C8 – Academies a failed experiment

The Failed Academy Project.

With a second Academies Bill being driven through parliament, the end of November 2015 sees dogma running riot at Westminster. Although Labour still fails to see that the Academy-Free School Movement has failed badly, that is the reality. Bringing Academy schools in all their guises under Local Authority control which is the current policy is contradictory, since the essence of the programme is to remove them from democratic accountability. And Local Authorities will not survive with their funding cut to the point they have only marginal staffing. But the future is still uncertain. The present poses a more substantial question – why given that Nick Gibb has admitted as Schools Minister that there is no reason to think Academy schools perform better than maintained schools – and evidence they perform worse – why in the Westminster bubble is the reality not understood, despite the reality that Naomi Fearon underlines in this article? TF

Academies and Free Schools – A failed experiment in education

Naomi Fearon

At the end of Autumn 2015, there are over four thousand academies in England. Originally introduced by New Labour back in 2000 in order to support failing schools in socially deprived areas, academies have long since remained a controversial topic. Touted by governments as the miraculous magic answer to improving standards and loathed quite rightly by teaching unions opposed to their undemocratic nature and the neo-liberal free market approach they are constructed around. ‘Academies equals success’ has been the long repeated mantra for many years now, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is the only approach to education and LEA controlled state schools have been an all-round epic failure, yet statistically does this add up?

Well in a word, no. A report by the cross party education select committee earlier on this year showed that there was no evidence so far that academies raised standards for either disadvantaged pupils or overall. In addition to this, the Local Schools Network data showed that a primary school rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted is 12 times more likely to remain ‘inadequate’ at its next inspection if it becomes a sponsored academy than if it had remained a maintained school. Secondary-sponsored academies are four times as likely to remain inadequate when next inspected. Even Nick Gibb, Minister of State for Schools, conceded in September of this year that: “This government does not believe that all academies and free schools are necessarily better than maintained schools.” *

* Reported in Schools Week: Speech to the Ed Research conference, September 5th 2015

On top of the damning statistical evidence, the education select committee also recognised the serious lack of transparency, conflicts of interest with regards governance as well as inadequate oversight. A prime example of this being the Durand Academy Trust (DAT) which runs the Durand Academy in London as well as a boarding school in West Sussex. Not only was it served its final notice to improve from the Education Funding Agency (EFA), which is responsible for funding and monitoring academies but the linked Durand Education Trust (DET) is currently being investigated by the Charities Commission over what it describes as ‘lack of separation’ between the two charities as well as concerns over the lack of oversight of its investment assets. If this wasn’t scandalous enough, earlier on this year it was discovered that the academy’s Headteacher Sir Greg Martin ran a dating agency registered as the school’s address.

Free schools, the hideous turbo-charged offspring of academies with a penchant for employing unqualified teachers fare little better, The Anti-Academies Alliance April 2015 briefing noted that Ofsted has inspected 76 free schools and rated 30% as ‘Requiring Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’. Ofsted’s 2013/14 Annual Report on Schools said:“Free schools succeed or fail for broadly the same reasons as all other types of school”. In other words: free schools are no more likely to be outstanding or inadequate than other schools.

It is also worth noting that it is the decision of the Secretary of State to open a free school, not the LEA, with very little regard given to community views even when impact assessments have shown they may be detrimental to local schools. According to evidence provided to the Education Select Committee, “35% of the first four waves of free schools were in districts with no forecast need and that 52% were in districts with either no forecast need or only moderate need”. In other words a fair few free schools have been opened in areas where there is no shortage of school places at the expense of the taxpayer. It is difficult to mention free schools without noting some of the scandals they have been involved in, with one of the most notable being The Durham Free School.

The Durham Free School, which was set up in 2012, and founded upon Christian principles was closed earlier this year when it was found to be ‘inadequate’ in all areas of its Ofsted report. Originally lauded by Michael Gove upon its opening it was found by inspectors to be inadequate as a result of bullying, religious bigotry and financial mismanagement. In addition to the less than glowing statistics and media scandals, one criminally ignored aspect of the academies model for education is their attitude towards equality. The 2014 TUC report ‘Education Not for Sale’ found that while attitudes towards equality is a concern for all schools, academies were particularly prone to ignoring their Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). A 2013 study by Race on the Agenda (ROTA) commissioned by the teaching union NASUWT found that less than a quarter of them referred to their PSED duties, with an even lower figure for free schools. The TUC report also found that a number of cases whereby Free Schools had rejected the admission of disabled pupils and claimed their funding agreements exempted them from the appeal procedure. Furthermore, fewer than a quarter of free schools seem to know about the 2010 Equalities Act, and their duty to promote equality for women, black, LGBT and disabled pupils and staff.

All this paints a less than idyllic picture for the academies and free schools programme. The newly appointed shadow education secretary Lucy Powell stated in an interview with the Times Educational Supplement that handing control of schools back to local, democratically-elected officials would be at the “heart” of future Labour policy. Jeremy Corbyn’s position on academies has always been clear having been a staunch opponent to them since their introduction. Jeremy in his own words has stated, “Why was it believed the ability to run a business, to sell cars or carpets might make you best-placed to run a school?” Quite right Jeremy, quite right.