Given all the changes which have occurred in the English education system particularly since the Labour government’s introduction of academies in 2000 it is not surprising that urban myths abound about the current state of the English education system. Among these myths are :
“Academies are run for big companies to profit from.”
“Academies get rid of the bureaucracy of education and allow schools freedom.”
“Free schools are selective because they are set up by the better off or the more ambitious parents in a community for their kids and not for children from poorer families.”
Just how mythical are these ? Here is some recent, though not necessarily conclusive, compelling or comprehensive evidence concerning these matters.
Academies and Free Schools
Academies are publicly funded schools which operate outside of local authority control. The government describes them as independent state-funded schools. Essentially, academies have more freedom than other state schools over their finances, the curriculum, and teachers’ pay and conditions. Under the Labour government these were existing schools – often those considered to be under performing – which elected to move out of local authority control. An academy requires a sponsor – usually these are commercial organisations – which agrees a sum to which it underwrites the school’s finances. Free Schools are in essence the same as academies, they are set up and funded in the same way directly from central government. They are often called academies but they are usually set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities, trusts, religious and voluntary groups.
Who benefits in the new education system?
The usual government response to those who claim that the increasing number of free schools and academies set up by funds from the public purse is leading to the privatization of our public education system is that these schools are not privatized because they are legally required to be charities and the “for profit” organisations which run and sponsor them have set up charities which in a technical sense own the schools, and so these parent companies cannot and do not make money from their involvement with these schools. Recent evidence suggests this response lies firmly on the spurious side of dubious is counter to evidence concerning the relationship between public services and private organisations in education.
Many of the early sponsored academies which were established first by the Labour government were from the start under pressure to buy services from their sponsors, while the majority of these sponsors failed to honour their financial pledges to the schools (National Audit Office,2014).
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information requests showed that state-funded academies chains have paid millions of pounds to closely associated businesses, directors, trustees and directors (Benn,2015). One of the many examples of this was highlighted by The Guardian in 2014 when it reported that Grace Academy, which operates 3 schools in the Midlands of England and was set up by a Conservative Party supporter, Lord Edmiston, had paid more than a million pounds to closely associated businesses, owned or controlled by Lord Edmiston, to members of the board of trustees and to the relatives of trustees. Leigh Academy Trust, run by the national schools commissioner, Frank Green has from 1910, paid over a £111,000 in consultancy fees, to Shoreline, a private company founded by Frank Green. Aurora Academies Trust paid over £213,000 to Mosaica Education for educational services, reimbursement of travel expenses and for use of its Paragon curriculum resource; three of the Aurora directors have a direct or indirect interest in Mosaica Education. Though these dealings were heavily criticised by the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, they are not illegal !
A claim made for Free Schools is that they are more likely to be set up in deprived areas and on the face of it this seems a good thing. An important question is however not just “Where is a school set up ?” but also “Who is admitted to the school?”
A recent wide ranging study by the Institute of Education led by Frances Green concluded, “That free schools were being established in relatively poor areas but recruiting fewer poorer pupils from those areas than might have been expected if selection had been random.” (Green et al, 2015, p8)
One example of this was found in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets where in one free school 4.4% of the children were eligible for free school meals while the figure for all schools in Tower Hamlets in 2014 was 69%.
With a government whose constant mantra has been to improve the education of poor children, it is sobering to read the LSE/University of Manchester assessment of the government’s performance since 2010. The study concludes that there is a trend toward the narrowing of the school curriculum which excludes children with interests not covered by the traditionally academic subjects. It also observes,
“Inequalities in educational outcomes are affected by family poverty and by government policies on curriculum and assessment as well as by the pupil premium, for the most disadvantaged pupils. The fact that the gap between poorer, low achieving pupils and the rest has widened despite the government’s efforts to close it should give cause for concern”.
Benn, Melissa (2015) “Who runs our schools?” correspondence in The London Review of Books Vol 37, No 12 June 12th, 2015
Green.F., Allen R., & Jenkins, A. (2015) “Are Free Schools Social Selective? A Quantitive Analysis.’ Centre for Research on Learning and Life Chances Institute for Education Accessed at http://www.llakes.ac.uk/sites/llakes.ac.uk/files/Are_Free_Schools_Socially_Selective_original.pdfon June 11th, 2015
London School of Economics and the University of Manchester (2015) The Coalition’s Record on Schools: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 2010-2015 accessed at http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/spcc/wp13.pdf on June 10th, 2015
National Audit Office, (2014) Academies and maintained schools : Oversight and intervention accessed at http://www.nao.org.uk/report/academies-and-maintained-schools-oversight-and-intervention/ on June 11th, 2015
Syal, Rajeev. (2014) “Revealed: taxpayer-funded academies paying millions to private firms” in The Guardian January 12th, 2014 Accessed at http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jan/12/taxpayer-funded-academy-paying-millions-private-firms-schools-education-revealed-education on June 10th, 2015