New schools might seem like cause for celebration, but critics say academies could do more harm than good. Academy schools, first established in 2000, operate independently from the Local Education Authority and are funded by central government and also, on most occasions, by a private sponsor. Around 100 of these schools exist in the UK today, with private sponsors ranging from profitable multinational companies to religious organisations. They provide money which government lacks for the construction of new school buildings, and in return, get a major say in how the schools are run and ownership of the buildings they fund. Additionally, all academies have a specialist subject area which is often linked to the main sponsor.
This has led to concerns over curriculum bias. A high incidence of faith-related organisations providing sponsorship could, say some, lead to religious bias in the way schools are run and fuel segregation in local communities. Academies are not required to follow the National Curriculum but merely to provide a “broad and balanced” curriculum. Some think academies’ specialisation in industry-targeted subjects could threaten academic learning and may foster less, not more, flexibility for pupils, as their education could become heavily targeted towards the specific interests of sponsors.
While many are happy to put such concerns aside and celebrate the new source of cash for underfunded schools, recent examples show the pitfalls in giving companies with little or no experience in running schools the power to dictate what is taught.
In September a £30 million academy in Sheffield was branded “inadequate” in all categories by Ofsted inspectors, who criticised the Academy’s leadership and management. Bad news for other academies. The United Learning Trust, the academy’s biggest sponsor, is an Anglican charity sponsoring multiple schools. Westminster Academy, which cost £27 million to build in 2006, had exam results that were “exceptionally low” last year. Groups such as the Association of Teachers and Lecturers say these cases illustrated the fact that part privatising education provision won’t automatically solve deep rooted problems.
Academies have also been criticised for a lack of transparency and democracy. Sponsors can largely appoint whoever they want to be on the board of governors. Only one governor is required to be an elected parent. Funding agreements for academies are not available for parents to view during the negotiation stage, only afterwards. This is significant as the agreement sets out details about crucial aspects of the school’s governance such as staffing and admissions rules.
Public-Private Partnerships such as academies are promoted on the basis that they save money, but as with so many other sold-off public services, the government has been forced to provide extra funds to ailing academies. Following the failure of the Richard Rose academy in Carlisle last month the government “made resources available” to put the academy “back on track” and said it would step in and order action where academies are failing. Schools minister Jim Knight was forced to acknowledge that some academies have struggled with a legacy of low performance. “The road to improvement can be a long one,” he said.
Last year Ed Balls announced that 638 ‘failing’ schools would be given until 2011 to improve or be closed; 26 of these were academies, out of the then total 83 academies that were open.
In August 2009 GCSE results did show academies’ results had risen faster than national average over the past year – the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs including Maths and English rose by 5.1 percentage points. However, critics argue that if other schools had been given the same massive injection of cash as academies then they too could have improved to a similar degree.
This summer’s national results also show that the number of non-academy schools failing to get 30 per cent of their grades as good GCSEs has fallen from 440 to 280. Reporting this apparent improvement in standards, the Anti Academies Alliance said it hopes it will help protect more schools from being turned into academies. Talking to the Guardian, Chris Keates, head of teaching union NASUWT, said: “In terms of results there’s no evidence academies do any better or worse overall than other schools.”
In September schools secretary Ed Balls dropped the £2 million entry fee for setting up new academies. Critics affirm that this is because there has been a lack of take-up due to the recession, threatening New Labour’s plans for increasing the number of academies. Many worry that improvements in education may now be dependant on the free market.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, told reporters: “It’s a sign of desperation in terms of the number of sponsors who are prepared to be involved in running schools. £2 million just isn’t there for the taking in these lean times.”
Teaching unions did however welcome legislation that will increase scrutiny of companies applying to run schools. As Blower added: “The changes Ed has made are welcome but they are also an admission that all the things they had in the first place weren’t a good idea.” However, none of the companies running academies in Manchester will be subject to this scrutiny since they came into being before the new legislation.