) No proof academies raise standards say MPs. Available online here
DfE (2016) Education excellence everywhere, DfE. Available online here