the Anarchist Federation in Manchester

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On Academies

I think some reflection on the issue of academies will be interesting for those of you working on education.  It has turned out to be a lot longer than I intended to, so you will be justified to jump to whatever other bits interest you.

The school were I work as a technician is xxxxxx yyyy High School, the typical London comprehensive, with quite a low percentage of students leaving with 5 or more A to C GCSEs. But it has been a lot in the news recently, and in fact we have had TV crews outside our gates for a good part of the last week. Pretty much in the middle of nowhere, in the midst of a working class residential area in Surrey, it has nothing special in itself to draw so much attention. Or that was until one of the parents gained the right to take the decision to turn the school into an academy to a judicial review. This is the first time that such a thing has happened, and has turned the spotlights on us.

What it is…..
For those who do not know, academies are the flagships of the education policy of the labour government, with Blair vowing to have 200 in place by 2010. What it basically is, is a plan to turn around failing schools, which are in desperate need of funding, typically to replace derelict buildings and correct a lack of equipment or staff. It involves a private sponsor, that can be a wealthy individual or a group of any denomination, forking out a couple million quids to finance it, while the government puts the rest of the money, usually in the region of 20-25 million pounds, to the 2 millions of the private sponsor. Then the control of the school is taken away from the board of governors (made up by representatives of the Local Education Authority, LEA, elected members of staff and parents, the headteacher and a few more) and handed over to the private sponsor which appoints the principal and any other decision making roles. Academies are totally run by this private sponsor, which does not even need to stick to the national curriculum, and can basically teach whatever they want, or are obliged to take students from the local community, or from any groups of achievement. There have already been problems with creationist christian churches taking over schools, and deciding on the science curriculum, or, for example, banning Harry Potter’s books from the library as they promote whitchcraft!. It is clearly privatisation of local schools (though by law they can not make a profit), but with the government paying the biggest chunk of it. It is basically a hat trick from labour to improve education results overnight, as by taking away failing schools from the control of the LEAs they also disappear from statistics. Good news are, if you are an anarcho-rich-person you could set up your own libertarian experiment on education. Time to start saving those two million pounds! (I don’t know why, I’ve got the impression that they would find an excuse to stop you from doing this).

How it happened.
The process of turning a school into an academy turns out to be long. Ours has taken two years, but there were talks about it at a much earlier date.
In brief, xxxxxx has been a bad school for a long time, but it has never been a failing school (that means it has not gone into special measures, which is what happens when an Ofsted inspection decides the school is failing).  The buildings were old and the kids were underachieving. The management was appalling, with the previous headteacher being a source of permanent conflict. The borough (which is our LEA) decided to go for a PFI (Private Funded Initiative) to get new buildings for the school, as the old ones were derelict. Under this scheme a private company pays for new facilities and then are granted the right to manage them for a certain amount of time (25 years in this case). This means they “rent” the buildings to the school, which pays the company for using the facilities. The previous headteacher was “advised” to leave on early retirement and a new one was appointed.
The work began on new buildings, and the school was a building site for a year and a half, with lessons being taught in prefabs. This led to high disruption to lessons and a high rate of vandalism and misbehaviour from the kids side. When all this was over, things settled down a lot and the school began a recovery that saw it leap from an appallingly low 16% of kids leaving with five or more GCSES, to 31% in just one year. Still, the role numbers are very low, with the school at half its full capacity (around 700 students).
By then the borough was already looking for someone to sponsor academies here and at another school nearby which was failing. The two projects were linked together because, according to the LEA, it would be detrimental for one school, if one turned into and academy and the other not. The sponsor found for xxxxxx was Lord Harris, the owner of a carpet superstore, who is incidentally sponsoring another 6 academies in London. For the other school it was the Church of England. Discussions with the sponsors lasted for about a year, and then the LEA decided to rush the process through, so the academies could open in September 2006. The legally required consultation process to the community was cut down to four weeks, in which a couple of meetings were held.
There were another two separate meetings for members of staff.
How it works is that the LEA proposes the changes to the school’s status, then opens the consultation process, a time during which the people affected can raise their concerns. These concerns go back to the LEA, which then votes on whether its own proposals should go ahead. All this with a fanfare of appointed consultants, overseers, advisors, etc. Of course, there is no legal obligation to take on board any of the concerns, they just have to be listened to, but the final decision can not be influenced in any way by the community or the staff. When I pointed out in one of the meetings (to the cheers of my co-workers) that there was no point in asking for our opinions, while at the same time letting us know how ineffective this is, I was told that this is the way democracy works. Indeed!

Anyway, to make this short, the borough slandered off the school, issuing statements about how the students were missing opportunities by being here, and that the only way round was to turn it into an academy. After the consultation process, which lasted until last February, the Lea was due to take a decision by March. This, by law, had to be agreed by unanimity, but met the opposition of the NUT (Teachers Union) representative. The decision was then referred to an external adjudicator, a person appointed by the government to decide on education issues. He announced he would make his decision public by mid June, as he had to hold open meetings with the community. However, the LEA issued notices of closure for both schools, the other one having been agreed upon.  One of the parents, involved in the Campaign Against Academies had by then asked for the decision to go to a judicial review. The adjudicator announced that he agreed that schools should turn into academies, provided all the details of the change over were finalised by mid July. But then the parent won the right to the judicial review, which will be held on the 24th of July, the week after we break up for summer holidays. This is the bit that has been in the news, as it is the first time that anything like this happens in the UK.
So no one knows what is happening next. There’s confusion about whether the judicial review going ahead invalidates the adjudicators decision on grounds of the date. Because every one expected the academy to go ahead there has been no preparation for next term, which is only six weeks ahead after the judicial review. Basically we are going on holidays not knowing what we will find when we come back.

The problems with the whole thing.
General considerations about privatisations apply to the case of academies, with the aggravation of the government forking out the biggest chunk of cash in the process. There is no discussion about many schools being in desperate need of extra funding, but then, why not just give them the money? If 20-25 millions of pounds are going to come out of taxpayers money anyway, why hand out the control of the school to a private sponsor, surrendering any community control on what kids are taught, etc.?
As I see it, the government is paying groups or rich individuals to take over difficult schools. Just the ones keeping the average results down. I have to make some numbers, but since the results for most of schools are around a certain level, a significant group of underperformers is enough to bring the average down. Getting rid of these just shifts the results up overnight. Labour’s magic formula to sort out education in the UK seems to be shifting the blame and just erasing the bad results. But that comes at a price.

The fact is that academies perform no better than state sponsored schools. Many of them are too new to have been inspected, and therefore there are not that many results to compare with. But, for example, Harris Peckham Academy, with the same sponsor that xxxxxx will have, achieves a 32% in their GCSE after a few years running. A pitiful 1% above current xxxxxx results, despite a massive building project, and the expense of something in the region of 25 million pounds. As Ofsted inspectors have pointed out about other academies, they are not good value for money.
However, some people seem to be fooled by the old mantra: private good, public bad. And many assume that just turning a failing school into an academy will overnight improve the results. Certainly, for schools in some really dire situations, any changes are set to be an improvement. But how this can be attributed to the academy status on its own is dubious. On one hand academies have failed this far to deliver the goods and officials from government have argued that it takes time to bring changes about. This is an obvious true, as much as that a massive injection of cash improves the financial situation. But none of this proves that it is the academy status bringing the improvement. On the other hand, the impressive boost of xxxxxx results shows that these needed changes can be achieved by other means, without the need to take control of the school away from the communities.  

The thing is that it is difficult to see why academies are not performing better. They have more money at their disposal than normal schools, and they are not constrained by LEA rules regarding students. In an undersubscribed comprehensive school, like xxxxxx, every kid wishing to come to the school has to be admitted in. This means that many students who have been expelled from other schools, or who have learning difficulties end up here (62% of the students are SEN, Special Education Needs, anything going from mild dyslexia to autism or behavioural problems). The academy is not constrained by this, and in fact will have an entry exam in place. Though they are legally bound to fair banding, that is including kids from the whole achievement spectrum, they can pick which ones they let in. This should definitely lead to a jump in the results, as they will get rid of disruptive or severely impaired kids, but for some reason it seems not to be working for other academies. Neither do they have to follow the national curriculum, which is more worrying, and can use “dirty tricks” to improve results, like including NVQs and Btecs in the final grades.    

Coming to the case of xxxxxx, it is hard to see how it will benefit from the changes. The school is already on a road to improvement, though there is still a lot to do, has got brand new buildings at last, new management, and you can feel the improvement in the kids behaviour over the last two years. It is still very undersubscribed, which is worrying, as it means that it receives less money from government, this being allocated depending on roll numbers. But even then, it has finally gone out of the red numbers.
So what is the money going to be spent on? Most of it will go to buy the buildings out of the PFI scheme. That is, twenty something million pounds will go straight into the pockets of the company that built them, a year and a half ago. Whatever is left will pay for a couple extra staff in the departments, so the classes are smaller. And that is it. Basically, the government will be paying a lot of money to some rich blokes so they let another rich bloke take over. How the students, community or staff benefit from it is yet to be seen.
Regarding changes to the curriculum, the academy will specialise in sports and enterprise, which will “bring entrepreneurial spirits to all subjects in the curriculum”. This seems to be hardly in touch with the reality of the area where the school is, in which a specialisation on technology would be a lot better received. Other changes are yet to be decided upon, or rather “unveiled”.

There are many reasons why to oppose academies in general, and in the case of xxxxxx there are many more particular ones. However the opposition has been small, or rather mainly ineffective.       


Staff and parents.
As I said before the community or the staff haven’t had any saying in the whole process. In general they are pissed off by the way in which the borough has handled the situation. Particularly staff are fed up of seeing the LEA releasing bad reports on the school, in order to justify the changes. In one extreme case the local MP, totally behind the project, sent letters to parents with an attached questionare which read something like:

  1. Yes, I want to give my child better opportunities by turning xxxxxx into an academy.

  2. No, I am against these changes designed to improve exam results.

During the consultation process feelings were running high in the staff room. Some parents were very annoyed as well at these blatant manipulations, and came to the public meetings to express their concerns (uselessly, as we know). In these meetings we heard a lot of “We care about the students, they deserve better, they deserve an academy”, which made discussion ineffectual, as the LEA would always hide behind this discourse when confronted with the slightest criticism. Even when pointed out that academies already in place were not being successful, they repeated the mantra to amused audiencies of parents. They went so far as to plant councillors in the meeting hall, who would ask for the word to make impassionate pro academy speeches.
However, it has finally blown in their faces. It is this manipulation that has opened the door to the pending judicial review, as the parent who asked for it argues that the flaws in the consultation process have infringed his human rights. A bit far fetched, but there you go.

Other than this there has been very little opposition. A Campaign Against Academies was set up, which is behind the judicial review. They picketed Lord Harris’s carpet stores a couple of times over the last two years, but that has been it. It has been very ineffective in changing the community’s perception of the academy, fuelled by the LEA’s bad PR campaign of the school. I reckon most of the parents think by now that an academy is a good idea. Any further delays or complications they will blame on the anti academy people, rather than on the bad management of the whole situation by the borough. Once again professional politicians have proved that they are masters of spin, and through manipulation and outright lies have manipulated the public opinion on this issue. There is a little consolation however. Labour lost nearly all their seats in the last elections, and I find solace in the idea of these hated councillors being on the dole now (if only!). Not that it really makes any difference, since the seats went to the tories, who support the academies as well. In fact the local tories at some point issued a declaration opposing the changes to xxxxxx, only to be told off by the national leadership, and subsequently hurrying back to the party’s position on the issue. 

On a personal note I have to say that I have not been involved much in the campaign. As I said, very early on they decided to go for a legalistic opposition, instead of trying to involve more people in it. I know them, and have spoken to them on a couple of occasions, but I have not been part of it. Instead I thought I should rather try to galvanise opposition in the staff room. How I failed to do so can be read in the following lines.

As I said, at some point the feelings were running high in the staff room. A few of us called a general meeting out of which a letter was drawn to protest against the flaws in the consultation process, the manipulation and slagging off by the borough, etc. It was signed, after much debate, by the professional association in the school, as unions were not involved at the time. The problem is that many started to see me as an anti-academy leader, which I definitely didn’t want to be. In any case things were gathering momentum, until the headteacher made this speech to the general meeting saying that she thought the academy could be the right solution for the school. This made many hesitate, and then the borough announced the closure of the school. Staff decided that there was no way to oppose it now, and since they realise they would have to work under the academy by next term, they just decided to forget their concerns, and accept it. This was the end to the meetings and to staff opposition. Beyond that point in time, all we had were general gatherings to listen to speeches from the future directors of the academy. These people are truly spin masters, and they easily convinced many, that were dubious about it before. As a TA (teaching assistant) said after one such speech: “At least he is enthusiastic about it and that makes me feel more positive”. I bet he was. Pay me his wages and I will be enthusiastic about anything you want!
Quite a few happily turned arse lickers, and have been seen actively supporting the academy people, beyond the call of duty. Other, who still didn’t agree with the academy, simply went to find themselves other jobs.

There is a piece of legislation called TUPE, that regulates the transfer of workers from a company to the next, when there is a take over. It protects your employment, and basically says that there can not be any changes to your wages and conditions of service. If there are any they have to be agreed by the worker before they can be made effective. The details of it are quite obscure and I am in no way acquainted with them. This effectively makes us rely on the union for advice. There is also a TUPE consultant, appointed by the LEA and the academy people to oversee the process. But when I have tried to contact him to get more information, he has not replied my emails. Since the union has been rubbish at keeping us informed, or showing any interest in the case for that matter, we are in the dark about what our rights are.

What seems clear is that most of us will keep our jobs, though that is not definite. In fact the TUPE protocol, the document that lies out the policies that the academy will follow for the transfer, devotes three of its four pages to deal with redundancies. Which are not supposed to happen in any way. But then the staff at the other school have all had to apply for their jobs again, which is clearly illegal. Even it the jobs are transferred, changes to conditions apply. In a meeting I had with the future principal, he announced me that my position will go from term time only to full time, with a slight increase of the wages. These would not pay off for me, but even then, I’ll loose the overtime I do during the holidays, so I’ll end up being worse off. And without my beloved holidays! When I asked if they would consider other arrangements, he said he wouldn’t. Take it or leave it. Curiously enough these words never made it to the transcription of the interview.

At this date, we have not been told of the details of these new conditions. There will be important changes, like longer working hours, different job descriptions, etc. Even different payscales, and different wages. But we have not been informed of them because, apparently, they can not do so until the academy is in place. Am I the only one who’s got the impression that it will be too late then? This is the excuse they have been using for the last half year to keep whatever information they have away from us. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss, and it has becomes obvious to some of us that they are trying to keep opposition down as much as possible by not letting staff know what changes the academy will bring.

However what they have done is discuss with teaching staff what opportunities for promotion the academy offers. At the moment that is the general believe. That there will be promotions for every one, and that a two tier staff structure (that in which older workers are on different and better conditions than new staff) will have the effect of new members of staff doing their crappy jobs for older ones, while these enjoy higher wages.
What really happens, we will see.

At the moment I’m desperately trying to liaise with my union (Unison), who have shown no interest whatsoever, and an even smaller knowledge of the matter.

What we can do.
Think globally, act locally. Any further delays will cause a lot of disruption to these kids’ education. The general feeling, and I can in a way agree with it, is that the academy is better than not knowing what will happen, and therefore not being able to plan anything. As I said, there’s only a few weeks left for next term and there have no provisions been made for the running of the school, in case the academy does not happen. Also there is the issue of the other school. The two projects have been linked, very cunningly. The situation at the other school is really dire, and the alternative to the academy is plainly closure and amalgamation with ours. This will result in the loss of a substantial amount of jobs, and in the big problems they are facing in terms of behaviour being inherited by xxxxxx. It’s not an easy choice.

But on the other hand, I’ve got the feeling that stiffening up resistance to academies in every single case will pay off. If we make it difficult, sponsors will be harder to find, there will be less proposals for academies, and the plan might be ultimately withdrawn. So there is still a case for stopping xxxxxx from turning into an academy, if it can still be done.

If we are going to go for it, I think the best way to do it is to use our education network to call for a bigger movement of education workers against academies. At a local level we can join forces with local NUT branches, which have opposed academies, rally other unions, not less IWW and SolFed, but also local Unison and GMB. From here we could go for a wider platform involving the different Campaigns Against Academies, local communities, etc. I’m not thinking of big national meetings or anything like that, but taking initiative to organise with them on a purely local level, with the support of the rest of our network. I think an Education Workers Against Academies Campaign could gain a lot of support, if we can argue our case properly, as at the end of the day it will be the people working in it who is opposing it, and parents will probably listen to us.

I’d suggest we start taking steps towards it. It’s probably too late to stop it happening in xxxxxx (and to save my job for that matter), but we can learn from this experience. We’d need to use the list to draft a document explaining why we oppose academies, from an education worker’s point of view. Then we need to get as many organisations as possible to back it and start moving it around. Any opposition has to be organised from local groups, but there is a lot of scope for a larger coordination, supporting people involved in each case. As I said, if we want to stop this, it has to involve as many people as possible. And we’d better start now.