Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Academisation Is Not the Answer

The government's plan for full academisation amounts to the privatisation of our education system, to the detriment of pupils, workers and the wider community. It must be resisted.

The government has set a target of full academisation by 2030. (Maskot / Getty Images)

As of January 2021, a huge seventy-eight percent of secondary schools and thirty-seven percent of primary schools are academies or free schools. The latest white paper, published in March this year and doubled down on by an announcement in this month’s Queen’s Speech, shows that the government would like to see the figure rise to 100 percent. Its exact wording is this: ‘By 2030, all children will benefit from being taught in a family of schools, with their school in a strong multi academy trust [MAT] or with plans to join or form one.’ There is discussion of a target of ten schools per trust.

This policy is based on the Tories’ ideological commitment to privatisation regardless of consequence. The reality, which they are all too happy to ignore, is that many communities don’t want their school to convert or join large MATs. Academisation, which removes schools from local authority oversight and places them in control of independent private bodies funded directly by central government, does not increase autonomy or accountability. It does the opposite. It puts decision-making power in the hands of a distant bureaucracy—one that often knows nothing of the local area and the challenges facing workers, pupils, and families there. It’s on that basis and a host of other reasons that bringing all schools and central services back to local authority control was made Labour Party policy in 2019.

The government is trying hard to frame this move as a pragmatic rather than political one. The title of the white paper’s chapter dealing with this further privatisation of education makes reference to ‘A stronger and fairer school system’. The problem with this is that there’s no evidence that academies are ‘stronger’, including according to the government’s own metrics. Research conducted on behalf of the Local Government Association (LGA) found that more local authority schools were classed outstanding or good by Ofsted in January 2022 than academies, and a 2018 report by the Sutton Trust found that two thirds of academy chains performed below average for disadvantaged pupils.

It’s not entirely clear what the term ‘fairer’ is meant to mean, but the Sutton Trust’s findings suggests that academies aren’t it. This becomes clearer the more you dig into the topic. A quick Google search will pull up a number of stories telling of corruption and excessive salaries in MATs across the country, including a number of executives earning more than £200,000, according to research from 2021. Many have pointed out means public money being directed away from the day-to-day running of a school.

Apparently pre-empting some of these criticisms, the new white paper does suggest that local authorities could set up their own multi-academy trusts. This is a move the Local Government Association has been pushing for, and on the face of it, it might seem like an attractive prospect, meeting calls to bring all schools back to local authority control in the middle. Looking deeper, however, there are caveats: a Local Authority MAT couldn’t have a monopoly in the area, so would have to allow competing trusts onto its patch, and there would also be ‘limits on local authority involvement on the trust board’. These factors are likely to see local authorities less than willing to set up MATs, and would seriously limit their ability to coordinate schools and provide central support and services if they did.

While the academisation drive is being couched in terms like ‘strong’ and ‘fair’, then, it’s up to the Left to recognise it for what it actually is—a neoliberal drive for private organisations to run all of our country’s schools. In the fully private education system this drive envisages, the very worst features that already exist in academies would be further amplified: nepotism, corruption, competition rather than cooperation, and a narrowing of the curriculum to maximise target-driven ‘results’ rather than providing a balanced and nurturing educational experience.

In light of this, the Socialist Educational Association (SEA) has set up the ‘Give Us Back Our Schools’ campaign, which aims to put pressure on the Labour Party to publicly recommit to the 2019 conference policy. The SEA wants to work with unions on a publicity campaign to educate the wider public on the need to reverse privatisation in education, a plan committed to by NEU conference in April alongside the development of ‘an industrial strategy to aim to reverse deregulation enabling a return to national pay and conditions for all education workers’.

There is already a strong anti-academy sentiment within schools and the communities they serve. Many schools have undertaken industrial action to prevent academisation, which is to be applauded. Some have been successful; others have not. Every academisation must be resisted, but in addition, this energy should now be harnessed into a national campaign.

Socialists in the education system need to remember that the drive toward full academisation is nothing new. All this white paper does is try to reanimate the corpse of an already failing policy, one a colleague described as ‘bogged down in its own contradictions and inertia’. It is mostly an attempt to pull together a fragmented and disorganised education system which is itself the product of the Tories’ own legislation spanning years and originating in the 1988 Education Reform Act.

The alternative, progressive education reform, cannot be achieved without reversing those changes and implementing a programme of democratisation across schools, colleges, universities, central service providers, and local authorities instead. In the long term, that’s the only way to start building an education system that works for workers, learners, and the local community alike.