By Howard Stevenson, University of Nottingham
School students in England currently find themselves at the centre of a giant experiment in the marketisation of education, with the real possibility that they will pay for this ideological gamble with their futures. Those least able to bear the cost of policy incompetence look like they will pay the highest price.
England has long acted as a laboratory in which the ideas underpinning education marketisation and privatisation have been incubated and the nation’s students and teachers have been placed as unwilling participants in experiments that are now being exposed as catastrophic failures.
Perhaps this is illustrated most clearly by the growing problems emerging in England’s academy schools and which threaten to blight the educational futures of thousands of children. Academy schools are sometimes described as ‘independent state schools’ because they are in the public system, but are not part of the traditional system of local government.
Funding is received directly from a central government agency and academy schools can determine many decisions for themselves, including those relating to teachers’ pay and employment contracts. The academy school sector now accounts for well over half of all secondary schools, although academisation in the primary school sector is much lower.
The myth of academisation
The original argument offered for ‘academisation’ was that such schools would be ‘set free’ from the bureaucratic ‘control’ of local government. Their autonomy would allow them to innovate more easily and to better reflect the needs of their local communities.
Readers who have experience of such schools elsewhere (such as Charter schools in the USA) will be familiar with the arguments. Critics however see such schools as a staging post to system privatisation – breaking up local and democratic systems, whilst also introducing a range of private companies into the public system.
Certainly the argument that academy schools would be ‘set free’ has been shown to be a myth, perhaps even a hoax. All academy schools are now expected to be part of a larger group of schools (usually referred to as a Multi-Academy Trust or MAT) and in many cases the autonomy enjoyed by individual schools is far less than was previously the case when schools were part of a local government system.
MATs are often scattered and have no obvious geographical identity so schools become disconnected from their communities. These problems are compounded by opaque governance structures and school principals who are often treated as branch managers rather than experienced professionals using their judgement to make complex decisions based on local need.
More recently, the failures caused by the replacement of a system with a market became glaringly transparent when, at the start of the new school year, a large MAT located in the North of England announced it was not able to manage its ‘portfolio’ of 21 schools, and indicated it was ‘returning’ the schools to the government.
The problems faced by Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) were considerable, but, alas, are not unique in the academy sector. Various reports have identified that WCAT was encouraged to grow too quickly, that it delivered poor results for students, had weak governance arrangements, was characterised by a culture of fear and bullying and that it suffered financial mismanagement on a considerable scale.
A campaign of parents, unions and community politicians demanded that the schools were returned to the responsibility of their local councils. Unfortunately it looks as though the schools will be ‘re-brokered’ – an awful term that refers to the way that unelected and unaccountable government officials divvy up schools and allocate them to other MATs without any community input into the decision.
This is the new education marketplace in England. It is a world in which schools act like businesses – creating empires by cherry picking the schools they consider advantageous to their plans for growth whilst off-loading those schools that won’t ‘add value’ to their portfolio.
The inevitable outcome is a deeply divided schools sector in which the gap between the haves, and the have-nots, grows ever wider. The Guardian newspaper recently estimated that 40,000 children are currently in so-called ‘zombie schools’ – academy schools that do not have a sponsor and that other MATs do not want to take on.
It will come as no surprise to learn that these zombie -or ‘orphan’- schools are overwhelmingly located in poorer communities where children most deserve a high-quality school experience.
The situation at WCAT, which remains unresolved, represents a crisis for those involved – creating unacceptable insecurity and uncertainty for students, parents and teachers. However, it also provides an opportunity.
Every day the flaws in the English education experiment become more visible, and public awareness of the resultant damage increases. The challenge is to transform despair and dissatisfaction into a broad coalition for a more hopeful alternative – one that replaces a precarious market with a stable system and in which all students, and all schools, are valued equally.
The education marketplace has created a monster but it is time to end the nightmare. Zombie schools have no place in a high quality public education system and it is time to make the change that puts democratic, public education first.