Academies – still a controversial issue 20 years on
After almost 20 years since their introduction, we take a look at how academies have changed the landscape of UK education. Brian Crosby, CEO of an academy chain in York, outlines the advantages of school academies while Simon O’Hara from the Anti-Academies Alliance discusses the potential dangers as new research reveals that a third of UK parents would remove their child from school if it converted into an academy…
The academisation of schools has been one of the most contentious issues in British education ever since the policy’s inception in 2000.
The system, which involves schools receiving funding directly from central government instead of their local authority, was initially introduced to improve failing institutions, but, despite such admirable intentions, it has proved highly controversial.
Early in 2019, when it was announced that their school was about to convert into an academy, hundreds of parents, children and teachers in East Sussex protested and eventually managed to overturn the decision.
Interested to discover the scale of this discontent, Oxford Home Schooling recently surveyed 750 UK parents, all with children aged between five and sixteen, about their views on the academy system.
While nearly half (45%) argued that it enables schools to spend funding more wisely, the same number believe that academies care more about profit than child development. More than a third (34%) said they feel strongly enough that they would remove their children from school if it turned into an academy.
To discuss the pros and cons of the academy system, Oxford Home Schooling asked experts on both sides of the debate to explain their opinion.
The advantages of the school academy system
Brian Crosby is the CEO of the Hope Learning Trust in York, an academy chain that runs several primary and secondary schools. He said: “The English education system is taking part in the biggest educational experiment in the last century or certainly since 1948. School leaders are being encouraged to lead their schools and now organise them in ways to form independent, free to students, academy groups to support rapid school improvements.
“It was felt that the existing model was not fit for purpose in driving up standards, especially in struggling schools. The most disadvantaged students were in the worst-performing schools and something had to change.
“My bias is that I am drawn to innovation and change in education, so changing to an academy and later a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) was compelling. But can they do what they are being asked to do and at what price?
“It takes three to five years to turn around a complex underperforming school, and probably seven years to get it firmly embedded as a very good school. The problems can be complex and MATs do not have magic wands. We simply follow great educational practice and there are no quick fixes.
“So what are the advantages? In my experience the biggest advantage is collective responsibility. We are a family of schools working on these issues together. We can share resources, we can share staff, we can share expertise. The best MATs are the ones committed to wholeheartedly embracing the opportunities to work differently for the good of all.
“The worst MATs are castles with a few other schools as a moat to protect the castle, often a large flourishing secondary school. I believe no school should be Ofsted Outstanding without being seriously engaged in transforming a school in difficulty. The major difference in the academy programme is collective responsibility, not externally driven but internally motivated.”
The disadvantages of school academies
Simon O’Hara is a spokesperson for the Anti-Academies Alliance. He said: “There is a profound crisis in education. The current system of neoliberal education has failed. Academisation – the flagship of marketisation – is mired in corruption, cronyism and outright failure. The exam-factory system is failing our children and the recruitment and retention of teachers and other school staff is reaching crisis point. School funding cuts continue to wreak havoc on those least able to defend themselves.
“The government is bereft of ideas to solve these and many other problems, but it continues to see privatisation as the answer. That’s why we need a concerted effort to bring an end to academisation. The rapid conversion of state schools to academies since 2010 has resulted in the majority of such schools having less freedom than before and a significant loss of accountability to parents, to communities and to those who work in them.
“We face an entrenched and undemocratic ‘education ruling class’ who have power and control over vast swathes of the education system. It will take a huge social movement of staff, parents, students and communities to shift them.”
Dr Nick Smith, principal at Oxford Home Schooling, said: “The academisation of schools has been, and continues to be, one of the most controversial issues in British education in recent years.
“While there are a number of benefits to the initiative, like schools being able to spend funding in ways that are best for their community, there is clearly a large and growing proportion of parents that are against the idea.
“Our research has highlighted how strongly people feel about the topic. With this in mind, schools and academy leaders would be wise to consult with parents to address their doubts about the system before forcing institutions to change their identity.”
To read more information about Oxford Home Schooling’s research on school academies, visit: oxfordhomeschooling.co.uk